Blog-a-thon Entry #4:
Alfred Hitchcock Potpurri

The Hitchcock/Truffaut Tapes #12

Who would have guessed that another Blog-a-thon would be upon us so soon? Not I, for one. But thanks to the prodigious efforts of Squish over at The Film Vituperatem we here at If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger . . . find ourselves once again unable to resist the essentially communal spirit of the hour. And what better (or easier) entry could there be for a Blog-a-thon devoted to Sir Alfred Hitchcock than a whole mess of images, a Musical Indulgence and . . . you guessed it . . . Part Twelve of The Hitchcock/Truffaut Tapes; entailing discussions of two films from 1942, Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt.

Saboteur is a film that only those who go in for Alfred Hitchcock's by-then patented suspense mechanisms could think a major work. Clearly Hitchcock himself has little regard for the film, spending, as he does, most of his retrospective analysis on its failings; as if in this discussion, some two decades later, he were still trying to figure out what went wrong.

To use the term 'discussion' to describe what transpires in relation to Shadow of a Doubt is, however, stretching the term a bit, since Hitchcock really doesn't get to say very much.

If you've been following this series, then I don't have to tell you who does most of the talking, do I.

It is, of course, not the first instance where François Truffaut spends an inordinate amount of time explaining to Hitchcock his own movie (it's not the last, either). By now, the Master of Suspense probably realized this was going to be a regular feature these talks, something one sits through and endures as best as one can. Short of calling in Security gorillas to bounce the team of François and Helen off the Universal lot . . . then working them over with beaver-tail saps before dumping them in Griffith Park . . . there wasn't a whole lot he could do but wait for the next question to arrive (I imagine he spent these lulls actively fantasizing about how he'd change the menu at Chasen's if only they'd let him). As I say, this is not by now an unusual occurrence in these recordings, but it's an especially annoying one this time because Shadow of a Doubt may be the finest film Alfred Hitchcock directed in the 1940s.

Ostensibly the story of a young girl who slowly comes to discover that her elegant, charming, and most favored uncle is what we now call a serial killer, Shadow of a Doubt is at once a droll portrait of wholly American innocence and a night-filled document of its sundering. It has to be remembered that, despite the best efforts of novelists such as Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson, our popular culture had not yet even begun to exhaust the theme of foul, unutterable doings just beyond the facade of small-town American life. Indeed, Hitchcock's is really the first film to take up the theme full-on. And while there have been those who will argue that Thornton Wilder's presence as co-scenarist played more than a subordinate role in creating the film's sense of social dread . . . after all, Wilder was not that many years removed from his bleak stage masterpiece Our Town . . . it doesn't fully account for Hitchcock's absolute engagement with it. His shepherding of this fundamentally dark tale evinced, in a way no film of his had before, an intense focus not just on the mechanics of telling its story, but on bringing what light his art could bear to all of its larger implications.

The key question, of course, is exactly what it was that so inspired Alfred Hitchcock on this occasion; why this project and not, say, Foreign Correspondent? While avoiding an outright spoiler, I can safely say you will not learn the answer to that question here. François Truffaut, unfortunately, seems to have little interest in it. I daresay he thought he already knew everything he needed to know.


Robert Keser said...

What’s always struck me about SABOTEUR is that Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane are such patently dull characters that once the villain falls to his doom, Hitchcock wastes no time and ends the film abruptly, with the ostensible heroine and hero barely exchanging a look but not so much as a single covering line, not even “Thank goodness you’re safe!”

Robert Keser said...
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LABobsterofAnaheim said...

Enjoyed that -- it's been years since I've read the Truffuat/Hitchcock book, but there was a time when my copy it was well thumbed as an evangelist's Bible.

I've only seen "Saboteur" once -- and, yeah, despite being cowritten by Dorothy Parker, the most interesting thing about is how it always gets mixed with "Sabotage", which was based on Conrad's "The Secret Agent" while Hitchcock's wonderful and underrated, "Secret Agent" was actually based on a play drawn from some stories by Somerset Maughm, which, I guess, isn't really all that interesting.

I love/fear the idea of Hitch controlling the menu at Chasen's. Maybe he could have have alternated with Orson Welles, who would take control of the menus the days he wasn't ordering thirteen Pink's chili dogs.

Vanwall said...

"Saboteur" is one of those films I wish had been re-made right away with different leads - the supporting cast was so much better then Cummings and Lane; the story was sturdy and the writing was solid - I can't say I ever confused it with "Sabotage", or "Secret Agent" tho, but I think they should've gotten their names straight so my brain wouldn't hurt so much. As an aside, I liked "Ashenden", the Maugham series, but like "Riddle of the Sands", the other seminal spy novel, neither gets real treatment for almost 70 years from their genesis, I think because they were fairly true to the dull routine of espionage.

As for "Shadow Of a Doubt", it's always been a favorite of mine - a splendid actor's movie, with wonderful writing and subtle performances, and an element of black comedy Hitch later mined with the sublime "The Trouble With Harry". Besides, I love movies that show small town life with a twist - if you look hard enough, or under a rug or two, there's always something festering there.


HarryTuttle said...

These tapes are an amazing legacy for film criticism. It's amazing to listen to a great filmmaker and a great critic chat together, longly and insightfuly. :)
We don't get this stuff anymore, do we? I wonder what Truffaut could write without films made by intelligent and aware filmmakers like Hitchcock. And conversly, does Hitchcock's genius exist without a good critic to notice it?

It's so frustrating though that Truffaut didn't follow up on Hitchcock's lead into sexual fetish (cuffs), and his fantasy inspiration (unable to share with american writers), it's a missed opportunity. Like you say, Truffaut already knows what he wants to hear and what he rather not know...
Very instructive nonetheless.

Noel Vera said...

Hi, Tom, just wanted to stop by long enough to say thanks for linking my blog, and that I've linked mine to yours.

Shadow's one of Hitchock's best, definitely, partly because it seems to go by so effortlessly, yet the impact is so indelible. That said, I can't say it's my favorite; maybe what's missing from this film (tho it has so much more otherwise) is the kind of sexual sizzle you find in 39 Steps, Notorious, To Catch a Thief, North By Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, and even Psycho.

I suppose Uncle Charlie could have made a pass--but it would be wrong in so many ways, I'd say, and throw the whole thing off its delicate balance.

It's a private opinion, of course, I don't know if I can defend it, but there it is.

Anonymous said...

Hey, excellent article! Loved this movie.

P.S. I'm linking you. ;)

swac said...

Thanks Emma!

Commercials I Hate said...

These have been wonderful, thank you.
Are there more?

Lucía said...

Como diría Truffaut: "en américa lo llaman Hitch, acá lo llamamos señor Hitchcock" Parece que las cosas no cambian...