In the early 1940s, Alfred Hitchcock made two movies in with a common theme: appearances can be deceiving. The first one, Saboteur, is preposterous; the second, Shadow of a Doubt, is disturbing.
In Saboteur, Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd) sabotages the aircraft plant where he is working, but the police think Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) did it. And so, Barry has to flee from the police in order to find Fry so he can clear himself. Along the way, he has to kidnap Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane) because she thinks he is the saboteur and would otherwise go to the police.
“You look like a saboteur,” Pat says to Barry accusatively. Inasmuch as Barry is played by Robert Cummings, what are we to make of this remark?
First of all, there is reality. We all know that as a general rule, saboteurs do not have a distinctive look. Now, inasmuch as World War II had just broken out, I suppose that if Barry had been Japanese or German, her remark would have been appropriate. But Barry does not appear to be either German or Japanese. (No, I didn’t forget about the Italians, who were also one of the Axis Powers. But even in World War II, Hollywood always portrayed Italians as good Americans, even if they were gangsters.)
Second, there is type casting. A movie producer might call up central casting and say, “We’re making a spy movie. Do you have anyone who looks like a saboteur? If so, send him over for an interview.” And then they might send over someone like Norman Lloyd. But they would not send over someone that looked like Robert Cummings.
Because neither reality nor typecasting would make anyone say of Robert Cummings that he looks like a saboteur, it is odd that Pat would think that he does. Furthermore, she has a very good reason for thinking he is a saboteur, which has nothing to do with his looks. When she first met him, she saw that he was wearing handcuffs, and she realized that he was the fugitive the police were looking for.
Actually, it is precisely because Barry does not look like a saboteur that he is able to avoid the police. Earlier in the movie, Barry is arrested. After he gets out of the police car, he jumps from the bridge into the river below. The truck driver that had earlier given him a ride recognizes him, and he misdirects the police so that Barry can escape. Now, why would anyone do that? I would have helped the police by pointing out where Barry was hiding. All we can conclude is that the truck driver figured Barry did not look like a criminal, so he helped him escape.
Barry takes shelter in the house of a blind man, Philip Martin. It is here that Pat makes her entrance into the movie, because she is his niece. When she arrives at her uncle’s house shortly after Philip and Barry have become acquainted, she sees the handcuffs that her uncle already knew about on account of his acute hearing. She says he should have turned Barry in to the police. Her uncle accuses her of being cruel. He assures her that Barry is not dangerous. And besides, he argues, a man is innocent until proven guilty. Now, because Philip is blind, he obviously cannot be coming to these incredible conclusions simply on account of Barry’s looks. However, he can hear the sound of Barry’s voice, and by virtue of that kind of appearance, Philip tells Pat that he can see intangible things like innocence.
Pat pretends to go along with what her uncle wants, which is to take Barry to a blacksmith to get the handcuffs off, but she tries to take him to the police instead. That doesn’t work, however, and after some complications, they find themselves in the company of some circus freaks. Some of them want to turn Barry over to the police, who are inspecting the circus trucks, but the deciding vote is the bearded lady who blathers about how fine it is that Pat has stuck with Barry through his difficulties, and therefore they must be good people. This makes about as much sense as when earlier a man and a woman saw Barry kidnap Pat, dragging her into the car against her will, and the woman said, “My, they must be terribly in love.” Apparently, Barry doesn’t look like a rapist or serial killer either.
What these three instances—that of the truck driver, Uncle Philip, and the freaks—have in common is that appearances, in one form or another, make people decide to thwart the police and help the fugitive. Toward the end of the movie, Tobin (Otto Krüger), one of the villains, says of Barry that he is noble, fine, and pure, and that is why he is misjudged by everyone. But save for the police, Barry is not misjudged by others. The point of this remark is to show just how much evil foreigners underestimate Americans. The idea is that Americans, being basically noble, fine, and pure, can readily see the goodness in others, which is why they are willing to help a fugitive from justice escape from the police: they can just tell from Barry’s appearance that he is noble, fine, and pure. Of course, Otto Krüger is of German descent, which is why he was selected to play this part.
If this movie had been intended to alert Americans of the danger of enemy agents in their midst during World War II, it would have cast against type, letting Otto Krüger or Norman Lloyd play Barry, the innocent man, and letting Robert Cummings play Frank Fry, the saboteur, or Tobin, the chief villain. Then the movie would have driven home the point that you cannot tell by a person’s appearances whether he is good or evil. In such a movie, Pat’s remark that Barry looks like a saboteur would make sense, and the truck driver, Uncle Philip, and the circus freaks would be suspicious of Barry instead of trusting. Finally, when the married couple see Barry dragging Pat into the car, they would immediately call the police. Instead, the movie seems intended to assure the wartime audience that they could just rely on appearances, which is a much more comforting notion.
We cannot completely blame Hitchcock for all this, because he thought Robert Cummings was wrong for the role, on account of his “comic face.” And perhaps it was in reaction to the casting of this movie that he decided to make Shadow of a Doubt the next year, in in which appearances, instead of being dependable, turn out to be deceptive. In this movie, Joseph Cotten plays Charlie Oakley, a man that murders rich widows. Needless to say, audiences in 1943 watching a movie about a serial killer would have expected to see someone like Laird Cregar, not Joseph Cotten.
The weakest parts of Shadow of a Doubt are the scenes that involve the detectives. None of the scenes they are in make sense. They want a picture of Oakley so they can show it to witnesses to see if he is the Merry Widow serial killer. All they need to do is bring him in for questioning and take his picture. Failing that, they could have photographed him when he walked right toward them at the beginning of the movie. After he walks past them, they follow him. What for? Do they think that by following him, they will catch him in the act of killing another widow? I could go on, but what would be the point? Suffice it to say that everything involving these detectives is unrealistic. And it is a shame, because with a few changes in the script, they could have been left out entirely.
It is the rest of the movie, the parts where the detectives play no significant role, that the movie really engages us. When it begins, it is clear that Oakley has just killed another widow, after first getting his hands on her money. But it is not the money he cares about. He hates these women, and it gives him great satisfaction to kill them. But now, thoroughly sated from his recent murder, he is weary, listlessly lying in bed, with some of the money carelessly allowed to fall on the floor. He finally decides to visit his sister and sends her a telegram.
Meanwhile, his niece, young Charlie (Teresa Wright), is first seen lying supine in bed in a way that matches her uncle when we first saw him, giving us just a hint of incest. Her fascination with her uncle is a little unsettling in this regard. They both have the same name, and she is convinced that they are alike, that they have a special connection between them. At first, she too is listless, as her uncle was, but she suddenly decides to send him a telegram, inviting him to visit them, right after he has sent her mother a telegram saying that he is coming.
When her uncle arrives, he gives Charlie a ring, which has an engraving on the inside, “T.S. from B.M.” Later, she reads in the paper that the initials of the deceased husband of a recently murdered widow were “B.M.” Both “T.S” and “B.M.” are abbreviations for expressions involving fecal matter, “tough shit” and “bowel movement” respectively, which is a way of suggesting something foul associated with the beautiful emerald ring. The evil hidden underneath beauty is the theme of this movie.
In a similar way, the town where young Charlie lives is one of those warm, wholesome towns, representing the goodness of America, and good-looking Uncle Charlie is the evil hidden within that town. But that is not the most disturbing example of this theme. We find such evil in young Charlie herself. As the movie keeps emphasizing, and as she keeps insisting, she and her Uncle Charlie are very much alike. And that means that she has her dark side too. Because young Charlie is played by Teresa Wright, a wholesome-looking young woman, rather than an actress whom we might see playing a femme fatale in a film noir, the contrast between her innocent appearance and the evil within her is stark.
When she figures out that her uncle is the Merry Widow murderer, she does not turn the ring over to the police and tell them what she knows. Instead, she merely insists that he leave town, so that her mother will not be hurt by the knowledge of what her brother really is. And she does this even when she knows who his next victim will be, a widow he meets in town, who is sitting right there in the living room of her home, and who will be leaving on the same train as her uncle. This would have made her an accomplice to his next and subsequent murders had he simply left town as she wanted.
In another scene, she tells her uncle that she wants to kill him. And so she does. The scene in which she pushes him into the path of the oncoming train can be understood as merely the accidental result of her effort to get away from him, and it would have been an act of self-defense in any event. But what happens matches what she says she wanted to do. Of course, there is no way her dark side is anything like that of her uncle, the main difference being that her uncle had a head injury when he was young, which allowed his dark side to flourish. But the evil in her is there nevertheless. And so, the movie seems to say, in all of us.