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Film Friday: «Shadow of a Doubt» (1943)

This week on «Film Friday» I bring you a film that had its premiere exactly 74 years ago yesterday. This also happens to be one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock pictures.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Shadow of a Doubt (1943) begins when Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) arrives at the town of Santa Rosa, California, supposedly to visit his older sister, Emma Newton (Patricia Collinge). At the train station, he is met by his brother-in-law Joseph (Henry Travers), his young nephew Roger (Charles Bates) and his two nieces, Charlie (Teresa Wright) and Ann (Edna May Wonacott). Charlie is thrilled by the arrival of her uncle, as she was named after him and two seem to share a telepathic connection. The next day, two men, Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) and Fred Saunders (Wallace Ford), appear at the house to survey the family. Uncle Charlie suddenly becomes agitated and refuses to be interviewed or photographed.
Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten and Patricia Collinge in Shadow of a Doubt.

After spending the day with the Newtons, Jack takes Charlie on a date and she learns that he is actually a police detective investigating her uncle. He explains that her uncle is one of two suspects who may be the «Merry Widow Murderer.» Charlie refuses to believe it at first, but then observes Uncle Charlie acting strangely. The initials engraved inside a ring he gave her match those of one of the murdered women, and during a family dinner he reveals his hatred of rich widows. Admitting that he is in fact one of the two suspects, Uncle Charlie asks his niece for help. She reluctantly agrees not to say anything, as long as he leaves soon to avoid a horrible confrontation that would destroy her mother, who idolizes her younger brother. 
Meanwhile, an alternative suspect is chased by the police and killed by an airplane propeller. Uncle Charlie is delighted to be exonerated, but young Charlie knows all his secrets and tells him that she will kill him if he stays in town. Soon, she falls down dangerously steep stairs and then almost dies when she is trapped in a garage full of exhaust fumes. When Uncle Charlie announces that he is leaving town with a rich widow, young Charlie boards the train to see his compartment. He then restrains his niece, hoping to kill her by pushing her out of the train after it picks up speed. However, in the ensuing struggle, he falls in front of an oncoming train. At his funeral, Uncle Charlie is honored by the townspeople, and Charlie confesses to Jack that she withheld crucial information. They resolve to keep Uncle Charlie's crimes a secret.
UNCLE CHARLIE: Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something.
In the early 1940s, the head of David O. Selznick's story department, Mary McDonell, told British director Alfred Hitchcock that her husband, Gordon, had an interesting concept for a novel that she thought would make a good film. His idea, originally titled Uncle Charlie, was based on the true story of Earle Leonard Nelson, a California serial killer of the 1920s known as the «Gorilla Man.» Considered the first known serial sex murderer of the 20th century, Nelson targeted mostly middle-aged landladies using the pretext of renting a room in their boardinghouses. He would then attack, rape and kill them via strangulation. Nelson was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death in 1927, and executed by hanging the following year.
Hitchcock loved McDonell's pitch and asked him to write a 9-page outline. Once the writer handed him the treatment, Hitchcock put in a request for Thornton Wilder to write the script. He had admired Wilder's recent play Our Town and wanted to incorporate sense of small-town American life into the movie. Furthermore, the director was eager to work with top writers. Hitchcock remembered, «In England I'd always had the collaboration similar oration of the finest writers, but in America writers looked down their noses at the genre I work in. That's why it was so gratifying to find out that one of America's most eminent playwrights was willing to work with me and, indeed, that he took the whole thing quite seriously
LEFT: Alfred Hitchcock on location in Santa Rosa, California during filming of Shadow of a Doubt. RIGHT: Writer Thornton Wilder in 1935.
At first, Wilder was not interested in the project and only accepted the job to make extra money to help his ailing sister. However, when he met with Hitchcock and felt the director's respect for his work, Wilder's enthusiasm rose greatly. Hitchcock recalled that they «worked together in the morning, and [Wilder] would work on his own in the afternoon, writing by hand in a school notebook. He never worked consecutively, but jumped about from one scene to another according to his fancy.» Besides Wilder, Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville, contributed to the script, as well as Meet Me in St. Louis author Sally Benson, who injected some comedic moments.

When time came for casting, Hitchcock borrowed Joseph Cotten from Selznick and Teresa Wright from Samuel Goldwyn. Wright, who had recently won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Mrs. Miniver (1942), said of Hitchcock, «During the shooting he made us feel very relaxed. His direction never came across as instruction [...] He saw the film completely in his mind before we began as if he had a little projection room in his head.» Cotten echoed Wright, stating, «He said I should dress as if I were a rich man going to a resort for a vacation. No director was ever easier to work with
LEFT: Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten during a break from filming Shadow of a Doubt. RIGHT: Teresa Wright and Alfred Hicthcock discussing a scene.

Uncle Charlie began production in April 1942 under the name Shadow of a Doubt. The film was shot on location in Santa Rosa, California, where the story is set. Exteriors scenes took place at the Railroad Depot, NWP Engine #140, the Old Courthouse Square, the Public Libary and the house at 904 McDonald Avenue, which stood for the Newton family home. The opening sequences were filmed at the East Ward section of Newark, New Jersey.
Shadow of a Doubt was released on January 12, 1942 to unanimously positive reviews from critics. TIME magazine called the film «superb,» while Variety stated that «Hitchcock deftly etches his small-town characters and homey surroundingsBosley Crowther of The New York Times agreed, saying that «Hitchcock could raise more goose pimples to the square inch of a customer's flesh than any other director in Hollywood.» Gordon McDonell received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Story, but lost to William Saroyan for The Human Comedy (1943).
Filming Shadow of a Doubt on location in Santa Rosa, California.

William Powell and Teresa Wright appeared in a Lux Radio Theatre production of Shadow of a Doubt on January 3, 1944, and Joseph Cotten and June Vincent starred in an Academy Award Playhouse adaptation broadcast on September 11, 1946. Two television versions of McDonell's story have also been made: a March 24, 1955 Lux Video Theatre production, starring Frank Lovejoy and Barbara Rush, and directed by Richard Goode; and a 1991 production directed by Karen Arthur, with Mark Harmon and Margaret Webb in the lead roles. Shadow of a Doubt was remade by Universal in 1958, under the title Step Down to Terror, starring Colleen Miller and Charles Drake, under the direction of Harry Keller. In published interviews in modern sources, Hitchcock proclaimed Shadow of a Doubt as a favorite among his own films.


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