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American Cinematographer (1993) - Hitchcock's Mastery is Beyond Doubt in Shadow




Alfred Hitchcock, the rotund English‑American director justly dubbed "the master of suspense," freely admitted that he was less interested in story than in technique. In many of his most revered works he deliberately threw logic to the winds rather than let it get in the way of an exciting movie.

There is one notable exception, a picture so carefully woven and intricately textured that it seems the very stuff of life, in addition to being a work of great imagination and artistry. This masterpiece is Shadow of a Doubt, a picture which plays as perfectly today as when it first appeared a half‑century ago.

Opposite page: A 24‑sheet poster promises stylish suspense. This page: Gathered around Teresa Wright, who has almost been asphyxiated by carbon monoxide fumes, are (kneeling) Hume Cronyn, Joseph Gotten and Patricia Collinge, along with (standing) Charles Bates, Henry Travers and Edna Mae Wonacott.

The film's genesis began in 1938, when novelist Gordon McDonell and his wife, Margaret, were vacationing in California's High Sierra. The couple's car broke down, so they went down to the San Joaquin Valley town of Hanford to get it repaired. It was in Hanford that McDonell conceived the idea of a fugitive murderer coming home to visit his family.

"There we were, stuck in that little place, and it was so hot and dry and dusty and small‑town," McDonell wrote in a letter to Hitchcock on June 8, 1942, after the picture premiered. "I told Margaret and she said I must write it as a book... Ever since then Uncle Charlie has always been in our family and we have often spoken of him as though he existed."

The spark that set the filmmaking machine in motion occurred four years after the McDonells' automobile troubles, at the David O. Selznick Studio in Culver City, when Hitchcock told Margaret, then head of the story department, that he was on the prowl for a story. A contractee of the company, he wanted a property that he could make independently of his hovering employer. One night Margaret mentioned to her husband that she had been searching for a Hitchcock story. "What about Uncle Charlie?" Gordon replied.

Over lunch at the Hollywood Brown Derby, Hitchcock and the McDonells discussed the Hanford case, each contributing ideas for the dramatization. Then Hitchcock told Gordon, "You should go home and type those notes out in order and let me have them. We'll do a film about your California family and the uncle with his trail of beautiful corpses."

McDonell delivered a [...

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Information for this article was contributed by Robert Boyle, MacDonald Carey, Joseph Gotten, Sam Gill, Philip Lathrop, ASC, and the Special Collections Department of the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.