Skip to main content

Review: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

When we were young we resented being treated as children, being considered naïve, immature, unformed, being always the negligible inferiors tagging along their elders like lapdogs. This sense of inferiority dogged us, throughout the unendurable years of childhood, limited our freedom and, most exasperatingly of all, barred us from the fascinating world of adults. From time to time we would gaze with our burning eyes at the stars and wish for miracles- is it possible that we’d be grownups within a few blinks of an eye? Or perhaps a mysterious someone would suddenly materialise to save us from our protracted misery?

Flannery O’Connor says it best: “Anyone who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” In truth, whoever suggests that his childhood was as idyllic as the ones cloyingly depicted in those edifying children’s books is, more often than not, holding in his hand the broken glasses of his shattered dream. Our first awareness of joy is accompanied by, coincided with, or even preceded by our first awareness of sadness, of pain, of danger. What we’ve experienced when we’re old we had a foretaste of it when we were young.

The O’Connor quote can serve both as a foreword and an afterword of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Young Charlie, the heroine, is a precocious teenage girl wishing for a change of her humdrum life in Santa Rosa, a sleepy town of North California. Her wish is soon granted as her uncle Charlie, to whom she harbours an unbridled idolatry, pays a visit. Unbeknownst to the family Uncle Charlie is a criminal at large, the notorious “Merry Widow Murderer” the whole nation is warned of. This secret is soon uncovered by Young Charlie, after various incidents including a tip-off from a detective she unwittingly dates, and yet she agrees to stay silent for fear of the tragic consequences if her uncle is captured.

Joseph Cotten was exceptional as Uncle Charlie, bringing just enough depth and complexity to a role that remains somewhat a mystical figure towards the end. He can be charming and avuncular but not for long. When piqued he delivers nihilist speeches with a glaring lack of emotion, in a barely inflected monotone, like a sober-minded Nietzsche. In one of these moments the whole family is seated at the dinner table. Uncle Charlie starts talking about the “faded, fat, greedy” middle-aged widows that sponge off their rich husbands and squander their wealth away at luxurious hotels and bridge. The camera blends into the perspective of Young Charlie as it closes in on her uncle’s face, which is now growing more menacing. Young Charlie’s angsty voice is heard: “But they’re alive, they’re human beings.” “Are they?” Says Uncle Charlie as he directs a cold, sinister look at the lens, and at us audience.

Shadow of a Doubt belongs to Hitchcock’s more disturbing work. There are hints of how plausibly unnatural the relationship may be between Young Charlie and Uncle Charlie, though this remains essentially speculative. At any rate, both the niece and the uncle claim at separate occasions that they’re more than just niece and uncle. “We’re like twins,” declares Uncle Charlie. But at one point, after the discovery of her uncle’s crime and the suspicion that he may want to murder her, Young Charlie threatens back: “Go away or I’ll kill you myself. See that’s the way I feel about you.” One may want to parallel this sort of love-hate relationship to that between Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

This theme of a fallen idol has always been a favorite not only amongst coming-of-age stories. Some of the more notable examples in cinematic history: The Third Man (1949), also starred Joseph Cotten but this time as an honest pulp writer deceived by his cunning friend, a penicillin racketeer played by Orson Welles. A year previous to that Carole Reed directed another picture adapted from Graham Greene’s novelette, The Fallen Idol (1948), which is much more grim and unrelenting.


Popular posts from this blog

Honore Daumier

“If you shut up truth and bury it under ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.”- Émile Zola
Exited Honoré Victorin Daumier, 10 February 1879, in an impoverishment that many of his contemporaries, especially his foes, would have thought was his long overdue retribution- the painter was blind, heavily in debt, and later relegated to a pauper’s grave. His friends, upon visiting his resting place, would, I imagine, see it a chance to admonish their children: “Now that’s a lesson for you cheeky devils whose tongues rattle off things that should better stay unspoken.” But Daumier devoted his life in revealing those “unspoken things.” His lithography ink proved sharper than most writers’ pens. He vented his rage and stigmatised others’ infamy in his satirical and, oftentimes, side-splitting cartoons. The tone was relentlessly acerbic but only because Daumier was exposing truths that, in the time…

Review: Late Spring (1949)

As a storyteller, Yasujiro Ozu insists on an implausibly objective stance that refrains from direct commentary or criticism; his camera customarily assumes the role of a detached observer, to whom the characters in the film, staring or talking straight to the camera, occasionally address, with an intimacy akin to that between a host and his guest, a closeness that is underpinned by a mutual recognition of the psychological distance that separates the two. The audience, whose perspective, in this case, conflates the camera’s (the director’s), an invisible character’s in the film (to whom the other characters address) and their own, is thus situated amidst this spatial complexity which, as a rule, every work of art necessarily creates.
In Late Spring (1948), the camera serves in part as an underlying comment to the story, which is noted by its economy of details. A prolonged shot of a departing train, on which the father and daughter travel to the city for a one-day excursion, prefigures…

Review: Breathless (1960)

Jean Luc Godard’s first feature feels oddly like a swansong: in many respects the film seems a self-mockery of what it ostensibly celebrates – the new, the bold, the reckless; the 60s zeitgeist that resurrects the anguished ghosts of the 1920s, who, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, grow up to “find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faith in man shaken.” For the children of the ‘60s, their wars are of a kind in which the opponents constantly change roles: sometimes they are the unmerciful authorities bent on making miserable lives out of their inferiors; in other times they are the society at large, weeding out in its insidious and devious way the errant law-breakers. They all seem to be donning the same masks, through which the warriors recognise themselves.
This fight with one’s inner demon necessarily evokes concerns of mortality and death - timeless concerns that acquire an added pungency in the 1960s: would a dangerous, unheeding spell of hedonism finally defy life’s incontrove…