Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Evil Comes to Town

The filmography of The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, is filled with so many iconic films and moments that it seems almost ridiculous to think that it all come from the twisted mind of one man. Brimming with indelible images that shook up audiences and influenced the art of filmmaking even to this day, his work is forever engrained in the echelon of pop culture. The infamous shower scene in Pyscho (which caused Janet Leigh to declare she only took baths from that point on). Cary Grant being chased down by a plane all alone in a cornfield in North by Northwest. Tippi Hedren being attacked in a phone booth by rabid birds. Just last year, his Vertigo overtook Citizen Kane for the top spot in Sight & Sound's list of the greatest films of all time. But of all his films, the one that Hitch himself claimed for his favorite was one that is perhaps not as well-known (but wildly loved among cinephiles), starring Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright: 1943's Shadow of a Doubt. The film is the subject of this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot over at The Film Experience. And while I wouldn't call the film my favorite of his works, it certainly ranks among the greats.

The first of his films to have a truly American setting, Hitch was fascinated by small-town Americana and the values of everyday life - especially when villainy disrupts the tranquility. Thorton Wilder, the playwright and author of perhaps the definitive take on the subject of the American way, Our Town, wrote the original screenplay – making the film (much like Joseph Cotten's mysterious Uncle Charlie is to the Newton family of the film) almost a wicked relative to Wilder's play.

That wicked relative in the film, Uncle Charlie, has come to stay with his sister and her family in Santa Rosa, California (where the film was actually shot) much to the delight of his niece and namesake,  Charlie (Teresa Wright). His niece had just been thinking that some sort of adventure was needed to stir the family out of its rut and a visit from her beloved uncle (whom she's so similar to that they are almost telepathic. In fact the first shots of the pair of Charlies mirrors each other with both lying on their bed, staring at the ceiling) was just what they needed. But soon young Charlie, after a visit from a pair of detectives following her uncle, begins to suspect that the uncle she adores might in fact be the Merry Widower Murderer – a killer that preys on wealthy, older women.

There are glimmers of truth throughout the film that hint at the evil that lies within Uncle Charlie. The first dinner when he is reunited within the clan brings forth a ring for young Charlie. While admiring it (along with some intense incestuous flirting), she soon finds an engraving that reveals the true owner of the bauble. Later, in her bedroom (again with the incest), a seemingly playful game where young Charlie tries to steal back a newspaper article Uncle Charlie has hidden, turns a little too harsh when his grip on her slowly becomes a bit too rough and forceful. But, the moment where Charlie's facade begins to crack and he shows his true self is my pick for Best Shot.

At another dinner, sitting around the family table, Uncle Charlie's sister mentions the women of her club and what Charlie will speak about at their meeting. Charlie comments on how the women in the country are different from the women of the city. And as he begins to speak, the camera pulls in tighter and closer to his face just as the words become more twisted and deprived.

Uncle Charlie: 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: They're Alive! They're Human Beings!

Uncle Charlie: Are they?

And that icy stare, directed at Charlie, but really as if he's staring directly at us – piercing our souls with his hatred – cuts right through you. Hitchcock builds the momentum to where just the turn of his head is enough to make you jump. But the horror is more terrifying because it's real. It's your blood relation, sitting around the comfort of your dinner table, disturbing the sacredness of that familial ritual. There's evil that lurks in the hearts of men and it hits close to home. And perhaps the film is Hitchcock's favorite because he knows that having you question whether you really know the person sitting right next to you is the most frightening feeling of all.

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