Monday, November 08, 2010
Movies I Like: Shadow of a Doubt
Alfred Hitchcock’s directing career spanned form 1922 to 1976: 54 years. He started with silent film and saw the advancements of sound (he made the first British talkie), color and even 3-D within his lifetime. And he was a master of filmmaking almost from the beginning.
Some of his classic films include Blackmail, The Lodger, Rope, Strangers on a Train, Lifeboat, Dial M for Murder, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Birds, Rear Window, and Psycho.
My personal favorite, followed closely by Rear Window, is Shadow of a Doubt, released in 1943. Not only did Hitchcock direct, but the great Thornton Wilder (author of the classic Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town) wrote the screenplay. This was Hitchcock’s personal favorite, and it is also David Mamet’s favorite of Hitchcock’s films.
If you have read any of my previous posts then you’ll know that I believe that a great story has a focus – a direction. It knows what it’s about – what’s it’s trying to say.
In the first act we are introduced to a young woman named Charlie who is tired of her boring town and her boring family. Nothing exciting ever happens. She lives a Norman Rockwell existence.
She wants to break up this monotony and goes to the telegraph office to invite her favorite uncle, also named Charlie, to come visit. But when she gets there, she finds that there is already a telegram there for her from her uncle saying he’s on his way. The two Charlies have a special connection.
What the girl Charlie eventually discovers is that her uncle is a notorious murderer on the run. Uncle Charlie is not the kindly affable man he pretends to the world. Now that she knows the truth about her uncle, all Charlie wants is her old boring life back.
This is a Thornton Wilder theme – that life, even a simple, uneventful life, is a wonderful thing that we do not take the time to appreciate. You can see this theme in Our Town after one of the characters dies and is able to go back and see/relive moments in her past. She chooses an ordinary day, nothing special. And she is surprised to realize that people don’t find each moment of their life precious.
This is the very same theme in Shadow of a Doubt – young Charlie had a good life and now she wants it back. But it is too late: She knows what she knows and can’t return to that life.
This is a deep theme dressed as a common thriller – it is so much more. As a thriller it is Hitchcock at his best. And as a piece of art, it is Wilder doing what he did best.
I have to admit that there is a tacked-on love story that I believe the studio wanted – another writer handled that (some things never change). This is not on par with the rest on the film, but the film is too good to be ruined by this. Hitchcock himself was never happy with the love story.
When I say they don’t make movies like they used to this is what I mean. If I see a thriller now and say it was empty and meaningless people say to me, “What do you want? It’s just a thriller!”
You know what I want? Shadow of a Doubt.