WEIRDLAND: Hitchcock's favorite "Shadow of a Doubt": Teresa Wright's authoritative performance

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Hitchcock's favorite "Shadow of a Doubt": Teresa Wright's authoritative performance

“The world’s a hell! What does it matter what happens in it?” -Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Shadow Of A Doubt (1943) - Alfred Hitchcock’s own favorite movie is far from the flash of his later great efforts. It doesn’t have show-stopping moments like the airplane attack in North By Northwest, the psychological pinwheels of Vertigo, or Psycho’s shower scene. But in a way, it’s more terrifying than any of those, because it points to a menace closer to home and heart.

Charlie’s dad and his friend (Hume Cronyn, in his film debut) read crime magazines and speculate on murder methods as a hobby, because the actual thing seems so far-removed. Uncle Charlie’s bleak sentiments that “The world is a foul sty… If you ripped the fronts off houses you’d find swine” are not unlike the theme that David Lynch would pull off in the first few moments of Blue Velvet, decades later: the perfect small-town landscape, hiding a festering ear underneath. Hitchcock isn’t that graphic here, but he doesn’t need to be: You may want to scratch the surface of boring paradise, but you may not be ready for what you might find there. Uncle Charlie suggests the evil lurking in each of us. It was one of Hitchcock’s favorite themes, and Shadow Of A Doubt translates it like no other film. Source:

While World War II raged and an allied victory was far from certain, Hitchcock and his writers constructed one of the cinema’s indisputable masterworks on the nature of evil. In this regard, Shadow of a Doubt could indeed be called a film about what theologians call original sin—a condition of selfishness, a conviction about a basically imperfect world, country, family, individual—radically incomplete, virtually defined by its need of transformation, of redemption. There is a direct, relentless moral honesty about this film, which stands as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s clearest statements about the ambiguity of the human condition.

Teresa Wright had been most enthusiastically recommended to Hitchcock by Thornton Wilder, who was chosen to write the screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt because the story was in many ways the dark underside of Our Town. The film charts the girl’s moral education as she progresses from innocence and untested idealism to a firsthand experience of the eruption of evil amid everyday reality—and the murderous tendency to depravity that is latent in human nature. 

Teresa filmed her role calmly, but inside she was, perhaps for the first time, tearing herself to pieces, enduring a nervous stomach and losing weight while, under Hitchcock’s tutelage, she thought out every moment of her character’s abrupt introduction to the darkness in human nature: “I had to understand how this woman felt. There’s no place you can go with cardboard, no depth.” Despite her anxiety, Teresa offered a virtual textbook in the art of film acting. “The shots of Wright,” wrote the novelist and critic Stephan Talty, “have the raw power of those early silent close-ups, one of the most lucidly beautiful in the cinema.” 

Teresa did not portray young Charlie as the killer’s victim, but—after her initial romantic infatuation for her uncle is destroyed by knowledge of his crimes—she plays young Charlie as his challenger, his rival. Hitchcock only rarely had a good word to say about actors, and he usually kept a polite distance from them. But he was uncharacteristically lavish in his praise: “I got along very well with Teresa. If she can’t act a line in a script, there’s something wrong with the line.” When Shadow of a Doubt was released in January 1943, the consensus was that the movie had succumbed to mediocrity; seventy years later, Shadow of a Doubt is rightly deemed a masterwork of the cinema. 

But even at the height of World War II, the critics applauded Teresa Wright. Howard Barnes of the New York Herald-Tribune commended her “quietly authoritative performance that elevated the film into a screen classic.” This was neither the first nor last time that a Hitchcock masterwork was overlooked for an industry award. In addition, many moviegoers, then and later, could not comprehend the absence of Teresa Wright’s name from the list of nominations for best actress of the year 1942. -"A Girl's Got to Breathe: The Life of Teresa Wright" (2016) by Donald Spoto

For the first time since his early years in Britain, Hitchcock, a director famous for his use of controlled sets, was forced to shoot on location to limit his set budget. At the same time, Hitchcock’s mother was gravely ill; restrictions on international travel prevented him from visiting her, and she died that September. An argument could be made that the prolonged illness and eventual death of Hitchcock’s mother during the shoot offered the filmmaker a certain sentimentality toward the Newton home in the film, which makes Uncle Charlie’s potential interruption of that familial unity all the more dreadful.

Hitchcock’s vision of Anytown, USA looks and feels like a Norman Rockwell painting for the Saturday Evening Post. Santa Rosa is gorgeous, clean, and intentionally corny, almost to the point of satire. Hitchcock's combination of stages and actual locations—his signature brand of cinematic realism—further emphasizes a world not entirely real and not completely safe. Hitchcock typically used master shots of actual locations, often landmark sites, which were later incorporated with sets replicating the locale. On Shadow of A Doubt, the only major set-piece was a replica of the Newton house, which could be taken apart and moved to fit the director’s needs for off-kilter camera angles that represented the distorted world of the film. Source:

“Shadow of a Doubt,” Alfred Hitchcock’s sixth American film, is not nearly as well known as some of the earlier, British films—“The 39 Steps,” “The Lady Vanishes”—or such later American masterpieces as “Strangers on a Train,” “Rear Window,” and “Vertigo.” Perhaps the quiet domestic setting of Santa Rosa and the lack of obvious camera flourishes account for the movie’s relative obscurity, and yet the somnolent town is treated with a tenderness that can only be called ironic and even malicious, and Hitchcock’s use of the camera has never been more assured. The movie is the most “psychological” of Hitchcock’s films, and the one with the clearest and most explicit exposition of evil, yet the director’s attitude is profoundly ambivalent. Goodness can be terrifying, too, and its collusion with evil is part of the movie’s enduring fascination. Source:

It was the stultifying routine of the household that depressed Charlie. But more troubling was the lack of love. Incest is the obscure subtext of Shadow of a Doubt. Emma worships Charles, but dismisses her husband as inconsequential. Charles, in giving the ring to his niece, seems to be taking her hand in marriage. By entering their home, Charles has perverted it, Joe's acquiescence allowing the seeds of destruction to be sown. Even with Uncle Charlie dead, a slow annihilation seems inevitable. -"An Illumined Illusion: Shadow of a Doubt" (2007) by Ian C. Bloom

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