Saturday, February 23, 2008

The joy of dark humor

TCM played six of Alfred Hitchcock's movies back-to-back in a mini-marathon today. Hitchcock was known not only as the master of suspense, but also of black humor. And of the six Hitchcock movies aired today, I'd like to highlight the one that's probably least well-known to the average viewer, which also just happens to have the most black humor: Shadow of a Doubt.

Joseph Cotten stars as Charlie Oakley, the "Merry Widow" murderer who is being chased on the east coast by police for allegedly killing several old widows. He decides that the best way to escape is to go visit the only family he has, out in Santa Rosa, California. (Many of the establishing shots were actually done on location.) Here, he precedes to charm every member of his family -- and much of the townsfolk, too. The one exception to this is his niece, also named Charlie (last name Newton), played by Teresa Wright. She gets the impression that there's something wrong, and gets even stronger suspicions when the two detectives from the east show up in Santa Rosa hot on Uncle Charlie's trail. Meanwhile, one of the detectives (Macdonald Carey) falls in love with niece Charlie....

The movie is filled with black humor and otherwise excellently understated performances. There's a running joke throughout the movie involving father Joseph Newton (played by Henry Travers, on the left), who has an obsession with the "perfect murder", that he shares with his co-worker Herbie Hawkins (Hume Cronyn, holding the crime magazines), at all hours of the day; notably, the concoct murders at the dinner table, much to the dismay of daughter Charlie. Also, the first picture (with Wright and Cotten sitting at a table in a seedy bar), note the waitress (played by Janet Shaw, who didn't make too many movies). In that scene, the two Charlies are discussing niece Charlie's knowledge of what her uncle stands accused of doing, specifically involving a ring she believes is engraved to one of his victims. The waitress spots the ring, and immediately goes into a monologue about being able to spot fine jewelry right away. This monologue is delivered in an amazing deadpan: she sounds like a world-weary woman who has been through this all before, even though she's only the same age as niece Charlie.

Also worth watching is the rest of the family. Patricia Collinge does a very good job of playing mother Emma Newton, who seems just a bit dotty is quite gullible about letting the police detectives in the house to investigate Uncle Charlie. She's reminiscent of, say, Billie Burke from Dinner at Eight A more humorous character, however, is younger daughter Ann Newton, played by child actress Edna May Wonacott as seen in the photo. She channels fellow child star Virginia Weidler (see a movie like The Philadelphia Story) to be a bit too precociously smart for her age, with the result that she's also unbelievably obnoxious and almost a bit bratty. But like Weidler in The Philadelphia Story, it's quite funny. Unfortunately, Wonacott made only a handful of movies, and most of them are bit parts. Perhaps other producers found her too bratty.

Fortunately, Shadow of a Doubt is available on DVD if you missed the showing on TCM.

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