1. As mentioned in the curator's note, this scene operates as a prelude to the main story. What do learn about the character of Uncle Charlie in this prelude? Be specific.
In Shadow of a Doubt, we never completely find out the whole story with Charles “Uncle Charlie” Spencer. He remains a mysterious figure all throughout the film. However, there are hints that there is definitely something off about him.
In fact, when Charlie’s landlady, Mrs. Martin, comes to warn him about “2 men asking for [him],” the entire exchange between these two seem off.
1. Charles is very cool and nonchalant with this knowledge, indicating that he was expecting these men to call on him.
2. Charles doesn’t divulge information to reassure Mrs. Martin or the audience that there is nothing wrong. In fact, Mrs. Martin is the one who shares all the details with him. Even though, in a regular situation, it would have to be the other way around.
3. Charles has a lot of money casually lying around, which Mrs. Martin picks up for him. And he doesn’t seem the least but mindful or protective of his wealth at all. Either, he implicitly trusts Mrs. Martin or simply doesn’t care for the money much.
4. What little information Charles Spencer does divulge, he’s very cryptic and, even, flippant about: “[The men] aren’t exactly friends of mine. They’ve never seen me. That’s odd, isn’t it?”
5. After Mrs. Martin leaves, Charles goes to window and proclaims “What do you know? You’re bluffing. You’ve nothing on me.” Then, he takes a major risk by strolling out of the house and right past the 2 men in a cavalier fashion, seemingly to invite the men to chase him.
2. In what ways does this opening remind you of watching a film noir? If it doesn't remind you of a film noir, what makes the opening here different from the opening of a noir film like Siodmak's The Killers? (Note: If you haven't seen The Killers, it is fine to answer this question in general terms about your own personal expectations)
As mentioned before, there is nothing indicative of Charles’ as an innocent or sympathetic character. Even the technical details of the film, itself, give his nefarious nature while he, himself, remains tight-lipped.
Film Noir References:
- First shot with the children playing outside reminds me briefly of M.
- Next couple of shots: Cant angles of the boarding house where Uncle Charlie is staying.
- Cant (or Dutch) angles are visual staple of film noir, indicating a distorted worldview.
- When Charles is finally introduced into the film, there is quite a bit of low-key lighting on him.
Probably the most notable difference between The Killers opening and Shadow of a Doubt opening is the attitudes of the two male leads, played by Burt Lancaster and Joseph Cotton respectively.
In complete contrast to Charles Spencer, The Swede, played by Burt Lancaster, is a guilt-ridden tragic figure who is aware of his impending doom. Rather than try to escape, he condemns himself to meet his fate,
What gives that Noir world is the fatalism that it embodies is the overarching hand of fate, which renders even the strongest of men and women absolutely powerless, as established with the Swede’s character, “There’s nothing I can do about it. “ and “There ain’t anything to do.”
In most, if not all, of these movies, audiences are never reassured that the protagonist will meet any kind of refuge or salvation when they die. The most that audiences get might be final thoughts of regret as expressed in The Swede’s final statements, “I’m through with all that running around” and “I did something wrong… Once.” This existentialism is what ultimately gives Film Noir that tragic, haunting quality that tears ripped through the peace and idealism of the American fabric of life for Post-WWII audiences, especially for veterans.
Oddly enough, Joseph Cotten does play a disillusioned veteran in a couple of films after Shadow of a Doubt, including I’ll Be Seeing You (1944) and Niagra (1953).
If Shadow of a Doubt were made even a couple of years later, Cotten’s nefarious portrayal of Uncle Charlie probably wouldn’t have gone well with American audiences.
For so long, the proclaimed enemies of the Americans were foreigners, whether it was the Nazis or the Axis Powers of the Germans and the Japanese. In fact, many of Hitchcock’s early villains are “foreign” or unrelatable in some way, whether it’s foreign agents from Sabotage, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Lady Vanishes, Lifeboat, Notorious or wealthy and/or respected, corrupt official from Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, etc.
Charles is not like any of the above villains. He’s not an outsider that the Oakley family has to get to know or contemplate whether or not to give him their trust. He’s part of that family, even a blood relative. Also unlike the aforementioned villains, as suave as Joseph Cotten is, Charles is still a small-time villain. He doesn’t political or patriotic motivations. This time it’s purely personal and purely evil. He’s operating under his own family’s noses and possibly endangering them in the process.
But even with all that, this was still during the war. At this time, audiences are still reassured that all able-bodied “good” American men were fighting the enemies overseas.
In the aftermath of the war, however, Charles would’ve probably been seen as a representative of the returning GI’s trying to get back into the American routine of life. It would simply be unthinkable for American audiences that after coming from war, that one of their own that they had grown up with and loved, could come back as the enemy threatening to destroy the peace and sanctity of their home.
3. As we move into Hitchcock's Hollywood years, his scores will take on more importance than they did during the British years. Music will play a big role in Shadow of a Doubt. The film's score is by Dimitri Tiomkin, the first of four film scores that the composer will create for Hitchcock. What effect does the Tiomkin score have on the mood, atmosphere, and even the pace of this opening scene?
The music is absolutely chilling! Because Charles Spencer so carefully conceals his nature and motives, as mentioned before, it is the technical aspects of the film which give him away as someone not to be trusted. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score adds to corroboration with the film in exposing Charles.
The music builds up when Charles looks out the window and prepares to head out. Then goes soft once Charles heads out the door in order to build the suspense, as the audience is not sure how Charles will handle his “not friends” outside. However, once he spots them, Charles directly faces them (as well as facing the camera and the audience respectively) and walks right toward them.
Once Charles walks right past them, the music quiets down. But, there is still something very menacing about the banging of the keyboard, which happens once Charles walks past and the men are watching him walk off in the distance and follow him. As if by choosing to follow him, they’ve chosen a very dangerous path to take.