Review by Trylon volunteer Dave Berglund
In the movies, first impressions are sacrosanct. Young lovers can throw their entire lives into turmoil to pursue with abandon someone they just met and we as viewers are so accustomed to this that we many times approvingly nod along without a second thought. This familiarity with the shorthand of character types, I think, is why Shadow of a Doubt is so powerful – in a cinematic age when mere appearances defined who was good and bad, loveable and loathsome, Hitchcock’s subversive masterpiece dared to present Joseph Cotten, an actor’s actor and utterly sympathetic figure, as Uncle Charlie, a manipulative, widow-killing sociopath.
The film centers on Charlie (Teresa Wright), a naïve and precocious teen with great affections for her namesake, the venerable Uncle Charlie. When she learns of an unexpected visit from her uncle, she anticipates his arrival with joy. Yet, when his suspicious behavior begins, she must decide before it is too late if her worries about him are warranted or if her imaginative inclinations are getting the best of her.
After all, this is a charming and generous fellow, and in the movies, this means he is one of us, one of the good guys. The film, thus, toys with our expectations and the doubts it casts early and often land with the dizzying force of heavyweight punches. These punches come in quick succession and by the time the film shifts to its horrifying second act, which serves as an early precursor to many slasher films to follow, we are fully off-kilter and unprepared for what is to come. This imbues the film with a timelessness that makes it exciting and disturbing to this day.
What is perhaps most striking about this film is that while it mirrors other Hitchcock classics in misdirection, it also reveals most of its secrets relatively early. In this way, the film allows its themes or faulty perception to gestate within its plot and pushes its audience to introspection. First impressions, it is clear, are not to be trusted, and life is far more complicated that we hope it to be.
Yet, the film’s most ingenious move is that while justice is in some sense found in the end, the power and significance of first impressions is allowed to survive unscathed. It is a convicting concession that the force of public consensus will silence truth. And in this is found the film’s most terrifying notion. — Dave Berglund
SHADOW OF A DOUBT screens Thursday, April 30 at 7:30 pm at the Heights. Tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them in advance here.