It was Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday last week and I thought this would be a great opportunity to recommend two titles from his incredibly prolific body of work. Apart from the standards (i.e. Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho), Alfred Hitchcock also had a rich oeuvre of underrated and seemingly forgotten movies whose dues are criminally neglected.
Personally, I’m particularly fond of his 1940’s period. His more polished latter work, which is what audiences are most familiar with today, lose a simplicity and roughness that made his earlier films feel more unguarded and intimate. His movies in the 50’s generally become lighter too. They’re so emerged in the style of the time that they can’t help but represent it. I’d like to think of them as “Metropolitan Hitchcock.”
To me, his films in the 40’s feel more raw and fatalistic. Like the black smoke cloud that blocks out the sky when Uncle Charlie arrives at Santa Rosa in Shadow of A Doubt, his films at this time have an impending sense of doom that constantly hover above the movies, even when there’s a happy ending. Because the majority of them are also shot in black and white, they encompass their own separate and individualistic worlds, outside the vividly colored and all too familiar busy urban streets of say North by Northwest. Strangers on a Train (1951), I, Confess (1953) and The Wrong Man (1956) would have been a continuation of his 40’s theme had he remained more focused in that vein. But Hitchcock is Hitchcock no matter what.
Released by RKO pictures in 1941, Suspicion is the only film where Hitchcock directed an actor to an Academy Award winning performance. Joan Fontaine, who had just come off of playing the lead in another Hitchcock landmark, Rebecca, stars as Linda McLaidlaw (a name in the typical ‘Hitchcockian’ fashion), a dowdy and submissive wealthy young lady on a steadfast pace towards spinsterhood – a role Fontaine more or less reprised from her previous collaboration with Hitch. Cary Grant, who plays a charismatic and handsome playboy, swoons her off her feet and out of those buckled shoes chafing with sexual repression. His financial recklessness becomes a small price to pay for the life he has saved her from. But when she begins to suspect that he solely married her for her money, paranoia sets in.
Hitchcock is a master at setting up romance as an ironic mental chuckle – predating Sirk’s glossy melodramas by a decade. You sense his urgency to get to the action, in this case Fontaine’s psychological deterioration, where the suspense really takes place. Unlike Rebecca, Suspicion also has less David O. Selznick in it, which means it becomes less of a literary adaptation that gets weighed down by its own self-importance and more of an experimentation in film techniques that draw out the best they can from the story. “Pure cinema” as the tagline goes. And if Psycho made audiences afraid to take a shower, one can’t help but think what Suspicion would have done to milk prices had the film been just as influential.
One of his more popular films from the decade, but still arguably unknown, is this disturbing family drama co-written by Thornton Wilder. Known particularly for the success of the stage play Our Town, which depicts the life of a small town community with all its charming simplicities and foibles, Wilder’s involvement is exactly what makes Shadow of a Doubt all the more fascinating. Joseph Cotten plays Uncle Charlie, a vicious serial killer known as the “Merry Widow Strangler,” a murderer who contemptuously seeks out rich widows he charms and kills, taking their money and vanishing on to his next victim. On the run from the police, who inch their way closer and closer in capturing him, Uncle Charlie returns to his suburban childhood neighborhood, desperate to hide-out. His sister and her family are more than hospitable in his visit, especially his niece who idolizes him and is even named Charlie herself. The film becomes a bout between the two Charlie’s, as the niece slowly discovers the monster her uncle really is.
Despite the film’s eccentricities and absurd plot details, Shadow of a Doubt works because of Hitchcock’s mastery of film language. Like the majority of his movies, this one is a classic textbook example on how to create suspense and execute it to its fullest potential. Add to it the irony behind Wilder’s influence and you get a film that is truly disturbing and dark. A pathological and relentless man, who looks like any other ordinary civilian, enters the most ideal and pure of American institutions, the family. Evil sets foot onto wholesome provincial neighborhoods, where the traffic guards know pedestrians by name and everyone goes to church on Sunday. The fact that the film emphasizes Uncle Charlie as being a part of his niece indicts Wilder’s original belief and image about the “town” and its people as pure romantic fabrication.