Alfred Hitchcock was such a vigorous and skillful self-promoter that it's sometimes difficult to recall that, before he was the middlebrow world's favorite morbid ironist and the boogeyman of the Reader's Digest set, he was a filmmaker of finesse and subtlety. At some point roughly coincident with his discovery of television (and television's discovery of Hitch as a doughy huckster of naughty boos), he lost that touch. He made other great films, but those perverse late masterpieces are not really notable for their lightness of effect or for their tender rendering of human foibles. They're shock machines, more or less, really good ones, but vehicles (sometimes shoddily constructed, I'm sorry to say - throw things at me if you must but do think of all those shitty, shitty process shots) for TV Hitch's too-facile mastery of tension and release thrills.
SHADOW OF A DOUBT is prime time Alfred Hitchcock. He is every bit the peer of Fritz Lang and John Ford here. Pacing, character, evocation of atmosphere, deployment of symbols; all are kept in perfect balance by Hitchcock (and writer Thornton Wilder). Maybe most surprisingly from the director who famously compared actors (only half jokingly) to cattle, is the extra attention he appears to be giving the performers. Joseph Cotten has proven his mastery again and again on the screen and Teresa Wright has been very good in such films as THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, but they're both so exceptionally good here it's almost supernatural. Truly - because at times you seem to be witnessing an almost telepathic connection between them. It's spooky, and it serves the story perfectly. As good as the script is, and it's a textbook of rhyming movements and mirrored motivations, it's Cotten and Wright (and let's bring Hitchcock out for a bow too) who give SHADOW OF A DOUBT the power of myth.
I would recommend SHADOW OF A DOUBT to you if it were one tenth as good as it is. As it stands - nearly perfect - I class it roughly with breathing and eating on the "must" scale. No one is more passionate about and better able to elaborate on the history and virtues of this amazing film than Dr. Thomas Schatz, who has studied and taught this film for years and would seem to us to be preeminent in the field of SHADOW OF A DOUBT-ology. This Sunday he'll join us at the Ritz to introduce the film and conduct a post film discussion with you, the audience.
The Cinema Club Presents: SHADOW OF A DOUBT - Sunday, August 21, 7pm at the Ritz