Charlie Newton: Hitchcock’s Female pièce de résistance

On a Hitchcock roll here.

His 1943 Shadow of a Doubt was a psychological cocktail that I indulged in this weekend. I have watched  a handful  of movies from the 1940s, and not many of them showcase a particularly strong female. The leading ladies are abuzz with character (quite possibly just hysterics) in most cases, but tend toward the demure and genteel when push comes to shove.

Not so for Teresa Wright’s character of Charlotte “Charlie” Newton. The movie opens with a zoom-in of a window of a room in the neighbourhood of a town. A man is being chased by a pair of men. The scene cuts to a young girl on a bed, philosophizing about life and the sheer lack-lustre-ness of it all. This is  young Charlie who is named after her maternal Uncle, Charles “Charlie” Oakley. Charles Oakley is the man on the run, but from what? He sends a telegram to his sister saying he is coming for a visit. His sister, ever the naive and doting-on-all-she-loves woman, is thrilled to be reconnected with her brother.

Charles arrives and Charlie’s mood is lifted. Only briefly. She soon catches whiff of something sinister cooking within her uncle. As characters thither about in their roles of sister and husband and friend and detective, Charlie is paying the keenest of attention to her uncle and his odd behaviour. There is a murderer of widows on the run in her country. Is he her uncle?

This Film Noir is marked by moments of psychological twisting as Charlie is first painted as a potential love interest of Charles Oakley’s. The subliminal acts of holding her close and slipping a ring (which is a gift) on her finger border on the verge of incest. However, just when you become uncomfortable with the notion of an uncle being interested in his niece and vice-versa, a love interest for Charlie is introduced, and Charlie herself steps up her game.

She goes from doting niece to shrewd sleuth. She battles numerous dangerous situations and comes out alive. She is portrayed as protector of her mother and family, fiercely determined to venture into uncertainty just so she can uncover the truth. She threatens her uncle with death, and is quite adept at handling herself with grace and coy around men interested in her wit and charm and beauty. Charlie Newton is easily one of Hitchcock’s best leading characters. She has spunk, determination, smarts and grace. And all this packed into a classy slim-waisted dress on heels. It is important also to note the symbolism behind Charlie’s name. She is given the nickname of a boy, but she posses all the wherewithal of a respectable woman. She is portrayed as a character with many angles, all quite fascinating. Further, she is named after her uncle, but she is presented as an alternate “good” version of his character. All this, not bad for an early 1940s leading lady. Hitchcock has proven yet again that he was a master at making a movie that comprises varying levels of psychologically-acute layers, while injecting social issues of the times.

Teresa Wright, for her part, juxtaposes quite well her expressions of fear with grit and ability. Her character walks right into traps in the name of respect and obligation, but walks right back out when she is confronted with someone wanting to take advantage of her perceived vulnerability.

This movie utilizes dark and light to balance quite nicely the themes of crime committed by a man whose heart is ashen with his diabolical thoughts, and a young lady on the brink of womanhood who is bursting with life and wisdom and adventure.

Hats off Hitchcock, this one was spectacular.

 

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