“SHADOW OF A DOUBT” (1943) Dir: Alfred Hitchcock
“BLUE VELVET” (1986) Dir: David Lynch (I didn't get it)
What I Remember:
Obviously this will deviate from my normal M.O. in that I will be (as we used to say in 7th grade) comparing and contrasting two films with a very similar theme. Most critics will tell you that “Shadow of a Doubt” is one of Hitch’s finest films, and I will wholeheartedly agree with them. Many will also wax poetic on the virtues of “Blue Velvet”, to which I will take exception.
Originally “Blue Velvet” was going to be one of my “I don’t get it” entries. I thought that the film’s acting was either wooden or WAY over the top. The entire film came across as a cartoon of sorts, or a Hardy Boys “The Crack House Mysteries” movie. It seemed that Lynch’s point of the seamy underside of the American Dream was without real value; a kind of American take on all those Victorian dramas about suppressed hormones and buttoned up sexuality. This, to me, is a very worn out subject.
Anyway, what got me interested in the double feature concept was that I already had “Blue Velvet” ready in my DVR, and just before watching, I was distractedly flipping around the channels. I saw “Shadow of a Doubt” was on Encore Mystery Channel, and I watched a bit of it. That was when the idea struck me.
Hitchcock’s take on this subject had much less to do with sexuality, although there is definitely a weird incestuous undercurrent to “Shadow of a Doubt”. His main subjects were always murder and insanity. Sure, sexuality was also an important part, but only when it served the main storyline for motivation was it visited with true detail, as in “Notorious”, “Marnie” and, of course, “Vertigo”. Most of the time he was concerned with the violent side of man’s nature, and what drives us to do the unthinkable.
My recollection is that where “Shadow” succeeded, and where “Blue Velvet” failed, was in the ability to get you to believe the innocence of the good, and the corruption of the evil. Hitchcock gave depth to the characters by letting them have quirks and individuality, while Lynch stayed with his Fairy Tale puppets, complete with painted blue sky backdrops and gingerbread cul de sacs.
“You live in a dream. You're a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you'd find swine?”- Uncle Charlie from “Shadow of a Doubt”.
“I'm seeing something that was always hidden. I'm in the middle of a mystery and it's all secret.” Jeffrey Beaumont from “Blue Velvet”.
SUMMARY OF PLOTS:
“Shadow of a Doubt”: The Newtons are an average American family living in small town California. Their eldest daughter, Charlie (Teresa Wright) has graduated high school, and is bored by her life. She thinks the only way to bring excitement is to ask her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) for whom she was named to come visit from the east. As she is about to send him a cable, she is told by the Western Union person that they just received one from Uncle Charlie saying that he is coming to visit. Charlie takes this as a sign, and thinks that their connection is very special. Yet when her Uncle arrives, it is apparent that things are not normal with him. She subsequently finds out that her beloved Uncle is one of two men being investigated for a series of murders. Charlie is an innocent, but she is also very sharp, and soon sees enough evidence that her faith becomes shaken, and ultimately destroyed.
“Blue Velvet”: Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) has come home to be with his family after his father has had a domestic accident. On his way between the Hospital and his house, he discovers a severed human ear, and takes it to the police. The Detective who he meets quickly tries to get Jeffrey to forget about the case, but he is not dissuaded. The detective’s daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern) steers him in the direction of a local singer named Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini). Sandy and Jeffrey stake out Dorothy’s house, and Jeffrey soon discovers that she is in a web of perversion, drugs and crime. He is soon sucked into this mess himself, and comes into confrontation with the criminally insane Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who is both Dorothy’s lover and tormentor.
I feel that I was pretty much on target in recalling the thematic similarities of these two films. The innocents are thrust into a world of evil, and eventually Good wins. Ah, but there is so much more than that to the two movies. One major divergence (and this could have as much to do with the eras in which they were made) is seen in how our heroes react to the evil they contact. Charlie is repulsed by the new darkness she finds surrounding her Uncle. Jeffrey, on the other hand, is drawn to this evil in a moth/flame relationship. Charlie is looking for excitement, then finds that maybe it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. She loses her innocence, but never gives in to the Evil itself. Jeffrey breaks the law to conduct his investigation, then finds himself so attracted to Dorothy’s perversion that he actually succumbs to it.
Both of our villains are highly charismatic. Uncle Charlie is quite the charmer, and it is no surprise he has been able to romance old ladies into marrying him, so that he can eventually kill them and spend their fortunes. But Cotton does an amazing job of keeping his sickness right near the surface. Hitchcock makes it clear right off the bat upon Uncle Charlie’s arrival in Santa Rosa, by having him feign illness on the train, and yet as soon as he is off, he goes from hunched over to straightened up and spritely.
Dennis Hopper comes from a very different place in his rendering of Frank Booth. His charisma is that of the insane over the weak-minded, not unlike a cult leader. He is thrilling and chilling to be around, and a very dangerous man.
In the end, you feel that Hitchcock is trying to show the seamy side of the serial killer—the sheer desperation of the evildoer on the lam, the petty lies and phony posturing necessitated by his habit. Lynch, while not exactly glamorizing the psychopath, is certainly making him iconic. Uncle Charlie grows progressively more pathetic, while Frank grows progressively more nightmarish.
It’s been said that all great movies have at least three great scenes. I think that is true for both of these films, but the three great scenes in “Blue Velvet” do not add up to a masterpiece. This is simply because the scenes that are not great are sometimes ridiculously laughable, verging on straight out satire. We will get there shortly.
In “Shadow of a Doubt” the three great scenes are remarkable thanks to their restraint.
1) Uncle Charlie realizes for the first time that Charlie is convinced of his guilt and has turned on him. He treats it lightly, and sprints up the stairs. Halfway up, he stops-- the reality of the situation striking him with full force. He turns, and Charlie is standing and watching him from the doorway at the bottom of the stairs, framed perfectly. Now they both know exactly where they stand.
2) The next little brilliant moment comes when Uncle Charlie tries to asphyxiate Charlie in the family garage, and when their neighbor finds her before she expires, Uncle Charlie becomes the caring, doting Uncle trying to save her. You think she is unaware of his complicity, but when she regains consciousness while in his arms, she opens her eyes and says, so only he can hear, “Go away. Go away.”
3) But the finest scene of all is at the family dinner table, when Uncle Charlie begins to describe the women in cities that have useless lives. The scene transforms from a lively discussion to a monologue. As he starts to get more detailed about these women, the camera switches from innocuous group shots to a POV from Charlie’s angle, a profile head shot of Uncle Charlie. It slowly zooms in while his cold, emotionless portrayal of these women as animals gets more and more disdainful. Finally Charlie blurts out, “But they’re alive! They’re human beings!” He turns to look at her (actually the camera), and icily says “Are they?” It is beyond blood curdling. In my opinion it is one of the greatest of Hitchcock moments.
“Blue Velvet”’s three great scenes are remarkable thanks to their complete LACK of restraint.
1) The first time we see Frank, he bursts into Dorothy’s apartment, and while Jeffrey watches from the closet, proceeds to get high on some unnamed oxygen mask supplied inhalant, then brutally attack her and have a rough quickie; almost a rape. Now you know why she is so terrified.
2) On another day, Frank discovers Jeffrey at Dorothy’s apartment, and takes them on a joyride. His stream of profanity is endless, as he verbally abuses Jeffrey and takes hits from his mask. He is now looking even more psychopathic than before.
3) Breaking up the middle of that joyride the crew of Frank, Jeffrey, Dorothy and Frank’s posse end up at Ben’s, to grab a beer. Ben’s looks from the outside like a bar, but inside like a surreal apartment, with fat ladies in cats-eye glasses, and Ben (Dean Stockwell) himself, in full make-up. Frank keeps calling him “suave” repeatedly. Ben proceeds to lip-sync to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams”, using an industrial handheld spotlight as both a microphone and a spot. It is beyond surreal, as Frank grows more and more emotional till he makes Ben stop.
“Blue Velvet” feels like a dream/nightmare from beginning to end. It is era-confused, for one. Representing the ‘50’s are a lot of vintage cars, and bobbysoxer type clothes on the schoolgirls. Conversely, a majority of the hairstyles (that thing that ALWAYS tells you the era) are ‘80’s specific; short sideburns and an earring on Jeffrey, long curly “Flashdance” hair on the girls.
(This is a fact that really makes me laugh; Hair in movies will always be influenced by the time that the film was made. Whether it be a Western, Sci-Fi or Toga movie, for some reason a ‘50’s movie will have ducktails and ponytails, a ‘70’s movie will have mustaches and long hair, 2000’s will have skinheads, Van Dykes and straightened hair on the ladies.)
There is also a lot of continuity errata in Lynch’s movie. Jeffrey gets nicked in the face by a kitchen knife wielded by Dorothy. The next day, there is no sign of a wound, but later that night it mysteriously appears. When in the closet, Jeffrey watches Dorothy strip, taking off her wig in the process. When she comes out of the bathroom in a robe, the wig is back on, even though we saw it get deposited on the couch.
The question remains, is this sloppy filmmaking, or purposefully mixed up so the film feels more like a dream, the absurdity and surrealism compounding the dream-state?
Three bad scenes are hideously bad in “Blue Velvet”.
1) When Dorothy is singing the title track at a nightclub, her performance sounds like you’d find it on “Thorazine’s Greatest Hits”. Her accompanist is also just as terrible, and trust me, this is something I know a LOT about. The audience is under mass hypnosis or something, and I just kept wondering how much the cover charge was.
2) The scene wherein Jeffrey brings the severed ear to the detective is acted so woodenly, and the dialogue is so trite, that it reminds you of Kubrick’s cliché ridden dialogue from the beginning of “The Shining”. In that film, the commonness of the exchanges contrast powerfully with the extraordinariness of the haunted hotel. However in the “Blue Velvet” scene, it is already a bizarre and abnormal circumstance, so the dialogue and acting seem completely out of place.
3) Sandy and Jeffrey are being chased in Jeffrey’s car. They are frightened that it might be Frank and his minions, but then it turns out to be Sandy’s jock boyfriend Mike and his buddies. As Mike is about to beat up Jeffrey, a stark naked Dorothy stumbles out of the yard. Mike first asks Jeffrey insultingly, “Is that your mother?”, then realizes that there are bigger issues then his jealousy, and splits. It’s a ridiculous moment. “I’m gonna kill you for stealing my girl!! Oh, wait a sec, there’s a naked woman on your lawn. Hey, man, this was all a big misunderstanding. Go ahead and sleep with my girl. In fact, go ahead and have a three-way with the weird naked lady. Sorry to have bugged you. Me and my buddies will be leaving now.”
You never find out why Dorothy is naked. Never. Something happened in her apartment, and the dirty cop is dead, her husband who belongs to the ear is dead, Frank is dressed up like an Italian car salesman, and you just scratch your head saying WHAT THE FUCK? The only thing that is truly clear is that good guys drink Heinekin, and bad guys drink Pabst Blue Ribbon.
The only parts of “Shadow” that might feel a bit forced are the scenes between the head Investigator (McDonald Carey) and Charlie, and their budding romance. I feel that Hitchcock needed there to be an attraction between the two so that Charlie would have some motivation to begin to suspect her beloved Uncle. As plot fodder, it works, even if it fails somewhat in romantic terms.
Certainly the pivotal roles and performances in these two films are Uncle Charlie and Frank.
Joseph Cotton’s only turn with Hitchcock (except an episode he did for “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” that was directed by Hitch) gives us a villain to rival Hitchcock’s best. It’s on a level with Robert Walker as Bruno in “Strangers on a Train”, or Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca”. His shuttling between charming, furtive and outright hostile is done so deftly that you can’t predict which Uncle Charlie will emerge from scene to scene. Somehow they are all believable.
Dennis Hopper had revived his career in 1979 with his unforgettable manic photographer in “Apocalypse Now”. What followed was a bunch of very mediocre parts until 1986, when he nailed three amazing roles. Besides Frank Booth, he also played the perverted Feck in “River’s Edge”, an amazing film that will get its moment in this blog. His third tour-de-force in ’86 was in the great sports movie “Hoosiers”, wherein he plays the alcoholic “Shooter” in a very memorable performance.
His manic take on Frank Booth is unlike anything that came before, and is probably the main reason to watch this film. Much of his dialogue is profane, and it all seems improvised. At one point, to apparently cheer himself up, he yells, “I’ll fuck anything that moves!” Not a lot of people could say this line without getting a big laugh, but he is convincingly insane.
As for the other leads, In “Shadow”, Teresa Wright is given the heavy lifting that Hitchcock usually leaves for his male heroes. She does a fine job of maturing as the film goes on, and treading the line between star-struck teen and horrified woman. The only other Hitchcock film I can recall a great female hero without the presence of a strong male character is “Spellbound”, with Ingrid Bergman filling that role. How ironic for this article that her daughter, Isabella Rossellini is so god-awful as Dorothy in “Blue Velvet”. In any case, there is no questioning the virtue of Charlie. She is pure, and her confrontation with Uncle Charlie puts her in a quandary. She doesn’t want to turn him over to the police while he is in town, because it will break her Mother’s heart. Yet her life is in danger once he knows she has evidence of his murderous ways. Miss Wright had a few very meaty roles early in her career, as Lou Gehrig’s wife Eleanor in the magnificent “Pride of the Yankees”, and as Peggy in William Wyler’s masterpiece “The Best Years of Our Lives”. That’s quite a troika, and sadly the rest of her career offered nothing close.
The smaller parts are pretty small in “Shadow”, with Hume Cronyn’s first screen role as the nosy neighbor being notable, and Broadway veteran Patricia Collinge doing a unique take on the dotty mother, unaware of her baby brother’s deviances.
Kyle MacLachlan, who has shown post-Lynch that he is really a gifted comic actor, still turned in two of the most wretched performances to start a career I can imagine. First as Paul Atreides in “Dune”, followed by this film. I was never a fan of “Twin Peaks”, but my understanding is that it was more of the same. That show was very popular, but definitely not my cup of tea. Later we got to see him in “Desperate Housewives”, “Sex and the City” and most recently hilarious as the reggae bass-playing mayor of Portland in “Portlandia”. But yikes! Those first two roles. Like a piece of petrified wood. Even though I believe that was what Lynch wanted to help offset the mania coming from Hopper, it does NOT work.
As for Ms. Rossellini, the less said the better. She is not sexy at all in the film, she is pathetic and unbelievable as the victim who likes being victimized.
The only person allowed to have a normal acting turn in “Blue Velvet” is young Laura Dern, who does a very nice job especially when she shows her angst at seeing the naked Dorothy embrace her Jeffrey. She also handles with grace a difficult monologue about a dream of a cloud of robins descending from the sky.
Wait---that sounds like Hitchcock!
ON SECOND LOOK(S)
Hitchcock called “Shadow of a Doubt” one of his favorite films. It also happens to be one of mine. It treats with true finesse the nightmare that a loved one could be the source of true evil.
“Blue Velvet”, if you deal with it as a two hour dream/nightmare sequence, begins to at least make a tiny bit of sense. Otherwise, it’s a mess of imagery and depravity, with some laughably awful scenes and a few really crazily entertaining moments. I liked it a bit more once I figured out that it was supposed to be a dream realized, but the bad still outweighed the good by so much that I still don’t get it.
“Shadow of a Doubt” On 1st Look: ★★★★ On 2nd Look: ★★★★
“Blue Velvet” On 1st Look: ★★ On 2nd Look: ★★ 1/2