Joseph Cotten was one of America’s finest actors and great treasures, appearing in a variety of important films well regarded today, and yet he is so rarely mentioned in conversations about his craft. It’s always been my feeling that Joseph Cotten was a better actor than Orson Welles, his friend with whom he so frequently collaborated. Welles was clever enough to play a larger than life character and egotist in his first part, something he could manage well. There is a smirk trying to get out from under most of his performances, or else much too much effort. Joe, on the other hand, played things a little smaller and more subtle.
This afternoon I watched once again Shadow of a Doubt, the Hitchcock picture from 1943. The picture is sometimes said to be Hitchcock’s favourite, though Alfred himself denied this it when was raised by Truffaut. Shadow of a Doubt was only the fourth feature film Joseph Cotten ever made, and when your first two are Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, that’s quite an impressive opening.
Shadow of a Doubt, from a story by playwright Thornton Wilder, is not a thriller in the same sense as some other Hitchcock films and it’s certainly not a mystery, although the title might invoke that. Hitchcock once spoke about how he didn’t like mysteries, especially the whodunit variety. In Shadow of a Doubt, there is almost no question of whodunit, the audience knows from the beginning and the main character played by Teresa Wright finds out for sure about halfway through the movie. The entertainment comes from the drama of the situation, the tension of the family scenes and the ambiguity of Joseph Cotten’s character, Charles. We know he’s a murderer, but will he murder his own niece?
The Uncle Charlie character plays off one of Cotten’s natural strengths, his likeability. He is charming, and it’s not hard to imagine how he might be a favourite uncle or a big hit in a small town like the one in the movie. Cotten can play this kind of role in his sleep. The interesting thing is how he handles the other elements, the murderous nature of Charles Oakley, and wraps it up in the same man. For a film which can at times be quite obvious and unsubtle, Cotten’s performance is relatively restrained.
It must be tempting to make the murderous side a Jekyll and Hyde style transformation, to get the most ‘acting’ out of it. You can imagine someone bulging their eyes or the like in order to show when he is in a sinister, threatening mode. Cotten, however, doesn’t play it so broadly. He knows the truth about the character, the murderer is not another side to Charlie, it is the whole side, the real man. The likeable affable Uncle Charlie is him exaggerating his qualities to cover for himself, and sometimes it slips. But Uncle Charlie and the Merry Widow Murderer are not so different. He simply cheers up and bites his tongue, though he slips up occasionally in the film for the pleasure of the audience.
To be the Merry Widow Murderer, Cotten usually just lets the light drain out of his eyes. When Charlie is being friendly and blending in, he speaks in a lively casual American patter, dropping his g’s from the ends of words, but really Charlie is quite precise and disturbingly eloquent, fully pronouncing all his words. The differences are small, but the effect of the charade is felt. Charlie is living a double life, but he is not whatsoever a schizophrenic.
We seem to know so much about murderers these days that we can judge the reality of Cotten’s character ourselves now. His strange and sometimes self-destructive confidence rings true, as do his passive aggressive or bi-polar impulses. One minute he’s incredibly suspicious, the next remarkably arrogant. Cotten’s face plays arrogant particularly well, a side effect of what makes him so adept to play the big shot. The script sometimes calls for him to make outbursts or for his talk to take dark turns that one would think would give him away, but Cotten makes them interesting enough to listen too that we don’t mind how stupid his sister must be not to catch on. I’m particularly fond of the moment, Cotten and Hitchcock combined, where he finishes a damning speech in profile, then turns to the camera for the final line. His niece protests that fat, old women are people too. “Are they?” he asks, looking right down the lens with dead eyes.
Before the outbursts, Cotten telegraphs his discomfort with the topic, busying his hands tearing up the toast he is meant to be eating, or giving his shoes a fierce polishing. On the other hand, when Charlie hears something he likes, Cotten registers it also, but without the need of a close up to hammer it home. He twitches at the mention of a woman’ club, and watch his face as he hears the woman who has just arrived in the bank is a widow.
Shadow of a Doubt is a film I enjoy for a number of reasons, but Joseph Cotten is a large part of it, as he was of any film he featured in. In the span of three years, this man appeared in Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Shadow of a Doubt, Journey into Fear and Gaslight, yet the fact that he does not muster much modern attention, nor indeed exceptional kudos in his day, is absolutely shameful.