And now, the final drink in this series celebrating the 2023 TCM Film Festival, long may it unspool.
1943’s Shadow of a Doubt is famously Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite of his 53 pictures but it’s probably his least seen masterpiece. It’s almost deliberately unsexy, it’s not overtly stylish in the manner of his spy thrillers, and while it feints towards the dark places of the mind Hitch would explore much more overtly 17 years later in Psycho, it spends as much time on the psychology of why we do good things as why some of us do very bad things – and also how good impulses can become an excuse for enabling evil.
So, yeah, I dig the movie a lot. But why did Hitch pick it out? Everyone seems to agree that a lof of it had to do with his respect for the film’s primary writer. Thorton Wilder. The polymath novelist and playwright is still beloved for The Bridge at San Luis Rey, The Matchmaker, and Our Town was a triple Pulitzer Prize winner and one of America’s most respected authors. This was an era when movies were regularly sniffed at by intellectuals and theater folk; Wilder was both but he respected Hitchcock right back.
Hitch was clearly chuffed and was sorry to see Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Wilder — yes, he was a hero of two world wars on top of everything else — leave to help beat Jerry one more time. The script was completed by two very talented hands, Sally Benson (Meet Me in St. Louis) and Alma Reville (that’s Lady Hitchcock to you!), but Wilder’s humor, poetics, and concern with the lives of ordinary people are right there. The esteemed author got a very prominent special thanks credit at the top of the film – which really meant something for a filmmaker who didn’t always love sharing the spotlight.
Luminous Teresa Wright would play Mary Bailey stars as one of Hitch’s most upright yet most challenged protagonists, a restless teenager named Charlie – officially Charlotte Newton. Charlie’s irritable boredom is cured when her favorite uncle and namesake makes what seems like a miraculously well-timed surprise visit. Played by a pent-up Joseph Cotton (Citizen Kane and The Third Man) there’s no doubt Uncle Charlie is up to seriously no-good business. He’s on the run and being tailed by two policemen of no known jurisdiction (Macdonald Carey and Wallace Ford). Worse, the papers are full of the doings of “The Merry Widow Murder,” a money-motivated killer of mature women. Just to make things downright disturbing, Uncle Charlie tends to fly into misogynist rants when wealthy older housewives are brought up.
It might all sound a bit corny but the big-brained writer of Our Town wasn’t afraid of simplicity and homely virtues. Shadow of a Doubt is marked by the brilliantly constructed interplay of bittersweet sentiment, comedy, and cold, brutal darkness very much in both the Hitchcock and Thorton Wilder manner. Charlie’s sweet-tempered dad (Henry Travers of It’s a Wonderful Life), likes to discuss ways to murder people with Herbie, his dorky crime-fiction-obsessed neighbor (Hume Cronyn doing his best comedy relief). Young Charlie’s mom (heartbreaking Patricia Collinge) is a sweet-natured mild neurotic who adores her psychopathic little brother as if he were one of her children. Sweet Mrs. Newton would be the last halfway normal mom to appear in any Hitchcock thriller. (Hitchcock’s beloved mother died during the production, presumably setting the stage for many mad and memorable movie moms to come, make of that what you will.)
“Where’s the drink?” you say? Just a little more plot description first!
As the “Merry Widow” investigation continues and the noose tightens, Uncle Charlie drags his niece to a dive bar frequented by soldiers and their dates – at this point in history, a type of place where “nice girls” did not belong. After an awkward encounter with a former schoolmate turned dead-eyed cocktail waitress – presumably not such a “nice” girl – the two Charlies lay their cards on the table. But first Uncle Charlie orders a brandy…double and then another (see, we to told you he was up to no good!). Charlie, the younger, refuses to select a drink so her uncle makes the classic order for a proper young lady: ginger ale. Then they tell each other just what they think.
And now, a drink in which poison hides behind innocence.
Uncle Charlie’s Confession (Shadow of a Doubt)
2 ounces brandy (preferably Sacred Bond 100 proof)
½ ounce lime juice
½ ounce grenadine
½ ounce vodka (maybe 100 proof?)
Ginger ale, chilled
Put everything except the ginger ale in a cocktail shaker with a lot of ice. Shake vigorously and pour into a very well-chilled medium-size Tom Collins or rocks/old-fashioned glass. Top with very well-chilled ginger ale. Wait a second for the bubbles to settle down and the drink to take on a lovely orange-pink hue. Sip and see if hidden toxins can be detected. Possibly not!
Hiding a strong drink inside a very sweet and refreshing concoction is the oldest trick in the book but so is knocking off wealthy ladies of a certain age for their money. Charlie, the elder, is a fairly textbook psychopath though a highly socialized one in that he genuinely loves his niece and older sister — clearly a second mother figure as the spoiled “baby” of the family. In the world, Charlie is a dangerous charmer but within, he’s a void.
Uncle Charie’s Confession fills the void with brandy – preferably a higher proof one like Christian Brothers Sacred Bond, a distinctively American bottled-in bond 100-proof brandy likely to please whiskey lovers. The vodka cameo appearance alludes to a scene where Herbie, the murder dork, tells Mr. Newton his morning coffee was laced with a small amount of plain soda water. Herbie argues that he’s as good as killed his pal because that smidge of soda could have been poison — and he didn’t taste it! Same idea with the half-ounce of vodka. I really should have tried 100-proof vodka to make the drink that much more poisonous. You try that and get back to me.
While I really like Sacred Bond in all its 50 ABV glory, I did try Uncle Charlies’s Confession with, my value-priced 80-proof default French brandy and it was also good, if perhaps not quite deadly enough for a hard-drinking Bluebeard-style serial killer.
And now, a chat with Uncle Charlie.