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.


Quentin Lebegue said...

Shame on me, I haven't seen this one... I must get it now !!

Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm on your favorite movies. I saw Searching for Bobby Fisher a few months ago, thanks to you, and I absolutely loved it. Such a great message, wonderfully delivered.

imyjimmy said...

What do you do when the studio makes you "the other writer" and you know that you're tacking on something unnecessary to a very lean script? Do you quit? Kill yourself? Write it anyways? Would you feel good getting money to make something worse?

Brian McD said...

Hey Quentin,

Glad you like my talking about the films I like. I'm also happy that you like the films when you see them.

Brian McD said...


This is a difficult question. No one can answer that question for you. But I can say once you sell a script you don’t own it. You can easily be fired. And most of the time you will be fired at some point especially if you are a “first time” writer.

So if you are ever lucky enough to sell a screenplay know that if you sell it it no longer belongs to you. The best advice is to be careful who you sell it to.

Jamie Baker said...

thanks for sharing your tips for great films to watch. I haven't seen this one so i will track it down. Please continue with recommendations!

Brian McD said...

Thanks, Jamie. Hope you dig the movie, man.

Clint said...

Rear Window has been a favorite of mine for a long time. I rewatched it and watched for the first time Dial M for Murder and this one within a few weeks of each a few years ago. I remember being impressed by how studiously but imperceptibly Hitchcock built up the tension in Shadow. I remember at the time being more taken with Dial M for Murder than Shadow, though, which makes me want to re-watch them now from a storytelling point of view. Back then I was watching just to see them for the first time. Now I want to study them. But they'll have to wait till after my John Ford phase. Just finished a bio of him, and man--be hard to imagine a more different personality and approach than Hitchcock's. But it just goes to prove that when it comes to putting amazing stories on the screen, it can take all types. Any favorite Ford films you care to share?

Brian McD said...

Hey Clint,

Dial M for Murder is a fun movie for sure. In fact I watched it again not too long ago. It’s a well-told story from a suspense perspective, but I don’t think there is much going on thematically. You may feel differently.

As for John Ford that dude made a ton of movies. He’s really great. Alfred Hitchcock loved Ford’s storytelling and said, "A John Ford film was a visual gratification"

There are a bunch of films of Ford’s worth seeing from a filmmaking perspective. Ford was a great visual storyteller. In fact to friends of mine and I used to watch his film with the sound turned down to see how well we understood the story without words. Then the next day we would watch it with sound. The films that were good without sound were as good as they seemed without sound. The films that were bad without sound because they were hard to follow were just as bad with sound.

Like Hitchcock, Ford started in silent movies and learned to tell stories well in a visual medium.

Orson Wells screened John Ford’s film Stage Coach over and over again to learn from it before he made Citizen Kane. Wells said this, "I like the old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford."

Akira Kurosawa also studied Ford’s work. So did Frank Capra and David Lean.

As for recommending some of his films, I try not to recommend stuff without an explanation as to why. Having said that, there are many Ford films worthy of study.

My favorite is Grapes of Wrath.

Others worth seeing are Stage Coach, Fort Apache, The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Three Godfathers, How Green was my Valley and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

These are the ones that come to mind, but there are more. The man made well more than 100 movies.

I am planning to blog on one of Ford’s films one day, so I will leave it there.

Ford was good.

Clint said...

> Dial M for Murder is a fun movie for sure...but
> I don’t think there is much going on
> thematically. You may feel differently.

It's been too long, and I wasn't watching it for that purpose, so I can't say. Based on my scraps of memory, I'd be surprised if there were much of a theme beyond a basic Aesopian moral.

> Ford was good.

He is indeed. I like your idea of watching them with the sound down. Ford was certainly a silent filmmaker at heart. He maintained throughout his life that film was still better without sound.

I've seen all but one in your list of his films, Three Godfathers, which I'm hoping to be able to Netflix. That and The Informer, the film that really put him on the map with critics.

Anecdote you'll like: You mention Welles' "John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." I've always loved that story. The Ford bio I just read says that near the end of his life, Ford told his grandson that his favorite American filmmakers were "Frank Capra, Frank Capra, and Frank Capra." Makes me wonder how Welles felt about Capra.

(It also says that Ford was quite moved by Capra's autobio, The Name Above The Title. So was I, far more than I ever expected. If you haven't read it, you have to check it out. Wonderful book.)