Friday, 13 January 2017

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.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Shadow of a Doubt (1943) begins when Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) arrives at the small 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 especially thrilled by the arrival of her uncle, as she was named after him and two seem to share a telepathic connection. The following day, two men Jack Graham (McDonald Carey) and Fred Saunders (Wallace Ford) appear at the Newton house to survey the family. Uncle Charlie suddenly becomes agitated and refuses to be interviewed or photographed.

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. Uncle Charlie says he wants to settle down, and young Charlie says she will kill him if he stays. Later that night, she is trapped in the garage with a car spewing exhaust fumes, and almost dies. Uncle Charlie announces he is leaving for San Francisco, along with a rich widow, Mrs. Potter. Young Charlie boards the train with her younger sister Ann and their brother to see Uncle Charlie's compartment. As the children disembark, Uncle Charlie restrains his niece Charlie on the train, hoping to kill her by shoving her out 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. Jack has returned, and Charlie confesses that she withheld crucial information. They resolve to keep Uncle Charlie's crimes a secret.

In the early 1940s, the head of David O. Selznick's story department, Mary McDonell, told British director Alfred Hitchock that her husband Gordon had an interesting for a novel that she thought would make a good picture. 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 "Merry Widow Murderer." Hitchcock met with the couple over lunch at the Brown Derby restaurant, loved the pitch, and asked McDonell to type 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 a similar 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 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."

At first, Wilder was not terribly interested in the project. He knew he was about to receive military orders and took the job as a way to make some extra last-minute cash to help his ailing sister. But when he met Hitchcock in Los Angeles 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." Wilder also gave input about other aspects of the production and even assisted Hitchcock in the location scouting, personally approving the town of Santa Rosa and the house in which the characters lived. Besides Wilder, Sally Benson (who had just written the novel Meet Me in St. Louis) also contributed to the script, injecting some comedic moments, as well as Hitchcock's wife Alma Reville.

Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten
When time came for casting, Hitchcock borrowed Joseph Cotten from Selznick and Teresa Wright from Samuel Goldwyn. Wright had just won an Oscar for Mrs. Miniver (1942) and had been nominated twice before. Her Broadway career, ironically, had begun as an understudy to Dorothy McGuire in Our Town and it is possible that Wilder suggested her to Hitchcock. Wright 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." The film also features the screen debut of Hume Cronyn, who would go on to appear in Lifeboat (1944) and then collaborate with Hitchcock on the treatments of Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949). Wright's little sister Ann was played by the daughter of a local Santa Rosa grocer, whom Hitchcock discovered on a location shoot.

Uncle Charlie began production in April 1942 under the name Shadow of a Doubt. Upon release on January 12, 1943, the film received unanimously positive reviews. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times loved the film, stating that "Hitchcock could raise more goose pimples to the square inch of a customer's flesh than any other director in Hollywood". TIME magazine called the film "superb," while Variety stated that "Hitchcock deftly etches his small-town characters and homey surroundings." McDonell received an Academy Award nomination for his original story, but lost to William Saroyan's work on the M-G-M production of his novel The Human Comedy. William Powell and Teresa Wright appeared in a Lux Radio Theatre production of McDonell's story 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 the McDonell story have also been made: a March 24, 1955 Lux Video Theatre production, starring Frank Lovejoy and Barbara Rush, directed by Richard Goode; and a 1991 production directed by Karen Arthur, starring Mark Harmon and Margaret Webb. 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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