Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt is a film I’ve seen many times and have even screened at the library as part of our Great Movies series. While it’s a very familiar film, I’d never seen it with a crowd as large as the one at Noir City.
Once again, Eddie Muller encouraged us to go back in time to experience the film the way its original audiences did. The year is 1943. America has been entrenched in World War II for nearly two years. The quiet town of Santa Rosa could stand in for most American towns of the era, containing a timelessness, but also an innocent facade that covers some underlying nastiness. (Shadow of a Doubt always reminds me of Blue Velvet. What a great double feature that would make!)
When we think of Hitchcock films, we usually think of plot-driven films far more than character studies, but here we get two terrific character studies: the young woman Charlie (Theresa Wright) and her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), whom we know (but she doesn’t) is the Merry Widow killer. According to Muller, the original story was generated by Margaret McDonnell, who pitched it to her husband, who pitched it to Hitchcock. Hitchcock had playwright Thornton Wilder write it, but he had to work fast: Wilder was about to go into military service. From there, three women – Sally Benson, Alma Reville (Hitchcock’s wife), and Joan Harrison – all worked on the script. (Patricia Collinge, who played young Charlie’s mother and Uncle Charlie’s sister, also contributed a scene.) As Muller mentioned more than once at Noir City, “Nothing happens (in a movie) until the writer puts words to paper and many of the films at Noir City were written by women.” I’d give just about anything to know exactly who wrote Uncle Charlie’s famous speech about rich widows, one of the most memorable speeches in any Hitchcock film and one that the Noir City crowd ate up.
As much as I enjoyed Shadow of a Doubt, the real gem of the day – and perhaps of the entire festival – came with Saturday’s second “B” picture, the rarely-seen Address Unknown (1944), directed by William Cameron Menzies. Menzies, according to Muller, had a very eclectic career. He was a great film production designer, an art director, and a guy who could step in and finish films that were in trouble.
Based on Kathrine Taylor’s internationally bestselling epistolary novel, Address Unknown tells the story of two families affected by the rise of the Nazis in Germany just prior to World War II. Good friends Martin Schulz (Paul Lukas) and Max Eisenstein (Morris Carnovsky) are German expatriate art dealers living in America. They’re such good friends that both are excited when Martin’s son Heinrich (Peter van Eyck) and Max’s daughter Griselle (K.T. Stevens) make plans to marry. Yet the men’s friendship suffers when Martin returns to Germany. Their correspondence through letters shows their relationship beginning to deteriorate as Martin slowly embraces Nazism, recognizing he can no longer befriend Max, a Jew.
“I find this film shockingly timely,” said Muller and I must agree. Lukas is tremendous in this small, but exceptional film, shot by Rudolph Maté and championed by Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn. No one who sees this film will forget it. Muller is right: it is unnervingly timely, as you can tell from just one exchange from the film:
“Can that little man do this?”
“Yes. I’m afraid he can.”
Next time: two films that could’ve (should’ve?) been one.
Photos: Noir City, DVD Beaver, SIFF