Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hitchcock, Voltaire and Shadow of a Doubt

The secret sharers enjoy a special bond. If "enjoy" is the right word.

Uncle Charlie spoiled his niece's "peaceful, stupid dreams" with nightmares.

Young Charlie prevailed, not because she was "good," but because she became willing to be evil.

Though he never attended college, Alfred Hitchcock received a very good Jesuit education. Voltaire’s “Candide” was probably required reading. I think the book informed his work, especially with regard to both Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and The Trouble with Harry (1955)—two of the director’s favorite and personal films.

The novella begins with a young man, Candide, who is sheltered in “the finest, most agreeable castle possible.” Among pristine, Edenic gardens, he is indoctrinated with an overly optimistic world view by his tutor, Pangloss. Soon enough, however, this idyllic existence abruptly ends, which is followed by his disillusionment as he sees how the world really works in all its hardships and suffering.

Certain plot elements are echoed in Shadow of a Doubt. But it’s the shared themes that keep me pondering the connection the two works.

In Shadow of a Doubt, evil (in the form of the dashing Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie) visits the small town of Santa Rosa, California. Like Candide’s castle in Westphalia, nothing ever seems to go wrong in this “typical small American town.” All of the inhabitants continue on their merry course, oblivious to the danger that surrounds them.

Santa Rosa seems like a perfectly average, law-abiding small town...
...until Uncle Charlie hustles his niece into its seedier parts to articulate his less idealistic view of the world.

Yet, something inside that insular world is stirring. Uncle Charlie’s niece, Young Charlie (Teresa Wright), lays on her bed, bored and daydreaming. “I give up,” she tells her father. “This family’s gone to pieces. We just go along. Nothing ever happens. We’re in a rut.” Her solution is to invite Uncle Charlie to town.

In Hitchcock’s world, boredom is often a precursor to chaos, and so it happens in Shadow. Uncle Charlie—taking a break from his murdering spree, for now— is a menacing presence, hunted by federal agents. His niece gradually deduces that he is the Merry Widow Killer. In a climactic scene in which she confronts his true identity, he forces her into a seamy bar. “I don’t go to places like this, Uncle Charlie,” she says nervously. And that’s the point. Even her idyllic small town has cracks—if she would stop to notice. Says Uncle Charlie:

“You're just an ordinary little girl living in an ordinary little town. You wake up every day and know there's nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day. At night, you sleep your ordinary sleep filled with peaceful, stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares.”

Earlier, he had bitterly dismissed the world as a “foul sty”, saying: “Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?”

In its opening moments, a montage reveals that the world (at least part of it) is, indeed, a foul sty.

Finally, at the insistence of his niece, he leaves town by train. There, in a struggle with her, he falls to his death (or she pushes him). Ironically, he receives a native son’s funeral. Young Charlie repeats what her uncle said about the world being a “foul sty” to her new romantic interest, Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey). He replies: “Well, it's not quite as bad as that, but sometimes [the world] needs a lot of watching. It seems to go crazy every now and then.”

That sort of hedging response reminds me of this interchange in “Candide,” between the title character and a dervish:

“But, Reverend Father,” said Candide, “there is a horrible deal of evil on the earth.”

“What signifies it,” said the dervish, “whether there is evil or good? When His Highness sends a ship to Egypt does he trouble his head whether the rats in the vessel are at their ease or not?”

In a world of both Voltaire’s and Hitchcock’s making, questions of good and evil or whether God is dead or alive are almost beside the point. Regardless of the answers to such questions, we must make our way the best we can, always being watchful for the chaos that erupts from time to time. Early in the story, unaware of both Uncle Charlie’s crimes and of the young man’s profession, Young Charlie falls for one of the agents pursuing her uncle, Jack Graham. But when she finds out that he suspects him, she wants to break their romance off.

Jack: Charlie, when we were eating tonight and talking about our folks and what we'd done and how we felt, we were like two ordinary people. We'd been brought up about the same. You liked me and I liked you.

Young Charlie: Oh, it doesn't matter now.

Jack: What do you mean, “It doesn't matter”? It's the only thing that does matter.

It is just as Hitchcock author Donals Spoto observed, “If young Charlie aspires to a happy life, she realizes at the end that it can only be striven for in this tangled, fallen garden that is no longer a paradise.” The conclusion of this film, as well of Voltaire’s novella is that we cannot change the world, but we can make our tiny part of it beautiful—and do that we must. Jack's insistence that ordinary family-making is the only that matters almost repudiates Uncle Charlie's insistence that, the world being filled with swine, nothing matters. Almost, but not quite. In 1943, the world was going to hell in a world war. For millions, nothing seemed to matter any more. It isn't clear at all that Charlie shares his optimistic view. The ending of this film suggests that Young Charlie will marry Jack. I wonder if Jack, noble as he may be, is Charlie’s equal, philosophically and intellectually. But he will suffice.

At Uncle Charlie's funeral: “The world goes crazy every now and then.” As love-struck as Jack and Charlie may be, their romance is off to a sadly inauspicious start.

After their travels and tribulations, Candide and his friends end up working at a small farm to sustain themselves and keep free from what the Turkish owner of a neighboring farm called the “three great evils: boredom, vice and necessity.” Candide started his life in a paradisaic garden, the Castle in Westphalia, finally cultivating a much smaller, prosaic garden. Not Paradise, exactly, but it will suffice.

And that circularity brings me to another curious similarity between “Candide” and Hitchcock's films. Check back in soon.

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6 comments:

Millie said...

Oooh, this was super interesting! There original thoughts there.

Shadow Of A Doubt is my absolute favorite Hitchcock EVER. It is so amazing, complex, and mesmerizing!

Millie said...

I really meant to say, "Those were really cool original thoughts there."

Joel Gunz said...

Heh, yeah, I caught that!

Paula said...

Wow! "Shadow of a Doubt" is one of my favorite films ever! Joseph Cotton is superb in it. I can't wait until it comes on TV again, though, because I've never viewed the film so intensely from a philosophical standpoint. Excellent thoughts you point out. I love your blog! I also can't wait to read your commentary about "The Man Who Knew Too Much," the remake version. Thanks for starting this blog. The world is better or it :)

Carm said...

It's interesting to have a little insight as to why Hitchcock may have made the movies he did with the type of story lines he used. Yes, his educational background did seem to influence his work. It's easy to see how we have all been influenced by our education. Thanks for sharing this. I know so little of Hitchcock's life before directing. Can't wait to read a little more as we go along. Making connections in a person's life gives real insight into the hows whys. Makes me wonder HOW Uncle Charlie got to where he was in his hate for women of a certain means and WHY he felt the need to actually kill them Hmmmm....

Joel Gunz said...

Yeah, a lot of people read SoaD as a misogynist statement by Hitch -- but they forget that the girl Young Charlie is one his strongest, most "well-rounded" characters!