20 Movies: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

A list of movies that didn’t include Alfred Hitchcock wouldn’t be much of a list. One of my favourites, and one I think it’s time I watched again, is Shadow of a Doubt, with a very creepy Uncle Charlie played by Joseph Cotten.

As mentioned in the review below, in many ways Hitch is the dark twin of Frank Capra. What the angel Clarence was to Bedford Falls, Uncle Charlie is to Santa Rosa. Only inside out.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
directed by Alfred Hitchcock

It’s claimed by many that Shadow of a Doubt was Alfred Hitchcock’s favourite of all the films he had made; some say he considered it his best. The claim rings true if you’re even modestly familiar with his films, his preoccupations and his humour. You can understand how the story would delight him.

Shadow of a Doubt presents us with an almost quintessential American town of the 1940’s. It’s almost Capra-esque. In a way, Shadow of a Doubt is George Bailey’s Bedford Falls from It’s a Wonderful Life except where Capra brings an angel to it, Hitchcock brings the devil.

His name is Uncle Charlie and he’s played by Joseph Cotten with delicious charm that alternates with brooding self-obsession.

Into the charmed and innocent life of California’s little Santa Rosa, into the home of the all-American family of the Newtons, comes Mom’s little brother, Uncle Charlie, for a visit of no determined length. He’s welcomed with cheerful enthusiasm by his sister Emma (Patricia Collinge), and by his namesake niece Young Charlie (Teresa Wright).

Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt (1943).Unfortunately, no one is aware that Uncle Charlie, pleasant as he seems, is a psychopathic killer, a man who behind his charm hates the world and everyone in it.

Uncle Charlie’s secret view of the world is important as it’s in direct contrast with the Newton view, especially Young Charlie’s. Cotton’s character represents corruption; Wright’s represents innocence. The film can broadly be seen as a loss of innocence.

As the film opens, we meet Uncle Charlie and immediately become aware that he has a dark secret. Two men are after him, though we’re not sure who they are (I think we assume it’s the police though we’re not told this right away). Charlie is on the run but we don’t know why.

He escapes and goes to his sister’s family in Santa Rosa. When he arrives by train Hitchcock visually telegraphs what is about to happen. It’s a bright, sunny day and the family run down the platform to meet the train. The youngest child of the Newton’s is isolated for a moment on the platform, in the sun. As the train pulls up it’s dark shadow moves along the platform engulfing the child.

Scene from Shadow of a Doubt (1943).We then seen an apparently weak and ill Charlie get off the train. He’s bent over and almost hobbles. But as he sees the Newtons his face changes, he puts on a facade of charm, straightens up and in an instant is the picture of happy health.

Alone, Charlie is quiet and brooding. Amongst others, he’s vibrant and witty. Only every now and then does he reveal himself publicly. When he does, he quickly covers for his mistake.

Within the family, Teresa Wright’s Young Charlie is easily the brightest, most perceptive member. Although she hero-worships Uncle Charlie, she quickly sees there is something about him that isn’t right. But because she loves her uncle the way she does, she won’t admit to herself the truth about her uncle.

Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt (1943).The law catches up with Uncle Charlie, however, and soon Young Charlie is enlisted by the police to help them catch him. Uncle Charlie then discovers his niece knows his secret, or at least that she’s aware he has one, and has to deal with this threat to himself.

The contest soon becomes one between Uncle Charlie and his niece and the suspense builds to its crescendo – all very Alfred Hitchcock like.

It’s a perfect Hitchcock film. It’s easily one of the best and an argument could be made for it being the best. Shadow of a Doubt is not sensational in the way of movies like Psycho or The Birds. It’s subtler and quieter and in some ways more menacing because of this.

Scene from Shadow of a Doubt (1943).It evokes idyllic America then slowly peals back its layers to reveal a darkness beneath. (This is wonderfully illustrated when the two Charlie’s step off the Norman Rockwell main street into the smokey bar and meet the bored, defeated waitress – a kind of dark opposite of Young Charlie.)

The DVD of Shadow of a Doubt is pretty good but certainly not flawless. There is some scratching and a few awkward jumps, though nothing alarming. The image, however, is pretty solid and the sound is good for a film of this period. The disc also has Beyond Doubt: The Making of Hitchcock’s Favorite Film, an informative feature that includes the thoughts of Teresa Wright, Hume Cronyn and Peter Bogdanovich among others.

Rethinking Jimmy Stewart – Part 1

I’ve finally finished Marc Eliot’s book, Jimmy Stewart: A Biography. Reading it was an interesting process because, as I did, I re-watched many of the movies Jimmy Stewart appeared in. Between the book and the movies, I’ve re-evaluated my opinion of James Stewart, both the actor and the man.

Truthfully, I didn’t really have an “opinion” of him prior to this as Jimmy Stewart and his movies were always a given for me. By this I mean that when I was young I would watch old movies with my mom and, of course, Jimmy Stewart starred in many of them.

Back then, I wouldn’t have thought about the quality of his performances. They were simply movies – some I liked, some I didn’t.

Not long after that, as I got a little older, I’d “stay up half the night,” as my mother would put it. This meant I stayed up watching The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. (I remember when it was just The Tonight Show and I remember when they tagged the “starring …” part to the title.) If memory serves correctly, it ran between 11:30pm and 1:00am (until it was reduced to a 60 minute show).

Jimmy Stewart was often a guest, as he was occasionally on other shows, like The Dean Martin Show (with The Golddiggers!) which my mom and I also watched, usually together.

I think my image of Jimmy Stewart as both a person and as an actor was determined, or defined rather, by the Jimmy Stewart I saw on these shows: avuncular, not too serious, friendly, quaint and drawling. Just a really nice guy in the way a lovable relative might be. There was a disconnect between the George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life, the Scottie Ferguson of Vertigo and the Lin McAdam of Winchester ’73.

It’s likely that business of first impressions. Because I came to Jimmy Stewart at the age I was, and he was in the latter portion of his life, he was (for me) defined by that latter half – which was accurate to some degree, but nowhere close to being complete. Once you get an initial idea in your head about someone it’s very difficult to shake loose of it.

But with Eliot’s book and a somewhat different eye as I watched some of Jimmy Stewart’s movies again, I am to some degree free of my initial idea of him and I think the opinion I now have is very much different.

I think now, as I never would have thought before (it wouldn’t have even occurred to me to think in these terms), Jimmy Stewart is easily placed high in the pantheon of Hollywood actors of the period considered The Golden Age.

And I think it’s very possible he should be placed at the very top. When I think of the kind of person he was and the body of work he produced it strikes me as nothing less than remarkable though, in one sense, perhaps inevitable.

Who would have thought that nice, drawling old guy could have produced such work?


I describe this as “Part 1” because it strikes me there must be a Part 2. What I don’t know is exactly how much I’ll find myself writing. I’ve scribbled enough about many of his movies, so hopefully I can restrain myself and just keep it to one more post … then move on!

When is a movie a Christmas movie?

Christmas Day is unfolding before us. At some point, our minds will turn to movies – well, mine will. So I spent a little time looking online to see what various people considered the top Christmas movies (there are oodles of lists out there).

What is interesting, to me, is what people consider a “Christmas movie” to be. For example, Rotten Tomatoes has a list of their Top 25 Christmas movies. You’ll see they describe their process of selection – their criteria. Elsewhere, I noticed a lot of lists that stated overtly or, through implication, criteria. They seemed to vary quite a bit.

Perhaps it’s because I have criteria in my own mind, not well articulated, of what constitutes a Christmas movie to me. Because I have this idea, many of the lists I found struck me as odd (like the Rotten Tomatoes list).

A movie’s story takes place at Christmas. Is it therefore a Christmas movie? If so, the question becomes how much of the movie takes place then? You’ll notice Rotten Tomatoes says, for their list, “… movies in which Christmas only plays a small part …” are excluded. But then the question becomes, how small? In other words, it’s pretty subjective.

Here’s the thing, though … As far as I’m concerned, this is niggling. I think, more than anything else, the subject and tone of a movie make it a “Christmas movie.” That’s why for me movies like “Die Hard” and “Lethal Weapon” aren’t even considered. They’re action movies. A Christmas movie is drama and/or comedy and/or romance. There is also a fairly good dose of sentimentality – sometimes far too much. (Though you do get some leeway with Christmas movies as it’s expected.  Still, if you go too far over the top you fall flat.)

I saw one list that included An Affair to Remember. I believe it’s just the tail end of the movie that occurs around Christmas. In fact, I’ve never thought of it as a Christmas movie. However, now that I have, I think it does qualify because of it’s subject and tone. (And heaven knows, it has sentimentality.)

In recent decades, we’ve seen more Christmas-themed movies that have a kind of deconstructionist approach to Christmas movies. That’s a hoighty-toighty way of saying that satire and cynicism play a part in them, even if they do end with a traditional sentimental conclusion. For example, there’s Bad Santa. (I plan to watch it again to see if I have the same opinion I originally had, which was a pretty low one.) Is this a Christmas movie? It’s a long, long way from It’s a Wonderful Life.

There is also a movie like Scrooged, a movie I like mainly for Bill Murray’s performance (an almost perfect Scrooge). But compare it to the 1938 and 1951 versions of A Christmas Carol (Scrooged is essentially a remake of that story). Those earlier versions were sentimental dramas. Scrooged is a comedy, somewhat satirical,  with a happy ending.

I don’t think I can articulate what I think a “Christmas movie” is but, as people like to say, “I know it when I see it!”

For what it’s worth, and in no particular order, here are a bunch of movies I think of as Christmas movies:

(I obviously have a fondness for older Christmas films. No surprise there.)