“Shadow of a Doubt”: Be Careful What You Read

Shadow of a Doubt: Be Careful What You Read

[Really cool image that I failed to upload]

(Shadow of a Doubt, 9 min. 47seconds)



Within the first ten minutes of Shadow of a Doubt Hitchcock delivers a warning about the very real possibility of personal, physical harm that can come from reading. Of course, it is only a joking aside from a father (Joseph Newton, played by Henry Travers) to his daughter Ann (Edna May Wonacott). But, this hilarious joke takes a different shape as the film continues. Prior to this comment, Ann is criticizing her father for reading mystery novels.  Prior to that, Ann is on the receiving end of a telephone call notifying the family of a telegram they received. In a joking manor Hitchcock has quickly established communication, reading, and discovery as threads that inform the entire movie. Books communicate to their readers; Telephones communicate across the community; telegrams communicate across the nation; telepathy communicates between people at any distance. Each character involves themselves in communication, reading, and discovery. Within the small town this communication is uninterrupted and valued (“That’s Daddy’s newspaper!”) except when it comes to talking to one another. The communication between characters is constantly interrupted and overlapping. The result is that the suspicions some of the family members have about Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) never get communicated to one another. For instance, the father is clearly suspicious when Uncle Charlie deposits $40,000 at the bank (using a random and probably reliable inflation converter that is around $600,000 today). The mother (Patricia Collinge) seems suspicious when Charlie (Teresa Wright) asks her to ride with her to the lecture. Charlie is suspicious almost from the moment she sees the ring’s engraving. These characters are independently suspicious but because they do not communicate to one another they never can connect the dots. Uncle Charlie, of course, covers things nicely and is able to withhold information and maintain a communication breakdown within the family.

Yet, this moment is more complex than that; Hitchcock implicates himself in the joke and the message. He draws our attention to the mystery genre, his constructed world, and the laying out of clues for us to read. We can collect more information than any of the single characters; we are afforded the communication that the characters cannot achieve. He uses Joseph and Herbie (Hume Cronyn) to make the point even clearer. It’s as if he says, “this isn’t a Sherlock Holmes novel—this is a movie, and I’m going to lay this across multiple characters… but be careful what you read”. In some ways this movie is a meditation on the mystery genre. It simultaneously includes us in the very first warning and excludes us. It lets us play along and find the clues; it excludes us from the material harm that is nearly brought on the chief detective—Young Charlie.

In this way the original warning “don’t read too much. You’ll ruin your eyes” alerts us to the dangers that may come to those individuals in the film that are searching for the truth about Uncle Charlie. Truly, material harm will come to those that read too much. And yet, I can’t help but feel like this is a message to us too. The difference is that we willingly and joyfully subject ourselves to feelings of suspense and horror. Still, it cannot be ignored that all of this happens in a playful, but loaded line. Harm is unlikely to come to us, but it playfully raises the stakes for us as readers while connecting us to the readers in the film.

Authenticity: The Search for an Aura

The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.—Walter Benjamin, 220

In trying to tackle the density of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, I have to start with an explanation of the “aura” and work out from there:

It was 2012 when I first made it to the Met in New York City. I turned the corner into the 20th century art exhibit and right before me, attached to the wall, was Jackson Pollock’s Drip Painting. I’d seen it dozens of times on my computer screen, but never before had I been in its presence–never before had I stood at a same distance away from it as Pollock did. The experience of being in front of a favorite painting—the original—was moving. But, for what reason? As I know now, what I experienced that day was the aura—“… the unique appearance of a distance”. This was no reproduction. It had authenticity and through that authenticity, authority. It uniquely occupied space and time in a way that only that painting could. But, as Benjamin says, “the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition” (223). So, the aura that I experienced is not simply some abstract power emanating from the painting itself, but a perceived distance from the original—the authentic. Through engaging with “the authentic”, through its perceived or actual uniqueness, I engaged in its history as part of a particular tradition that changed the way the world understood painting at the time. I submitted myself to the cult of beauty and gave myself over to the ritual looking and contemplation that I believed this piece deserved. “I feel its confusion. I connect with its erratic qualities. I had to make my pilgrimage to the original to feel this”.

This feeling, this veneration for an object, is the power of the aura. And, the aura is only present—only has authority—with the presence of the original, the authentic. So, what happens when art no longer has an original? What happens with “the work of art designed for reproducibility” (224)? With the destruction of the original, the aura too is destructed. Without the aura the ritual value we could assign to it is also destructed. Suddenly, we cannot justify the value of art based on its uniqueness—rather, there are many copies we can see. The reproduced art meets us half-way; our pilgrimage is no longer necessary. Art in the age of mechanical reproduction does not earn our uncritical veneration which is so closely related to our perception of it as unique and authentic. Rather, “The instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics”(224).

Film and photography, then, have their roots as an art designed for reproducibility. From their very origin they have no aura, and without an aura they serve a political end. They uproot the ritual practices and force the viewers into new practices. They force new habits of mind and break us from the ritualistic reverence of art for art’s sake. In this way, the art of film and photography are politicized, whereas previous art was used for political ends. The Fascist rulers would use art’s aura to maintain property traditions. Now, film and photography have no original—nothing inherently unique about them—and this is what the “masses” are consuming. In this consumption, they are (consciously or unconsciously) breaking the rituals on which facism relies. The destruction of the aura progresses society forward and combats fascist practices that find their root in defining inherent authority.

Assuming I haven’t gone wildly off course, this is where it is left in 1935. What about today though? It is common to hear someone excited about the 70mm film screening of The Hateful Eight. It is common to hear enthusiasm (and see people pay more) for a vinyl copy of a record. It is common for many of us to favor the local brewery. But, why? Critically there are probably many answers, but culturally I hear a certain value being ascribed to these items that I think mimics that of aura. “The film print is more authentic—it has flicker and grains.” “The vinyl is pure, man. It’s analog—needle to wax.” “The brewer is local—I know him; I touch the hands that touch the hops”. We are perceiving ourselves as closer to the original when we use this logic to assign value to these things. In these we practices, we are not so displaced as we may feel by the digital process—but we are. There is something real to be experienced in the analog. But, that realness is not aura—we are not closer to the original. Rather, it has market value. The market tells us it is closer to the original. The market is capitalizing on the search for an aura and we are so accustomed to the diminished aura that these seemingly unique, authentic, originals feel as if they do have aura. I have to go to the theater for the film print instead of streaming from Netflix. It feels more real; it satisfies my desire to experience the authentic. Yet, is this search for the aura not a dangerous practice that Benjamin warned against? Why do these practices have the cultural pull that they do? What are we searching for if not the authentic? Variety?  If it is the aura, then at the very peak of our new search for an aura, we are experiencing presidential candidates that have reignited the conversations about fascism in this country. Perhaps a new mode will redestroy the aura. Perhaps the complete reproduction of reality in Virtual Reality will be the shock of the 21st century that film was for the 20th.