Sunday, May 09, 2021

Use of Tropes: Shadow of a Doubt

The use of genre tropes is a strange thing as it might be deliberate, it might be accidental or unconscious and it could just be a form of pareidolia on behalf of the viewer. Now, truth be told I didn’t sit down to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 thriller and suddenly said, "Wait a second..." Rather, I went in fully looking for tropes and connections to Dracula. You see, I read someone else’s piece making the connection and will therefore be making reference through this to Victoria William’s essay Reflecting Dracula (1) and, as the first source references it, James McLaughlin’s essay All in the Family (2) – references at the foot of the article in case you wish to seek them out. In truth there are elements that are likely to be a stretch but there was one direct reference, which we’ll come to, that convinces me that Hitchcock had given this some thought.

'lying in repose'

So, we get images of people dancing, over the credits, to the waltz the Merry Widow. Then we see images of Philadelphia but they are not all idealised; homeless by the river, a decayed shell of a car by a no tipping sign, contrasted against kids in the street. We cut into a room and lying on the bed in the room is Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten), also known as Uncle Charlie as we’ll soon discover, his hands on his chest playing with a cigar but looking like he is lying in repose. Williams likens him to Dracula as Harker finds him entombed in the castle. Certainly, his voice, when a knock interrupts him, is soft, almost languid.

close up

His landlady tells him that two men called, looking for him but she said he was out – they told her not to mention the visit, she later says, they want to surprise him. She says he looks tired, and we’ll touch on health again, and notices money on the floor, picking it up and admonishing him for being careless. There is a connection that could be made here with Dracula, and Harker finding “a great heap of gold in one corner, gold of all kinds, Roman, and British, and Austrian, and Hungarian, and Greek and Turkish money”. This is probably reading too much in, however, as it has much more to do with what Uncle Charlie deems important – I’ll come back to this.

on the rooftop

He instructs her to let them in next time and she suggests he has his nap and closes the blind. As the darkness draws over him, he sits up – Williams likens it to Count Orlock rising from his crate, but it certainly seems that the darkness has given him some vitality. He takes a drink and then angrily throws the glass, smashing it. He lifts the blind and looks at the detectives who are loitering outside the house, but they have nothing on him, he decides… he leaves, deliberately walking past them, they discreetly follow. Interestingly he evades them, them splitting but not finding him as he looks down from high up a building. This evasion was almost supernatural, Mclaughlin suggests “Like Dracula, he can mysteriously disappear.” He blows a plume of smoke. Then we see him sending a telegram to Emma Newton (Patricia Collinge), his sister – he is coming to visit.

Charlie on her bed

Around the same time, in Santa Rosa we cut to Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) led on her bed. McLaughlin argues that the way the two scenes are presented deliberately aligns the two, beyond having the same name and a familial bond (she is his niece) he suggests that “Incest is a barely suppressed presence in the film” and, as you watch it and see how the niece reacts to the uncle one can certainly see that. Of course, there is a connection with the genre and I always, on this point, return to the scenes that were cut from Mark of the Vampire were those that explained the vampirism being caused by a combination of incest and suicide.

how can you talk about money...

Young sister Ann (Edna May Wonacott) begrudgingly interrupts her reading to answer the phone – it is the telegram office but, not having a pencil, she does not take the message. Father, Joseph (Henry Travers), gets home and goes upstairs to see Charlie. She seems depressed, she has been thinking about the rut life represents, her father argues that it isn’t all so bad and mentions the raise he recently received from the bank. Charlie’s reply is important, “How can you talk about money when I'm talking about souls?” This lowering of the import of money is a trait shared with her Uncle… speaking of which, she realises that there is only one person who can help and declares that she is going to send a telegram asking him to visit.

We have the same blood

When she gets to the office to send a telegram to Uncle Charlie, she is given her mother’s telegram from him saying he is visiting. She actually talks about telepathy, "To be in tune with another person who is on the other side of the country-it's all mental". McLaughlin suggests that she has invited Charlie (and that like Dracula he needs an invitation). I disagree. The telegram office called before she stated she would telegram him and Charlie was coming without an invitation. However, like Mina and Dracula, it does suggest a mental connection between uncle and niece. This is reinforced when she, for no reason, gets the Merry Widow Waltz stuck in her head, for reasons we’ll get to. In Dracula we get, “And you, their best beloved one, are now to me, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, kin of my kin” and in this Uncle Charlie says to her, “We have the same blood”.

Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie

That Uncle Charlie seems ill is reinforced on the train (and note, as Williams points out, that he is travelling from East to West, like Dracula did, and 'back East' is mentioned several times in the dialogue, reinforcing the East/West aspect), where he is hidden behind a drape and the guard knows him to be very ill. In fact, he is so ill that he is helped off the train and walks with a cane. Yet, when he sees Charlie, he comes alive again, a spring in his step almost and certainly not invalid. The acting ill was likely a ruse, of course, but the symbolism of moving from infirm to sprightly matches Dracula’s becoming younger in the West, "I believe it is the Count, but he has grown young."

newspaper report

Anyway, Uncle Charlie’s secret is that he is a serial killer known as the “Merry-Widow” murderer (hence the waltz scenes and the importance of Charlie having the tune stuck in her head). He uses his charms to seduce widows and strangles them (probably a stretch to think that it is deliberate but the folklore vampire was, more often than not, a strangler). He has killed three widows, according to the press article we see – matching the three vampire women perhaps? He also sees them as less than human, somehow, and sees them “drinking their money, eating their money.” This ties in with previous themes on money (and distinguishing between money and soul, with the widows reportedly only caring about the former) also tying in with his dismissive air when he sets up a bank account and nonchalantly hands over thousands from his pocket to open it.

arrives with a plume of smoke

There are motifs used through the film that need touching on. There are important scenes at the dinner table but we never see Uncle Charlie eat. Dracula could become mist (although there is no mist in this, the novel describes the mist as being like smoke at one point). Smoke is used through the film, the plume of smoke from the cigar after he has escaped the detectives, the smoke of the train bringing him into town and the use of car exhaust to try and kill his niece. When he first sees his sister, he does not use her married name, rather he says she looks like she was when single using her maiden-name and giving their old address – an address she hadn’t thought about in years – for how the undead become the repository of memory I recommend the volume Undead memory.

Charlie in photograph

Wait a second… You just said undead.” Of course, not literally but there are no pictures of Uncle Charlie, he claims. One of the detective’s gets a picture of him and Uncle Charlie takes the film (or so he thinks, there is a switcheroo and the photo is sent to witnesses back East though, as Williams mentions, we never hear anything more about the picture and there is no witness confirmation). However, there is one picture, of a very young Charles, from the old address he’d mentioned, taken at Christmas just before an accident. He was a quiet child, a reader like Ann, and he slid his new bicycle on ice into a streetcar. There was a concern he might die, he fractured his skull and was bed-ridden but, once he recovered, his personality had changed – he became full of energy and into mischief. The tale could indicate a symbolic death, with him reborn as the mischievous Charlie, who becomes the murderous Charlie and symbolically undead.

Teresa Wright as Charlie

I mentioned that it might be a case of reading too much in but there is a moment where one of the detectives, to distract Ann, asks her to offer a synopsis of the book Dracula. According to Williams the original script used a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde reference (which would have fit the dualistic role of the two Charlies) but Hitchcock deliberately changed the reference. This suggests to me that Hitchcock did see Uncle Charlie as being like Dracula. Whether every aspect I’ve mentioned was deliberate is, of course, highly debatable but the foundation is there. EDIT 10/5/21: A couple of Facebook commentators have pointed out that The Return of Dracula is almost an unofficial remake of this, thanks Doug and Troy.

The imdb page is here.

On DVD @ Amazon US

On DVD @ Amazon UK

(1) Williams, V., 2013. Reflecting Dracula: The Undead in Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. In: B. Brodman & J. E. Doan, eds. Images of the Modern Vampire: The Hip and the Atavistic. Plymouth: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, pp. 3-13.

(2) McLaughlin, J., 1986. All in the Family: Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. In: M. Deutelbaum & L. A. Poague, eds. A Hitchcock Reader. Ames: Iowa State Press, pp. 141-152.

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