Film studies

Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt – In Conversation with Diane Negra

New from Auteur, Shadow of a Doubt redresses the deficit of sustained critical attention paid to Hitchcock’s 1943 film, the one that he at various times identified as his favourite and his best. In this blog post we spoke to author Diane Negra to discuss the milestone film and her important study.

What drew you to study Shadow of a Doubt and did your perception of the film change as your work progressed?

Shadow of a Doubt is my favourite film and I’ve been fortunate to talk about it with students in lots of different places including the US, Germany, Spain, Poland, and Norway. Inevitably, student responses to it added to my understanding of the film and enriched my appreciation of it. I was in my 20s when I first taught Shadow and I’m now in my 50s and I’ve realized that my primary identification point has shifted from Charlie Newton to her mother Emma Newton. That has probably complicated and altered some of the feminist arguments I make in the book.  

Over time contextual elements around the film and its setting have changed – for example I think we respond differently now to its depiction of a mid-twentieth century California small town (or if you rather a small city with small town features). California was once very regularly the site of particularly positive visions of the American Dream. Now when we think of California, we think about climate change and the socially destructive effects of Big Tech. Some of the locations seen in the film were destroyed in a 1969 earthquake. Partly for these reasons the world the film summons seems more sealed off and inaccessible in various ways including ideologically.

The film was shot in 1942, at the outset of World War II.  Why do you think the wartime context is important for studying Shadow?

Over time, I’ve grown more convinced of the value of seeing Shadow as a kind of war film and make the case for that in the book. Certainly, wartime regulations and restrictions influenced the conditions of its production. But at a larger level I came to see that the way the film probes conventional gender and family roles and the nature of domestic/small-town safety and security vs. the larger world have specific wartime resonances. Charles’ terrifying dinner table speech about the expendability of “merry widows” has long been read in relation to the rhetoric of Nazi Germany. I refer to this and other elements of Shadow in terms of what I call the “intimacy of fascism.” Beyond this, my sense is that the film’s thematics of homefront female resilience, and even Charles’ position as an un-conscripted man traveling across the country in wartime are suggestive. In the case of the latter, I argue that Charles manifests connections to a very charged social category of the time: the “4F,” the man who had been judged unfit for military service.

Shadow’s protagonist is a young woman fighting for survival.  How do you think Hitchcock’s representation of female complexity in the film will be judged by contemporary audiences?

We are certainly more accustomed to agentic, openly heroic female protagonists in contemporary media culture. In the book, I make reference to contemporary multi-media franchises like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight that link the female coming-of-age experience to contending with (eroticized) monsters. Generically they might be understood as worlds away from Shadow but there are some interesting connections. One might also consider Hitchcock’s film in relation to Carol Clover’s delineation of the “Final Girl” in contemporary horror films.

Having said that, one of the reasons why it’s important to teach classical Hollywood films and early cinema is to bring out how multi-dimensional female characterizations often were in these texts. There is still something of a fixed idea that the characters that populated these films were simple and straightforward. The fact that Shadow’s ending is so uncompromising, that there is no mitigation or celebration possible for Charlie Newton, is one sign of just how tough-minded the film is and how prepared it is to see through the implications of what has been revealed without any kind of last-minute falsification. In this sense, the film transacts with its audience in good faith from start to finish.

Is there a particular scene in the film which stands out to you as a favorite?

I love the sequence in which Charlie and Charles go to the bank where Joe works, and I love the sequence where Charlie is tipped off by Ann that she should visit the library (where she will find evidence of Charles’ crimes). Both of these sections of Shadow place Charlie in public space in Santa Rosa in ways that are really rich and resonant. But like many who watch the movie, my favourite scene is the one in the ‘Til Two Bar; it’s vivid and smart and uses dialogue in a sophisticated way to highlight the connectedness between uncle and niece. There is a wonderful dynamism between the foreground and background. And I think there is real emotional complexity in the scene and a sense of rage sourced in Charles’ awareness that he’s lost Charlie’s regard. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula Francis Ford Coppola emphasizes that Mina retains her love for Dracula even despite her fury and horror when she learns of his serial killing. Here that’s an impossibility – Charlie is permanently estranged from her uncle and his role as an ideological anchor in her life is eradicated. Charlie’s first open statement to Charles acknowledging her awareness of his crimes is spoken here where she says: “How could you do such things?  You’re my uncle.  My mother’s brother.” Phrased in this way, her statement helps to fuel our realization that Charles’ serial killing is linked to his family membership as I explore.

How does the film portray American family life and social values?

That is a vast question and it’s really the central question of the book. I use Shadow in part to scrutinize a concept that has gained huge purchase in American life decades after the film was made, that of “family values.” I situate the concept in relation to and as a form of homesickness. It’s my argument that Shadow interrogates exactly those norms of intimacy and kinship that have come to be associated with the term and that the position of the film’s three most important characters, Charles, Charlie and Emma, illustrates how “family values” depends on a selective sense of the past. In regard to the film’s depiction of social values and community, I would particularly look to its rich panoply of secondary characters who inflect the film’s meanings in key ways. My sense is that Hitchcock doesn’t want us to miss the under-the-surface desperation of many of the residents of Santa Rosa, such as the Newtons’ neighbour Herb, the ‘Til Two bar waitress Louise Finch, the widowed Mrs. Potter and perhaps even Charlie’s friend Katherine.

Why do you think the film has received relatively little critical attention in Hitchcock scholarship?

I’ve suggested elsewhere that there are two chief reasons: 1) The film centres on a female teenager rather than the midlife men who tend to feature in Hitchcock’s most celebrated films; and 2) Hitchcock scholarship has in some ways been less influenced by feminist theory than other branches of Film Studies though for me a feminist account of the film is necessary and unavoidable. 

I do think it’s worth saying as well that Shadow broaches other important cinematic categories and in the study of those genres, cycles and forms its’s been under-analysed as well; it has tended not to get its due for instance in work on the “woman’s film,” so this deficit isn’t to be found only in Hitchcock scholarship.

What are you working on next?

At the moment I’m working on an article with two colleagues about zoom fails and what we call “interruption videos” in the pandemic.  I’ve also co-edited a book that will be published next month by Routledge entitled Imagining “We” in the Age of “I:” Romance and Social Bonding in Contemporary Culture.  And Yvonne Tasker are I just starting to do some work on a project we’re calling Interregnum: Hollywood Cinema Between the Global Financial Crash and COVID-19.

For more information on Shadow of a Doubt, visit our website.

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