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.
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.”
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?”
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.
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.