23 June 2010

Some Shadows but no Doubts in a Hitchcock Film With a Most Unlikely Hero

It's not what happens to us that's important but how we respond to what happens to us.
At one time or another life will deal us an unfair hand. Will we whine and moan, or make the best of it?

Take Charlie Newton, a young woman living in small town America. She's very bright, out-going and innocent, the personification of the girl next door. Charlie finds herself in the doldrums. Everything is just too cozy, too obvious. Charlie reckons her family, which includes your typical mom and pop along with two much younger siblings, needs some shaking up. What could be better than a visit from her favorite uncle, the man she is named for, mom's brother, Charlie?

What magic is this? As she goes to send her Uncle a telegram begging him to come to town, she receives the news that a telegram has arrived from him announcing a forthcoming visit. What joy for Charlie!

Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is an exploration of evil entering a small American town. The evil is Uncle Charlie, as avuncular, charming and fun-loving a fellow as you should ever like to meet. And oh-by-the-way, he likes to marry rich widows and strangle them to death then abscond with their money. This is the Merry Widow killer.

The law is onto to him so he flees the Eastern Seaboard for Santa Rosa, California and the home of his big sister's family. A nice, safe middle class dwelling where his beloved namesake lives.

Young Charlie is blissfully happy when Uncle arrives. Life is exciting again. With Uncle Charlie around there's a break from the predictable routine that had her in the dumps. Her wish has come true.

Be careful what you wish for....

Teresa Wright was perfect casting for the role of Charlie (nee Charlotte). She's smart, but not pretentiously so, and pretty, though not beautiful. She is no ordinary girl but not eccentric. Neither a party girl or a stuffed shirt. She's all energy, enthusiasm and bright-eyed optimism.

In the role of Uncle Charlie is Joseph Cotton. He more typically played sympathetic even heroic characters, but he's such a wonderful combination of charming and menacing in Shadow of a Doubt that one wishes he could have been more frequently cast as the cad.

Aside from the two Charlies, the rest of the family is quite ordinary. Henry Travers as the Dad is a bit quirky but only in the way of old comfortable fathers. The younger siblings include the brainiac little girl and the quintessential little boy. Patricia Collinge as the mom seems such a familiar face and manner. That's odd considering how little film work she actually did. It's likely because Collinge so perfectly captures the World War II era mom. A dedicated housewife and doting wife and mother who's easily flustered. This mom is vacuous but so good hearted one doesn't care a wit.

So it's not surprising that it is left to young Charlie to unravel the bad Uncle's secret. In fact, no one in the family or within the town ever so much as suspects the truth about the Uncle. Irony of ironies, he becomes something of a hero in the community and even meets a well-to-do widow within it as his next potential spouse/victim. Well who wouldn't be taken in by so charming (not to mention wealthy) a man. One whose many attributes includes philanthropy.

But Young Charlie gradually pieces together clues that are so obvious to one, like her, who pays attention. What a burden to have bitten of the apple, however unwittingly, especially when you're the only one possessing the knowledge. And most especially when that truth is so horrible.

Young Charlie is left with the twin responsibilities of trying to persuade her Uncle to leave town and keeping her family from knowing the truth. Her innocence is lost and gone forever. What has happened to her by discovering the awful truth is a dirty blow. But she handles it all magnificently.

Hitchcock's films are seldom recognized for their heroic female roles, but there are plenty of examples. Consider Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound (1945), Vera Miles in Psycho (1960), Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest (1959), Grace Kelly in Rear Window (1954) and Margaret Lockwood in The Lady Vanishes (1938). All were women unafraid to take risks and unwilling to be the victim. Wright in Shadow of a Doubt is perhaps the most heroic of the lot. She, after all, is not playing second fiddle to a male hero. Also, like Lockwood and Kelly, Wright knows the truth of something and won't be stopped in seeing justice done or at least the natural order restored.

Like many Hitchcock leading women, Wright is in grave danger. As much as he may love his niece, the elder Charlie will stop at nothing, even murdering her, to protect his own slimy hide.

Unlike many of Hitch's leading women, Wright was neither a blonde nor a great beauty. It wouldn't do for a small town everygirl to look like a fashion model. No, Wright as Young Charlie was a symbol of wholesomeness, just as the town of Santa Rosa was. The town was not besmirched by the Uncle's evil presence because Charlie wouldn't let it be, even at the risk of her own life.

Anyone familiar with the film is aware that I've not made mention of the two investigators who come to town in search of the Merry Widow Killer. They are key to the story only in how they help Young Charlie and the plot progress. Anyway, she alone plays the hero.

Young Charlie is a great cinematic hero because she starts out so naive. But as information becomes known, as facts change, as things happen, she adjusts, adapts and grows from girl to woman.  This is someone who will not crumble under the weight of a horrible reality. This is not just a survivor but one who protects others.

Of all the great films Hitchcock directed this is said to be his personal favorite. He loved the idea of evil invading a small town and he was doubtless pleased with how the story played out. It's interesting then that the hero in his favorite film is not a suave Cary Grant, or a determined James Stewart or a resourceful Robert Donat. Nor is there any cavorting about London or South America or San Francisco. No, this hero is basically a kid. And a female at that. In a small town.

This hero was self made. An ordinary person who rose to the occasion under most unordinary circumstances.


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Great post. I love this film. Casting was perfect, especially the banter between the mystery novel fans Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn.

Millie said...

Great review!

This is my absolute favorite Hitchcock ever-- and has been since I was nine!

It's just so brilliant!

And Uncle Charlie....well Joseph Cotten is genius!

Theresa Wright is not an actor I particularly like, in fact, I don't really like her at all! But, she is really great in this film.

I love all the supporting characters too, they all perfectly mesh together.

And, it ALWAYS makes me go, "Awwww!" that the mother's name is Emma. (Although, she is a little scatter-brained, she is still probably Hitchcock's most motherly mother! Not even a hint of evil or anything.) Because, Hitchcock's own mother was named Emma, and she also died in 1942, right before he began making SoaD!

WHOA! Another long comment from me! Haha! Sorry!

Lynne Coll said...

Thanks for this post. I also love this movie. I love Teresa Wright in this and also The Best Years of Our Lives.

While she did have a love interest in the film, Macdonald Carey, it was secondary to her role as film hero--rare in Hollywood films.