not in our stars, but in ourselves
I confess, ladies and gents: I’ve suffered a bit of performance anxiety since having the spotlight shined on me, however briefly. Very few of you will stick around once you see how utterly un-timely I usually am, I’ll wager, but it’s taken me days to work up the nerve to post something of my own again. And so, I’m re-establishing my footing on very familiar ground: Alfred Hitchcock’s personal favorite of all his films, Shadow of a Doubt (1943) – and my favorite of his as well.
Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) realizes that there are men following him. He shakes them off, and wires to his sister out in California to expect him for a visit. In the sleepy little town of Santa Rosa, Uncle Charlie’s niece and namesake, Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright), has been daydreaming of some way to shake things up in her humdrum life – and before she even knows he’s telegrammed, she decides to wire Uncle Charlie herself. When she sees that he’s apparently shared her thoughts, she’s delighted. They are, she feels, more than merely uncle and niece: she sees them as twins, twins who can’t have secrets from each other. On his first night at the Newtons, Uncle Charlie gives Young Charlie an emerald ring, seemingly engraved long ago with someone else’s initials. After some strangely aggressive and secretive behavior from her uncle, Young Charlie begins to wonder if something might be the matter with him. The two detectives who were trailing him on the East Coast tell her that her beloved uncle is the prime suspect in the case of the Merry Widow Murderer: a man who married and strangled three wealthy widows. During a tense dinner one night, Uncle Charlie seems to go out of his way to confirm Young Charlie’s suspicions:
The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands dead, husbands who’ve spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. And then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands. Drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge. Playing all day and all night. Smelling of money. Proud of their jewelry but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women.
Young Charlie interjects that they’re human beings, aren’t they? And Uncle Charlie replies, “Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?”
It’s never a good feeling when you find yourself nodding in agreement with a murderer, so who knows why I love this film as much as I do. For I often find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with sonorous, charming, hateful Uncle Charlie – especially during this speech, later on, after Young Charlie knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that her flesh and blood has killed at least three times:
You think you know something, don’t you? You think you’re the clever little girl who knows something. There’s so much you don’t know, so much. What do you know, really? You’re just an ordinary little girl, living in an ordinary little town. You wake up every morning of your life and you know perfectly well that there’s nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day, and at night you sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep, filled with peaceful stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares…. Or did I? Or was it a silly, inexpert little lie? You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something.
I think that’s rather unfair to swine – but on the whole, I tend to agree. No, I don’t advocate killing people. Of course not. You may quote me on that. But I can’t look around, and I bet you can’t either, and see that good is prevailing. I bet you can’t look around and see the highest common denominator winning out. It’s always the lowest common denominator. It’s always the appeal to the basest instincts. Uncle Charlie sees it, and Young Charlie can see it, too, and it frightens her. She was complaining about it just before she got her uncle’s telegram. It’s not a good feeling for her, either, to realize that she agrees with a murderer – not with the act itself, but with the impulses and observations that lead to it. The world is a hell.
On the subject of those merry widows, somewhat tangentially: I used to work at a high-end stationery store, and young bridezillas came in all the time to order their wedding invitations. They were all obviously on severely restricted diets, even more so than the diets they’d been on to attract their mates in the first place, in order to look like movie stars on their big day. That was about half of our clientele. The other half consisted of women who, having ensnared themselves in all the security and certainty of a loveless but lucrative marriage, were encased in a few dozen pounds of extra flesh and plenty of jewels – of which they were very likely proud, while being ashamed and sickened by everything else. I’ve seen it in action. Maybe it’s a feature only of well-to-do women in American coastal cities. Let’s hope so.
Anyway, enough philosophy. How’s the film? The film is just wonderful, since you asked. Don’t expect the kind of glamour you’d find with Grace Kelly or Cary Grant, but there’s that same Hitchcockian obsession with how things look, how they belie the truth. Santa Rosa seems like a perfectly lovely little town – but what’s underneath? Neighbors who pass the time by talking about killing each other. Sleazy bars where dim girls who peaked in high school work as barmaids and who-knows-what-else. Widows who are ready and willing to make it clear to handsome young strangers that they’re (a) available and (b) up for it. No better or worse than any other American suburb – and that’s the point. The people here are either too dumb to understand the world, or too heartless to care about it, or both.