A bright young woman named Charlie walks into her bedroom, which is occupied by her suave visiting uncle, also named Charlie. She teasingly tells him that she knows his secret, then pulls out a piece of newspaper that Uncle Charlie had hidden away. In a quick, frightening rage, Uncle Charlie grabs his niece’s arm, and changes her perception of him. This is Shadow Of A Doubt, same as it ever was, except that this Shadow Of A Doubt is in color instead of black and white, and set in 1953 instead of 1943, and it was originally broadcast on CBS instead of released theatrically. And this Uncle Charlie isn’t played by Joseph Cotten. He’s Mark Harmon.
What is Shadow Of A Doubt, exactly? Is it an Alfred Hitchcock film, unrepeatable by anyone other than Hitchcock himself? Or is it a Gordon McDonell story, open to reinterpretation? Because watching the 1991 TV-movie version of Shadow Of A Doubt, it’s clear that something isn’t right.
The 1991 Shadow Of A Doubt teleplay is credited to John Gay, though the opening credits also cite the original film’s script, by Sally Benson, Alma Reville (Hitchcock’s wife), and Thornton Wilder (of Our Town fame). And Gay doesn’t deviate much from that original script, which was adapted from McDonell’s story. The plot still follows Young Charlie’s loss of innocence as she learns that her Uncle Charlie is a serial killer, with designs on bumping her off because she knows too much about his latest crime. Several scenes in the TV version even repeat lines and action verbatim from Hitchcock’s version; outside of the shift in time, nothing significant has been changed.
And yet the insignificant things matter, more than expected. For example take a closer look at the first disagreement between the two Charlies, in the two versions:
The essential details of the scene are the same. Some dialogue has been shifted around and rephrased, but the moment serves the story as it’s meant to. It’s the first time Young Charlie (played by Margaret Welsh in the 1991 Shadow) sees that her uncle isn’t just a little eccentric; he’s an unstable individual with a dark, violent side. But the pacing in the 1991 version is quicker, and the performances flatter, which dulls some of the impact of Uncle Charlie’s burst of rage. And while Mark Harmon lunges toward the camera to snatch the paper just as Joseph Cotten did in 1943, he doesn’t have as much ground to cover, which makes the image itself less striking.
Here are two more scenes from 1991 that get the fundamentals of the 1943 Shadow right, but not the art: In the first, Young Charlie tells her dad that their family is in a hopeless rut, and in the second, Uncle Charlie makes a bank deposit, while hissing that money, like the whole world, is “a joke to me.”
The changes are more obvious in the first scene. Where Hitchcock had Young Charlie lying flat on her bed, talking to the ceiling while very close to the front of the frame, director Karen Arthur has the 1991 Charlie on the porch, looking out into the distance, more in the back of the frame. Again, as with Uncle Charlie’s lunge, it’s a less memorable composition, and with the saccharine soundtrack behind her, Young Charlie comes across as more earnest and genuine than the 1943 Charlie, whose melancholy is more hyperbolic.
But the second scene is the real botch in the 1991 version, even though the dialogue is close to being exactly the same. The biggest change (besides the undeniable drop in screen presence between Cotten and Harmon) is that in 1943, Uncle Charlie gives his speech about banks to his brother-in-law, loudly, in earshot of other customers and employees; in 1991, he says it directly to the bank’s manager. Throughout Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt, the director keeps indicating that Uncle Charlie sometimes makes the upstanding citizens of Santa Rosa, California a little uncomfortable with his nonconformity: his drinking, his lurid anecdotes, and his mockery of institutions. That greater sense of Charlie’s disruptive presence within the community is largely missing in the 1991 version.
Many of these tweaks are just a matter of Gay and Arthur choosing the elements of the original that are more important to them personally, while trying to fit the story into about 10 minutes less screen-time than Hitchcock and company had. As a result, Young Charlie’s colorful siblings barely register in the 1991 Shadow, and there’s much less of Charlie’s dad’s weirdo best friend who spends all his time studying murder. The librarian who chastises Young Charlie for showing up after closing time is an older black lady instead of an older white lady, and the bar that Uncle Charlie drags his niece into for an impromptu conversation isn’t presented as a disreputable dive. There’s a little more action in the 1991 version, too, most notably in the final tussle between the two Charlies on the train, which is extended by about a minute—an eternity in a fight scene.
Cumulatively, these small creative choices drain the genius out of a masterpiece. Consider three more scenes: the first where Uncle Charlie settles into his niece’s room; the second where the detective arrives, posing as a pollster; and the third where Uncle Charlie tells Detective Gary that he’s lucky to be with such a lovely girl.
The settling-in scene in 1991 fumbles the dramatic and ironic shift in mood from the 1943 version, where ominous music gives way to light after Uncle Charlie sees a couple of potential victims out on the street. The newer survey scene is missing the subtle paternalism of the detective, and the way he’s taken aback by Young Charlie’s willfulness. And that third scene? How in the heck could Arthur cut away from the shot of Uncle Charlie grabbing his niece’s face and squeezing it? That’s one of the most jarring moments in the entirety of the original Shadow Of A Doubt, and in the 1991 version, it exists mostly offscreen.
The TV Shadow Of A Doubt was first broadcast on April 28, 1991, wrapping up that “season” of CBS’ Hallmark Hall Of Fame movies. The movie that preceded it in February was Sarah, Plain And Tall, which was up for multiple Emmys and Golden Globes, and did well enough to spawn sequels and repeat airings. Shadow Of A Doubt, on the other hand, didn’t cause a sensation. It was an odd project for the Hallmark series—perhaps an effort to keep up with the changing tone of television in an era when Twin Peaks, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and Northern Exposure were starting to set a new pace.
Arthur isn’t a bad director. She was the first woman to win an Emmy for directing a drama series, for Cagney & Lacey. And there are nicely conceived moments in her Shadow Of A Doubt, such as when Detective Gary comes clean about who he is to Young Charlie while a blurry Ferris wheel spins in the background, and when Uncle Charlie pleads for understanding while standing in a rainstorm, and when the family attends a party, and Arthur pushes her camera through the giddy dancers and finds the sullen Charlies.
But even when Arthur and Gay copy Hitchcock more directly, it doesn’t connect as it should. The 1991 Shadow almost has no choice but to port over two of the original’s most famous scenes—Uncle Charlie’s “silly wives” speech, and Young Charlie forcing her uncle to leave town by openly wearing the ring of one of his victims—but again, small choices have a big, deleterious effect. In the scene with the ring, for example, there’s none of the sideways glances or silent disapproval toward Uncle Charlie’s decadent, champagne-swilling extravagances, as there is among some of the attendees of the 1943 reception. As for the speech, Harmon delivers it gamely, but it’s Exhibit A in the case of how his interpretation of Uncle Charlie deviates disastrously from Cotten’s. Harmon plays Charlie as more obviously crazy, and half-aware of his own sickness. What makes Cotten’s Uncle Charlie so effective is that he’s persuasively amiable and self-assured in a way that Harmon’s never is.
If anyone wants a one-minute illustration of what good direction adds to a motion picture, watch the way Hitchcock stages the “silly wives” speech vs. the way Arthur does it. Hitchcock pushes in slowly on Cotten’s face, seen in profile, as though Uncle Charlie is addressing no one in particular—or perhaps as though he’s showing his “bad side.” Uncle Charlie’s low, monotone rant is broken up by Young Charlie, heard offscreen, at which point the uncle turns, looking disdainfully at her and the camera. It’s absolutely riveting. Arthur, meanwhile moves the camera slowly around Harmon, from his right side to his sinister side, while Harmon chews on his dinner throughout the speech, somewhat distractingly. It’s… weird.
This isn’t Harmon’s fault. He’s a decent actor, but this isn’t his kind of role. And it isn’t Arthur’s fault. She brings some life to the material through her staging, sometimes in imaginative ways. It’s not even Gay’s fault—he mostly just cut-and-pastes the original script—or The Hallmark Hall Of Fame’s fault, since the imprint was trying to bring new eyes to an American classic.
No, the problem is that nearly 50 years earlier, a director took a terrifically nasty little story, and with his team of screenwriters and his cast and crew, transformed it into a perfectly well-observed study of American society, in all its prudery, prurience, misogyny, and misguided nostalgia. If anyone’s to blame, it’s Hitchcock.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion concludes here. Don't miss Monday's keynote on Shadow Of A Doubt's creeping malevolence, and Tuesday's staff Forum on the film's style, alienation, and more. Next week, we'll be taking a break for the Labor Day holiday. Movie Of The Week will resume on Monday, September 9 with Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration, a lacerating and darkly funny drama about family secrets.