Shadow of a Doubt 12/04/05 3:13
On loan from Selznick to Universal Studios, Hitchcock was blessed with a brilliant script (Thornton Wilder helped with a lot of the dialogue) and a fortunate combination of a sunny American setting with the dark themes of human evil and loss of innocence. In style, it is one of his most subtly controlled efforts, with each shot and sequence serving to move the story, reveal the characters, and link symbolic ideas. A scene in which Uncle Charlie gives his niece a ring, for instance, sets up a major plot point, while highlighting his faintly incestuous attitude towards her. At the same time, it echoes the idea of marriage (as in "Merry Widow") and symbolizes the two as mirror images of each other, with one of them (the niece) unaware of the implications. The entire picture is layered with meaning like this, so casual that it is absorbed without being conscious, so artful that the story evokes a rush of conflicting ideas, feelings and impressions. The incest angle is, of course, never explicit, but it adds to the picture's tension in a way that must have been intended. In all this, Hitchcock employs his full arsenal—deep focus, tracking point-of-view shots, startling angles, gliding camera movement within a scene—and he makes it all look easy, even simple.
Joseph Cotten's performance is perhaps the best of his career. Peeking through the surface of his charm is a disturbing coldness and disdain, a deadness of the heart. His scenes at the dinner table with the family are seething with hostile undertones. The underrated Teresa Wright is fully up to her task of portraying an innocent girl awakening to a sense of horror. There is also an amusing motif in which young Charlie's father (Henry Travers) concocts fantasy murder plots with a bookish friend, played with hilarious deadpan by Hume Cronyn—while of course the real thing is happening right under their noses.
Shadow of a Doubt has been, if you'll pardon the expression, overshadowed by Hitchcock's more spectacular work in the 50s and 60s. It is different from what you might expect if you come to it with these later films in mind. For one thing, it looks softer—the picture was shot on location in Santa Rosa (an unusual method in those days), so the customary sharp studio lighting effects are missing. But more than that, it is one of the director's more psychologically plausible efforts. The thriller elements are merged with a naturalistic approach, and this creates an unusual blend that is worth the effort it takes to absorb. Supposedly it was Hitchcock's own favorite among his films. It is certainly one of mine.
Shadow of a Doubt is available on DVD.