Sunday, May 13, 2012

Performance Spotlight: Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt

Note: This is the first post in a series dedicated to For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III, looking at some of my personal favorite performances in Hitchcock films. Performance is something I haven't tackled in great depth on this blog, but I really wanted to try something new. My favorite Hitchcock films have been with me so long that I can't sum them up easily in film reviews or formal essays. As a result, these spotlights are less structured than what I've posted before, but I hope they get across my great love for these roles and for what these actors brought to the Hitchcock canon.

With introductions out of the way, let's start with one of all-time favorites.

Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt

"I guess I don't like to be an average girl in an average family."

Few actresses have been as critically lauded as Teresa Wright was when her career began. Instead of the typical bread crumb trail of bit parts and disappointments leading up to that big break, Wright got her glory right from the beginning. After success on stage as the ingenue in Life with Father, Wright was signed on by Samuel Goldwyn, who immediately saw in her a kind of genuine, youthful appeal. As he put it, when he saw her at her dressing table, "(she) looked for all the world like a little girl experimenting with her mother's cosmetics."

Goldwyn immediately cast her as the lone innocent of The Little Foxes. Set against scene-stealing performances by Bette Davis, Dan Duryea, and Patricia Collinge, Wright not only held her own, she got her first Oscar nomination. Her next two pictures, Mrs. Miniver, and Pride of the Yankees were likewise critical successes that got her back-to-back Oscar nominations (she won for Mrs. Miniver). Three Oscar nominations for her first three films--not even Meryl Streep can say that. It's a record that's never been beaten. And that's not even taking into account her (in my opinion) two best films: William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives and Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt.

What is it about her? The standard truism for acting Oscars is that you win for transformation, you win for outsized flashiness, or you win for past services rendered. Teresa Wright can't lay claim to any of these. She was never flashy and her performances were, to a great extent, variants on the same theme. She played innocents and heroines, loyal sweethearts, devoted wives and daughters. And she remained roughly 18 years old for the entirety of the 1940s. She was, in so many ways, The Girl Next Door. Not in the sunshine-y, MGM style that Judy Garland was, but the kind of girl you could imagine working in hospitals or marrying your best buddy. To that extent, perhaps you can attribute her success to an era that badly needed her.

And yet what I keep coming back to with Wright and the love I have for her is that she never played an Ideal. There's a core of reality to every Teresa Wright performance, a resistance to easy platitudes. Just go back to Best Years of Our Lives and the cool strength in her voice when she tells a traumatized Dana Andrews to go back to sleep. Or the moment when she says, "I'm going to break that marriage up!" That line could so easily have been played for cuteness or girlish petulance--Wright just sounds like a woman who's realized the truth. Even in something like The Little Foxes, cast opposite a bunch of scene-stealers and a very condescending love interest, playing a character who's rather too innocent to be believed, Wright listens, showing us the girl's dawning intelligence.

Teresa Wright was lovely, she was the kind of actress who radiated charm and goodness. But watching her, I don't feel pressured into liking her. I feel like I'm watching a good woman who has to struggle and question and mature. Her goodness is always earned

In Shadow of a Doubt, Teresa Wright's character Charlie is a young woman, living at home, surrounded by a loving, middle-class family, and quite clearly dying inside from boredom. "This family's just gone to pieces," she tells her befuddled father (Henry Travers). When he tries to reassure her by telling her that the bank just gave him a raise, Wright sums up her angst with a sharp, "How can you talk of money when I'm talking about souls?"

In a stroke of inspiration, Charlie remembers her favorite relative, Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten). She seizes on the rather vague idea that a visit from Uncle Charlie will restore the family, shake them up a bit. But, sure as the old Chinese curse, Uncle Charlie's visit gives them a lot more excitement than they bargained for. Because Uncle Charlie is in fact, a serial killer who has come to their small, sleepy town to hide from the law. And when Charlie slowly begins to suspect her uncle's true nature, it will mean the death of her innocence and her love for him. And her literal death as well, if Uncle Charlie decides she must be silenced.

Shadow of a Doubt is one of my favorite Hitchcocks and I had the great experience of introducing one of my friends to it a few years back. She was no stranger to Hitchcock or classic film, but she was quite blunt about what she did and didn't like. After we watched Teresa Wright walk away cheerfully from an uncle who'd just violently twisted her hand, my friend shook her head. "God, she's dumb." But much later, as we watched a scene with Charlie and her little sister Ann (the brilliant Edna May Wonacott) discussing the merits of flower-picking, my friend let out a happy sigh. "I love that whole family," she said. And by the climax of the film, as we watched a now-wised-up Charlie threaten to kill her uncle, my friend turned to me and asked me, "Who is that actress?"

I think the key to Wright's performance is that she plays Charlie for everything except fear. Once she finds out the truth about her uncle, Wright's face and body spell out utter revulsion and anger. As she watches him twist a paper napkin with strong, ruthless fingers, her eyes widen and you can see the slow realization in her mind: this is who this man is, this is the man I loved. And you can see the beginnings of cold hatred. "We thought you were the most wonderful man in the world," she tells him, her shoulders stiff. "The most wonderful and the best." Wright doesn't shrink away; she's almost paralyzed with how much she wants to get away from him. And yet, even though she's clearly afraid for what will happen if he stays, she isn't afraid of him. She's not a victim, she is his adversary. So when Wright tells her uncle to go away or she'll kill him herself, you don't see empty threats. She could really do it.

Wright is at her most chilling in a later moment that takes place after a carbon monoxide "accident." Charlie is unconscious on the lawn and her family is crowded around her. Uncle Charlie tenderly calls her name, rubbing her hands, and leaning over her. Charlie comes to, dazed for a split-second. But then she sees Uncle Charlie and her gaze turns flat as a cobra's. "Go away." It's that pure, reflexive hatred that makes you see just how much Uncle Charlie has poisoned her world.

Critics make a lot of the incestuous subtext in Shadow of a Doubt. The symbolic way Uncle Charlie slides a ring on young Charlie's finger, the moment when he throws his hat onto her bed, and the constant references to the two Charlies being twins, soulmates, inseparable. And of course, the way Charlie moons over him in the beginning. Well, the reading's certainly there for the taking, but I don't think Wright plays it for only that. She plays infatuation, yes, to a degree that would make you uneasy even if you didn't know that Uncle Charlie was a killer. Nobody could possibly live up to such adoration ("Before you came I didn't think I had anything!" she tells him). But Wright shows her infatuation in the beginning as something that blurs boundaries. There's hero worship and affection and flirtation and romance there and maybe a buried hint of desire, but it can't be reduced to the sum of its parts.

Although I have to admit that I will always be disturbed by the moment after Uncle Charlie hurts Charlie's hand. He pats her cheek in an avuncular manner, telling her there are things in the paper that aren't for her innocent eyes to read. And instead of looking confused or angry or even a little insulted, Wright looks back at him in starry-eyed amazement, like they've just shared some wonderful secret. It's pretty much impossible not to think of abusive relationships in that scene.

I think some people fault Shadow of a Doubt because compared to other Hitchcock films, it's not particularly terrifying (Uncle Charlie may be a serial killer but he's also sane, with enough self-preservation to keep him restrained for most of the film). What makes it so compelling for me is the battle of wills between Charlie and her uncle, between two people who are family. She loved him as much as she ever loved anybody and he loved her as much as he was capable of loving anybody. After she discovers the truth, the love between them evaporates but they can't simply separate. They are tied together in an uneasy alliance, both working together to hide their secret from the others and yet always ready to turn on each other, hurt and angry. What could be more familial than that?

This post is part of For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon. If you want to make a donation (proceeds are going towards the restoration of The White Shadow, a formerly lost film that helped kick-start the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock's career), here is the link.


  1. Rachel - This is one of my favorites, too, and I agree that Teresa Wright is the key to making this work. She is the intelligent heart at its core, and her disillusionment and reaction to it shows the healthy transition from child to woman that so many people fail to make. Cotten gets a little too hard a little too fast, in my opinion, and that does kill the suspense a bit. But every time the film comes on cable, I watch. Thanks for participating in such a spectacular way in the blogathon.

  2. Wright's Charlie is such a wonderful subversion of the typical ingenue victim role. One of Hitchcock's best characters, but one that doesn't come up often, probably because of Wright's lack of self-serving flashiness. She underplays to perfection, and really grounds the movie. Excellent post!

  3. A beautiful tribute to an actress I treasure, too. This has always been my favorite Hitchcock, and I think it's because it's not a simple coming-of-age tale, it's about innocent, good-nature youth discovering evil's existence. Right after World War II that must have had even more resonance. I imagine someone else as young Charlie and the movie falls apart in my mind. Every time someone brings up Hitchcock's blondes, I feel compelled to murmur, "They're wonderful, but his best was a brunette..."

  4. I would disagree that 'Shadow of a Doubt' is not a scary film; there is something deeply disturbing about the effect Uncle Charlie has on the entire family, not only his niece, but his sister, too (Charlie's mother). There's a kind of luminous transparency to Theresa Wright's acting; I always recall her reaction in 'Pride of the Yankees' when she discovers her husband is dying - she doesn't look at the camera, she becomes very still, her eyes cast down, and only says, quite softy, "Lou's going to die." It's a moment that contains volumes.

  5. I would disagree that 'Shadow of a Doubt' is not a scary film; there is something deeply disturbing about the effect Uncle Charlie has on the entire family, not only his niece, but his sister, too (Charlie's mother), who seems so helpless under his spell. There's a kind of luminous transparency to Theresa Wright's acting; I always recall her reaction in 'Pride of the Yankees' when she discovers her husband is dying - she doesn't look at the camera, she becomes very still, her eyes cast down, and only says, quite softy, "Lou's going to die." It's a moment that contains volumes.

  6. Marilyn: Thanks so much for stopping by. There's so much I didn't get into with Wright's performance, but I didn't want to ramble forever. I love Cotten too in this film although I think you have a point about the suspense.

    Laura: Agreed. You know one thing I thought of, but didn't bring up, is that Charlie's decision to force her uncle to leave (she must realize on some level that uncaught, this man will kill again) isn't exactly the stuff of noble heroism, is it? But Wright is so determined and strong that I never doubt her character's essential goodness for a moment.

    The Siren: "Every time someone brings up Hitchcock's blondes, I feel compelled to murmur, 'They're wonderful, but his best was a brunette...'". I love Wright in this film so much. Before this, I was toying with the idea of a post dedicated to Hitchcock brunettes since there are plenty of interesting ones (including the underrated Margaret Lockwood). His blondes are amazing yes, but they're only part of the story.

    Grandoldmovies: It is a disturbing film, yes, on many levels. But for me, it doesn't have the jump scares and shocks that so many other Hitchcocks do. But that's not a criticism of the film since I don't think that is what it is after. It's about these relationships and the evil that's been hidden there from the beginning. "Luminous transparency," oh, that's a perfect description of Teresa Wright.

  7. I'm writing about this one, too, so I almost didn't read your post--but we're not competing, after all! And I do like what you say about Wright as an actress and in this film in particular. I hadn't thought about the anger-rather-than-fear angle; that's a revelation (and one that makes Young Charlie resemble Uncle Charlie even more!)......

  8. Teresa Wright was a very gifted young actress. The character of Charlie in someone else's hands may have turned out totally wrong, but she always had the good sense to realize what the writer and director had in mind for whatever role she played. Not many young actresses could have stood toe-to toe with such an acting powerhouse as Joseph Cotton (let alone Bette Davis in The Little Foxes), but she did it quite well.

  9. I love Shadow of A Doubt. I think you've done it justice.

  10. What a terrific post! Shadow of a Doubt is a Hitchcock movie I just recently saw for the first time. So on the one hand it's fresher on my mind, on the other hand it's less than familiar than others (like Rear Window). Anyway, the thing about Wright's performances for me is how unaffected and contemporary she always seems. Compare her in this movie to Patricia Collinge, who she also appeared with in The Little Foxes. Wright is never hammy, never old school. Watching Pride of the Yankees today, you notice the same thing. Wright and Cooper remain compelling but so many of the supporting actors look dated and corny. I think Hitch did very well casting her.

  11. Sing: Looking forward to reading your post. I welcome as many angles on this great film as I can get! Never get tired of it.

    KimWilson: I agree with you. Charlie could have been simpering or weak or bland, but with Wright, she's none of those things.

    Vulnavia: Thanks for the comment. Shadow's easily one of my top five favorite Hitchcocks.

    The Gal Herself: I agree with you that Wright's acting doesn't age. In my mind I compare her, not so much to the supporting cast, to other Hitchcock "ingenues", say Priscilla Lane in Saboteur and Laraine Day in Foreign Correspondent and the gap is pretty obvious.

  12. Terrific review of a great movie. I often wonder whatever happened to Teresa Wright's film career. From Oscar nominations at the start of the 1940s to B movies at the end of the decade. It's a mystery to me. I was lucky enough to meet Teresa when she came to Scotland - lovely lady.

    Vienna's Classic Hollywood