Revisiting Shadow Of A Doubt by K A Laity

Films, K A Laity, Noir, Non-fiction, Punk Noir Magazine

soadThough it’s fallen out of fashion a wee bit, Hitchcock seemed to always consider this film his finest and people as wildly varying in their opinions as David Mamet and the baying jackals, er, critics of Rotten Tomatoes agree. Shadow of a Doubt offers a gripping tale with gruesome undertones. It’s a genuine snapshot of the American dream that brings out the nightmare inherent in its blindness, yet demonstrates its resilience without schmaltz.

Thornton Wilder penned the original script, though it was enhanced by the hands of Sally Benson (Meet Me in St. Louis) and Alma Reville (AKA Lady Hitchcock). I don’t really know how much input they had, yet I can’t help but feel Benson must have added a good bit. Wilder’s characters can be too mannered and the character of young Charlie is just so good. Consider the gals in St. Louis: Judy Garland’s Esther, the sweet girl next door, also belts the boy she thinks hurt her sister and Margaret O’Brien’s Tootie is really a monster child, causing chaos.

In any case we have a masterful film from Hitchcock that plays on some timeless themes: the charming cad who might be a murderer, the small town kid who longs for more excitement and the happy family about the be ripped apart. Hitchcock makes the most of the idea of shadows. While people don’t always think of this as noir, it certainly gets there quickly—peeling back the veneer of small town innocence to show the darkness behind it, just as Uncle Charlie snarls at his niece.

Joseph Cotten is superb as the Merry Widow Killer suspect. Hitchcock apparently wanted to use the beloved William Powell, but his studio refused to share him. Delightful as it is to contemplate him playing the role, Cotten owns this as much as he does The Third Man. When he slips and lets the monster out from behind the charmer’s mask, it’s utterly chilling.

Teresa Wright has a challenging transformation to make her dreamer of a girl courageous enough to stand up to a cold murderer. I always think I would have made Charlie more tomboyish but there’s something wonderful (and nigh-on Oedipal) in the doting niece leading her uncle around town with such pride. There’s the wonderful kitchen scene where she gushes about their being almost “twins”. He slips the fateful ring onto her finger in a parody of an engagement scene.

Everything works so well; Dimitri Tiomkin’s often ironic and nearly deranged use of the Merry Widow waltz loops around from light-hearted to menacing. We see Charlie struggle with the ideas of loyalty and family and the ending—apparently not the one Wilder scripted—avoids a neat resolution yet offers hope of the abiding kind: that we can always choose how we meet evil, because meet it we will. As Hitchcock told the press at the time, “Love and good order is no defense against evil”.

Bio: K. A. Laity is the award-winning author of White RabbitA Cut-Throat BusinessLush SituationOwl Stretching, Unquiet DreamsÀ la Mort SubiteThe Claddagh IconChastity FlamePelzmantel and Other Medieval Tales of Magic and Unikirja, as well as editor of Weird NoirNoir Carnival and the forthcoming Drag Noir. With cartoonist Elena Steier she created the occult detective comic Jane Quiet. Her bibliography is chock full of short stories, humor pieces, plays and essays, both scholarly and popular. She spent the 2011-2012 academic year in Galway, Ireland where she was a Fulbright Fellow in digital humanities at NUIG. Dr. Laity has written on popular culture and social media for Ms., The Spectator and BitchBuzz, and teaches medieval literature, film, gender studies, New Media and popular culture at the College of Saint Rose. She divides her time between upstate New York and Dundee.