As the war in Europe raged, Hitchcock remained in the relative safety of his adopted home far from the bombs that rocked his home country. Perhaps feeling a sense of guilt over abandoning his nation to the approaching Germans (or, more likely, swept up in the surge of paranoid fifth-column films that emerged from Hollywood at that moment) Hitch put together a series of fascinating movies dealing with themes of betrayal, paranoia, deceit, and the creeping horror of doubt.
In Suspicion, Hitchcock sculpted a stylish erotic thriller set among the English aristocracy. Joan Fontaine plays Lina McLaidlaw, the shy, withdrawn daughter of a wealthy general. Pursued by a dashing playboy named Johnny Aysgarth, played with reckless charm by a young Cary Grant, Lina falls under his sway (but not without putting up a fight). Ignoring the rumors of his womanizing and gambling, Lina marries Johnny, and they Honeymoon in style before moving into a fashionable, opulent house in the country. But soon, through friends and acquaintances, she finds out the extent of Johnny’s incorrigible and corrosive habit of lying to protect his own pennilessness. Indeed, Johnny is mired in gambling debt, has stolen money from private accounts at work, and appears to be in pursuit of what he imagines will be Lina’s considerable inheritance. As the circumstantial evidence mounts—culminating when the police inform Lina that Johnny’s business partner in a failed endeavor has suddenly turned up dead—Lina begins to suspect (along with the audience) that Johnny might be plotting to kill her. In the 1932 novel on which the film is based, Before the Fact by Frances IIles, Johnny ultimately poisons Lina, who is too pathetically obsessed with him to protest or escape. Naturally, due to Grant’s popularity as a wholesome matinee idol, Selznick ruled out this ending.
Suspicion falls into the early-middle Hitchcock period, along with Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, and Spellbound: glossy, black and white films of the early 1940s that were deliberately, almost painstakingly, sly in their character development. The story usually revolved around a charismatic and attractive leading man (Joseph Cotton, Gregory Peck, Aida Valli, and Cary Grant) who, under a veneer of charm, was perhaps sinister and deadly. The films were popular and à propos to the excitement and uncertainty of the Second World War, where Nazi spies were feared to be lurking around every American street corner and under every British table. Hitchcock, always fascinated by duplicity, reveled in the implications of an anxious era in which things, people, might not be what they seemed. Suspicion, ultimately, is remembered as a showpiece for Cary Grant. The dashing leading man here shows off his considerable skills as an actor, playing against type as a cad and a scoundrel ( and maybe even a murderer to boot!).
Fontaine won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance—it has been said that this enraged Cary Grant so much that he avoided her for the rest of his life. There’s a jolly supporting turn from English character actor Nigel Bruce, who went on to play Watson opposite Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes. But audiences will mainly remember this film for an extraordinary piece of staging: Johnny, the potential killer, carrying an eerily luminous glass of milk up a flight of darkened, winding stairs. Hitchcock, in a rare, idiosyncratic touch, inserted a small light bulb inside the glass to achieve that particular glow.
Saboteur was simultaneously the first Hitchcock suspense film set in America, the first he made after the U.S. had entered WW II, and his first American “wrong man” thriller. Although the film suffers from a somewhat lightweight cast—Hitchcock had to settle for Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane (the most successful of the Lane Sisters) instead of Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur—it is largely redeemed by Hitchcock’s enthusiastic exploration of the American landscape and monuments as well as some memorable action sequences.
The plot resembles that of his other “wrong man” films. Falsely accused of setting fire to an aircraft factory, a man sets off across the country to find the man he believes to have been the real culprit. Along the way he thwarts saboteurs who want to blow up Hoover Dam, encounters a traitorous millionaire who wants America to become a fascist state, and meets up with a group of circus freaks who shelter and befriend him.
Although Hitchcock was under contract with David O. Selznick, because the two had incompatible working styles, he preferred lending his director out to other studios. Making the movie at Universal (a studio to which he would return at the end of his career), Hitchcock would, in a scene lifted directly from fellow British director James Whale’s Frankenstein (made at Universal Studios in 1931), have Robert Cummings’ character find help in the home of a far-seeing blind man, just as the monster would after fleeing Dr. Frankenstein.
Dorothy Parker’s left-wing and anti-business draft of the script was softened in subsequent rewrites, but several barbs against the very rich and the dangers of big business managed to survive. And the film’s most memorable villain (compellingly played by Otto Krueger) is—as in other films like The 39 Steps and North by Northwest (both significant “wrong man” pictures)—a wealthy socialite.
The climax of the film is one of Hitchcock’s most unforgettable, as Cummings pursues the saboteur from his success in blowing up a new battleship (represented by footage of the overturned hull of the French liner Normandie, which after being confiscated from Vichy France caught fire while undergoing conversion to a troop ship) to a showdown at the Statue of Liberty. The film ends in a terrific scene in which the villain tries to escape by blending in with a tour group. Fleeing up the statue’s arm, he falls over the edge of the torch. Although Cummings tries to save him, holding him by the sleeve, both saboteur and his would-be rescuer watch helplessly as the seams of his jacket pop stitch by stitch. His fall from the torch is one of the most indelible images from any Hitchcock film. It would not be the last time in his career that Hitchcock would employ a famous American monument for an exciting ending.
Storyboards from this film were published in Theatre Arts and helped create the myth (and it was to a very great degree a myth) that Hitchcock planned every shot of each picture beforehand, envisioning every angle, containing the entire film in his head. Bill Krohn in his book Hitchcock at Work, has carefully documented many of the changes that Hitchcock made on the sets of during filming, but it was a fable that brought Hitchcock enormous publicity and helped build his celebrity. It was a myth he did everything within his power to promote.
Shadow of a Doubt
If you think it was David Lynch who discovered the inherent evil lurking behind the bland white picket fence malaise of sunny suburbia, you haven’t seen what many consider to be Hitchcock’s first true masterpiece. The storyline is quite simple—bored little Charlotte Newton (a beaming Teresa Wright) thinks that nothing exciting ever happens in her happy little town of Santa Rosa, California. Without missing a beat, it is announced that dashing debonair Uncle Charlie (an astonishing Joseph Cotton) is coming to visit. Before his arrival, however, a couple of undercover policemen show up and warn the young girl that her favorite relative might just be the Merry Widow serial killer. Indeed, during his stay, our heroine does witness some odd behavior on Uncle Charlie’s part.
Thus begins a brilliant cat and mouse composed of mixed motives, cheery innocence, calculated evil, and a mid-act confession that twists everything into a battle between right, wrong, family, and psycho-sexual miscues. Since they share more than just a heritage (Charlotte’s nickname is “Charlie”, after all), Hitchcock explores the darker elements of the relationship, positioning his villain as someone with a wink for his niece but an overall hatred of women—especially those he views as “fatted pigs” worthy of slaughter. Since she is also female, Charlie poses a complicated issue. She is willing to do almost anything to protect her uncle, but when a policeman starts to show interest in her, such flagging loyalties could mean his discovery and capture. As a result, the film focuses on the unspoken dynamic between the main characters, and how a murderer chooses to cover his tracks.
Our Town’s Thornton Wilder came up with the initial story, and he penned the script with help from Sally Benson and Alma Reville. The results are rife with Americana; this is a movie which takes the mythos of the United States and set it on its ear. It’s interesting to note that this was a pre-US intervention effort, with several time cues reflecting events which played out before 7 December, 1941. Though it was released during WWII and made just as the United States was stepping into the fray, it argues for a prescience that Hitchcock had to be aware of. Indeed, prior to the Allied/Axis conflict, communities like Santa Rosa were seen as safe, secure havens for neighbors and friends to share streets, dreams, and memories. But as we would soon see, the ‘50s and ‘60s would pervert the landscape, proving that beneath the serene veneer was a malevolence as black as the smoke belching out of Uncle Charlie’s arriving train.
While he made other significant films prior to its release (including the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Lady Vanishes, and Rebecca), Shadow of a Doubt stands as the moment when Hitchcock truly tapped into his demented, more devious side, deciding to spend the better part of his remaining career exploring same. For him, the story of the two Charlies and their mutual attraction/co-conspiratorial complicity marked a move into the type of material at which he would soon excel. While he was no slouch beforehand, Shadow of a Doubt made Hitchcock a name to remember—and we have ever since.