Monday, 18 June 2012

Hitchcock's favourite: Shadow of a Doubt

Inspired by the Guardian's My favourite Hitchcock series - and eschewing biggies PsychoVertigo and North by Northwest - I thought I'd throw Shadow of a Doubt (1943) into the ring. It's a remarkable psycho-sexual drama, not least because we're some way in before the director makes explicit what's going on: beloved Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) has gone to stay with his sister and her family in Santa Rosa to escape the police, who are hunting a killer dubbed the 'Merry Widow murderer' for his habit of befriending and killing wealthy women.

Hitchcock is a master of the everyday-man wrongly suspected of a crime scenario, but here we're looking for clues that Charlie's a wrong 'un. Quick to pick up the trail is his adoring niece, played by Teresa Wright, who's so close to her uncle she's known as 'young Charlie'; she even believes there's an extrasensory link between them and he's come to town precisely because he sensed she was bored.

Young Charlie's sharper than the rest of her family - including dad, who discusses amateur criminology with his neighbour, a young Hume Cronyn, and is taken in by the gift of a watch - but also smitten with her uncle. The interest is reciprocated, but it's only when one of the detectives falls for her that the case begins to fall into place - when Uncle Charlie gives his niece a stolen ring in a cod wedding scene.

Much is made of the film's small-town setting - Thornton Wilder worked on the script - but I particularly like the opening scenes in Philadelphia, which so cleverly set up Uncle Charlie's character, and are filled with rundown fire escapes and desolate city streets that presage the start of Psycho seven years later.

Best of all is the sense of restrained, almost insouciant, menace in Cotten's performance. This was a year or two after Orson Welles had cast the stage actor - and one-time theatre critic - in Citizen Kane (1941). Cotten made his name as a romantic lead but this is one of his most compelling performances - his slyness contrasts nicely with the character he was to take on in Welles's The Third Man (1949).

When he's found out, Hitchcock even gives Cotten a speech to match Welles's famous outburst atop the ferris wheel in Vienna. 'The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows,' Charlie tells his niece, 'husbands dead, husbands who've spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. And then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women?

'You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewellery but of nothing else, horrible, faded, fat, greedy women... Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?'

There's a great piece of mathematical business in Shadow of a Doubt ('1888! Fifty-three years ago') that places the action on the eve of the USA's entry into World War II and it's initially tempting to suspect Uncle Charlie may be a Nazi spy; he's unwilling to have his picture taken, mysterious about the source of his money - and his sister, the sweet-as-apple-pie matriarch, seems too good to be true. Even her efforts to place Charlie in their family history seem suspicious.

Made just two years after Saboteur, which makes the link to Nazi spies explicit, it's easy to imagine these siblings as German sleepers, only that the sister's gone native and settled into her hometown life. It's masterfully done - full, as the title would lead you to believe, of brilliantly shot shadows, notably on the landing outside young Charlie's bedroom, where much of the action takes place.

Six years later Max Ophüls visited small-town America for The Reckless Moment. This is a less-innocent world - closer to the big city - where reputation is all. This time the mother (Joan Bennett) does try and protect her child, by covering up the death of her daughter's no-good boyfriend. There are lots of stairways again.

In both films, it's left to the women to get the better of their tormentors - the threats to their family lives. Hitchcock thought Shadow of a Doubt the best of his American movies, and who am I to disagree?

Monday, 11 June 2012

Hidden London: Do you need the service?

I love these old petrol stations (this one, above, is in East Sheen). One of the best used to be on Store Street, WC1; the Bloomsbury service station was a lovely, idiosyncratic sight that had stood in the centre of London since 1926. Subject to redevelopment, the bland new structure alludes to its more illustrious predecessor. I quite like the nearby mural but suspect it isn't made of real tiles.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012


In his introduction to Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, Robert Chandler makes the point that individual chapters in the book read like short stories (specifically Chekhov). They are beautiful vignettes, often ending on triumphant sentences, such as: 'The Gestapo limousine sped down the autumn autobahn.'

It's a line Laurent Binet could be said to riff on in HHhH - much as the book's cover draws on Gerhard Richter's portraiture - when he dreams of writing the phrase: 'A black Mercedes slid along the road like a snake.' Mercedes cars recur in the young French writer's book about World War II's Operation Anthropoid and its target, Reinhard Heydrich, known as the Hangman, the Butcher of Prague or - by his own men - the Blond Beast.

I'd be loath to drag Geoff Dyer into yet another post if such work as The Missing of the Somme weren't an obvious touchstone for this 'personal' portrait. Dyer's non-fiction is the writing of the book he would have written if he hadn't written about writing that book instead. Or, as he puts it in Out of Sheer Rage, his book about writing a book about DH Lawrence: 'There are people who like to complete all the reading, all the research, and then, when they have attained complete mastery of the material, then and only then do they sit down and write it up. Not me. Once I know enough about a subject to begin writing about it I lose interest in it immediately.'

There are episodes that preempt Binet: Dyer finds he can't work without his copy of Lawrence's Complete Poems, 'crammed with notes and annotations', which he has left in Paris. Having regained it thanks to a friend, Dyer then leaves the 'talismanic' book in Rome. Unable to work in Greece he could blame his 'inability to get started on having left my copy of The Complete Poems in Rome', except: 'At the last possible moment, with the taxi rumbling downstairs, I had dashed back up, retrieved my copy...'

Binet recounts how he regrets not having snapped up, for 250 euros, a book called Leben mit einem Kriegsverbrecher (Living with a War Criminal) written by Heydrich's wife, Lina, after the war : 'I've reached the point in the story where I have to recount Heydrich's first meeting with his wife. Here more than for any other section, that extremely rare and costly tome would undoubtedly have been a great help.' Later he tells us, parenthetically, however: 'I admit it, I ended up buying the book.'

'Actually I don't know...'; 'I've been talking rubbish...' HHhH is strewn with such caveats. 'I said before that one of the characters in Chaplin's Great Dictator was based on Heydrich, but it's not true.'

Nevertheless Binet and Dyer are meticulous in their research, even if the former seems to garner much of his inspiration from films, notably Hitler's Madman (directed by Douglas Sirk and starring John Carradine) and Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die! (1943). There's more recent fare, too, including Conspiracy ('only five euros [on DVD] - postage and handling included'), DownfallThe Pianist, The CounterfeitersBlack Book and Eric Rohmer's Triple Agent - 'Heydrich in a Rohmer film! I still can't get over it.'

Binet's girlfriend, Natacha, teases that he may be turning into a fascist, as if he were the obsessive narrator at the centre of Roberto Bolano's war-gaming novel The Third Reich. Binet wields his real-life characters deftly but if I have one quibble about HHhH, it's in the editing: at times the construction means the reader is missing certain important facts, while at others the detail is repetitive.