8:00 am Jul. 14, 2012
This Sunday at "Universal 100," Film Forum's eclectically programmed Universal Studios centennial retrospective, you can attend screenings of Alfred Hitchcock's tongue-in-cheek thriller Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Steve Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
Film Forum doesn't actually mean for you to watch them back-to-back: Shadow of a Doubt is paired with Saboteur (1943). But the two films' respective views on empathizing with outsiders complement each other in a weird way.
In Shadow of a Doubt, Joseph Cotten plays Uncle Charlie, a Byronic man without a past who comes to visit his sister and niece, also named Charlie (Teresa Wright). Young Charlie, nee Charlotte, idolizes her uncle because he's not like the people who surround her.
But the aura of cool mystery around Charlie hides a nasty secret, one that Charlotte grapples with throughout the movie's incredible second half. That central revelation drives Charlotte, the protagonist whose point of view the audience is made to identify with most, away from a figure she related to so intensely that she even shares his name.
In one key scene, Charlie goes on a long rant while seated at his sister's dinner table, about how little old ladies are actually like fat pigs that need to be slaughtered. Hitchcock's camera slowly moves in on Cotten's profile. One of the family members protests bashfully, as if Uncle Charlie had just said something impolite instead of something malicious and crazy. And right on cue, Cotten turns his head so he's looking right at the camera and winks, just to show us how serious he is.
From this moment on, Charlotte knows she has to do something to keep her loved ones safe from Charlie's secret. She doesn't want to do anything to hurt Charlie, but the tension builds from her efforts to avoid doing so while keeping him from harming others.
By contrast with Uncle Charlie's visit to his family, E.T. comes to Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his family by accident, and much of the films is spent illustrating just how difficult it is for Elliott or his family to relate to E.T. They have all these preconceived notions about what aliens are like, but they're ideas that come from pulp science fiction comic strips and popular movies like Star Wars. E.T. is just as much of a stranger to Elliott as Charlie becomes to his niece.
Elliott doesn't really achieve an immersive level of empathy with his alien friend until the scene in which E.T., who has now formed a weird psychic bond with Elliott, gets drunk. And because Elliott feels whatever E.T. feels, Elliott gets drunk, too. The effect of being inebriated causes Elliott to lead a classroom mutiny: He and his school friends free a group of frogs from their teachers, even though the teachers insist that the frogs are just going to sleep.
That pint-sized act of rebellion earns Elliott a reprimand from his teacher, who hilarioiusly tells his mother that Elliott appears to be "intoxicated." But from that scene on, you get the sense that while Elliott may not always know what he has to do to protect E.T., he knows that he has to try to do something.
To honor his commitment to helping E.T., Elliott enlists the help of his community of friends and family, including his absent father (Peter Coyote, the ultimate deadbeat dad), and gets the alien back to the mother ship.
Shadow of a Doubt has a satisfying ending too, although perversely so: Charlotte is able to solve the Uncle Charlie problem without betraying his secret or abandoning him.
She helps him, in the end, by doing nothing at all.