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Film Noir Friday: Shadow of a Doubt

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Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright

To some Film Noir is a genre not unlike Westerns and Gangster movies. They all seem to fit into a certain mold. Unlike the two genres mentioned, Film Noir is a little different. It doesn’t fit into a well defined mold. Yes, the majority of Film Noir’s have a detective. Sometimes that detective is the star and sometimes he is after the main male and female characters. Sometimes he is also the bad guy. While Film Noir has a specific set of rules those rules are meant to be broken and it has a style of film making that goes beyond the restraints of a genre.

Film Noir, meaning Black Film in French, is a very American style of film making that many directors of the forties into the fifties have tried. Some live in the genre while some have tried and moved into a different style. Hitchcock tried the genre more than once but Shadow of a Doubt was easily his most successful foray.

Starring Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie and Terese Wright as his niece Charlie, Shadow of a Doubt is Hitchcock’s favorite of all the films he made. It is also my own personal favorite Hitchcock film. Uncle Charlie is a black widower who murdered several older women. Adored by his namesake niece and his older sister, Uncle Charlie comes to his family’s home in Northern California after the cops begin to hone in on him.

Joseph Cotton’s performance as Uncle Charlie is among one of my favorite performances of all time. One reason being the incredible dinner scene. Without giving to much away, young Charlie is beginning to have her doubts about her beloved Uncle after she meets one of the detectives on his trail. Uncle Charlie is beginning to lose his grip as he lets his family get a little too close to the personality behind the facade.

Note: Hume Cronyn’s film debut playing older than his years. Joseph Cotton delivers a performance unlike any performance he gave before. Most well known as the good guy to Orson Welles less likable characters, Cotton went against type in the gamble of his career.

June Star of the Month: Joseph Cotten

Joseph Cotton 1

Born in Petersburg, Virginia in 1905 Joseph Cotten rose to prominence on Broadway starring in The Philadelphia Story and Sabrina Fair. He went on to a successful career in film starring alongside Orson Welles in his films Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Journey into Fear. He had great success as a leading man of the forties starring in Portrait of Jenny, Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Duel in the Sun and The Third Man. 

While studding acting in Washington DC Cotton worked as an advertising agent. It was while working as a critic that he became interested in theater. Cotten began working in Virginia and then in New York City. He made his Broadway debut in 1930.  In 1934 Cotten met Orson Welles at The American School of Air. In 1936 he appeared in Welles production Horse Eats Hat. In 1937 he became a member of Welles Mercury Theater. In 1939 Cotton returned to Broadway in The Philadelphia Story opposite Katherine Hepburn. In 1940 Orson Welles began filming Citizen Kane after the success of War of the Worlds. Joseph starred opposite Welles in the lead role as his best friend. Other Mercury Theater performers including Agnes Moorehead also starred. The film had a slow start due to its inspiration from the life of William Randolph Hearst who did not allow his news paper to run advertisements. In 1942 Citizen Kane won an Academy Award for best screenplay and is now widely considered the best film of all time. 

Joesph Cotton 4

The 1940’s was the most successful decade for Cottens career. He appeared as a serial killer in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt along side Teresa Wright, Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Angela Lansbury. He went on to star alongside Jennifer Jones in four films. The most notable being Duel in the Sun with Gregory Peck and Portrait of Jenny. In 1949 he starred alongside friend Orsen Welles in The Third Man. In the 1950’s his career cooled and he began appearing in TV, including The Joseph Cotten Show. The 1960’s saw Cotten appearing in a number of foreign films. Heavens Gate one of the least successful films of all time would one of his last. He went on to appear in a few guest appearance including on Life Boat. After suffering from throat cancer Cotten retired from acting and spent his time with his wife.

Still from Shadow of a Doubt
Still from Shadow of a Doubt

Chances are you wont find many people in Hollywood that would say something bad about Joseph Cotten.  He was an honest man, more of star than an a character actor but it was his presence on screen that struck a chord with audiences. The directors of three of his films, Citizen Kane, Shadow of a Doubt and The Third Man list these as their favorites and Cotten appears in all of them. It is his performance in Shadow of a Doubt that makes that film as one of my two favorite Hitchcock films. To lovers of Alfred Hitchcock you will know him as Uncle Charlie, a black widower idealized by his sister and niece. Know to film audiences at the time as a nice guy, his portrayal as Uncle Charlie was quite a shock but that is where I discovered him.

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If you have yet to discover Joseph Cotten check out Shadow of a Doubt, The Third Man, and Citizen Kane. Other great films include Duel in the Sun and Portrait of Jenny both opposite Jennifer Jones. His tall stature, wavy blonde hair and baritone voice make him an actor that is hard to miss.