The Magnificent Joseph Cotten

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Joseph Cotten with an “E”. Today, that man (and highly underrated actor) would have been 111 years old. As he is a favourite of mine, it’s my duty to honour him on this day.

Joseph Cotten, born on May 15th, 1905, started his acting career on Broadway, but this one really started when he became friend with the famous Orson Welles who saw his potential as a talented actor. Joseph Cotten was to be part of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre Production and starred in Broadway plays produced by the company along with other “Welles’ actors” such as Ray Collins, Everett Sloan or Agnes Moorehead. In 1938, Orson Welles directed his first film, the now unfortunately forgotten Too Much Johnson with Joseph Cotten in the leading role. It was his first film too. He then starred in what is known today as “the best film of all times” and certainly Orson Welles’ most well-known film: Citizen Kane. Joseph would be under the direction of his friend for four other films, including the masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons. Joseph Cotten, even if he’s nowadays somehow forgotten, except for his fans, gave so much presence on screen in masterpieces and was chosen by some of the finest movie directors. Of course, his most iconic roles are Uncle Charlie’s one in Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943) and Holly Martin’s one in The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949). For his whole brilliant career, Joseph Cotten received only one award: the Venice Film Festival Award for his performance in Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle). That wasn’t enough. And it’s still a shame today that the Academy never, at least, nominated him for an Oscar. He was one of the most refined actors to ever grace the screen, but some institutions were to blind to see that. Joseph Cotten left us in 1994 at the age of 88.

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Joe laughing with his friend Orson Welles

Joseph Cotten is one of those actors we have to discover by ourselves, not because he is a bad actor, but because he’s the kind of actor that, with his beautiful subtlety, can possibly be not noticed at first. That’s what happen to me. If you ask me what is the first Joseph Cotten’s film I saw, I could answer you easily: Citizen Kane. But if you ask me what I remember from my first Joseph Cotten’s experience, I couldn’t say. The famous name here is Orson Welles. When I really discovered Joseph Cotten, I didn’t remember he was in this film. Now that I know, my only interest when I watch this film is him. Oh, don’t mistake me, Citizen Kane is a brilliant film on many other levels, but I can’t help being spellbound by this favourite actor of mine when I watch it. My eyes are all for him.

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In Citizen Kane’s trailer

Well, as much as I didn’t notice him at first in Citizen Kane, that was the complete opposite when I saw Shadow of a Doubt. Oh my, that performance. One of the best on-screen villain portrayal if you want my opinion. Hitchcock directed him perfectly and that’s at least one of the films he should have received an Oscar nomination for. We are frightened by this creepy uncle, but we can help being in high admiration for the actor at the same time. After I saw this film, he immediately became a favourite and I was, of course, curious to see more of his work, and that’s how I discovered that I had already seen him in Citizen Kane and in  an Alfred Hitchcock Present’s episode: Breakdown (who remains my favourite one since I saw it for the first time).

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As Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt

Joseph Cotten was a man of multi-talents. He, yes, was a versatile actor, but what he was the best at was : being creepy or being romantic. Oh, how romantic he could be on-screen! The best examples I can think of are Portrait of Jennie and September Affair. To scare us or to make us be in love with him, Joseph Cotten’s technique was to bet mainly on his facial expressions. But he never overacted He was an actor who acted a lot with his face, his gaze, his smile. A gaze that could be cruel, a gaze that could be tender, so much emotions passed through this gaze. As for his smile, he could also expressed a lot of emotions with it. An honest smile, when he was very happy, or a cruel smile when he wasn’t truly. Of course, to make the difference between the emotions, Joseph had to work on every single details of his facial expressions, and he certainly excelled at it.

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With Jennifer Jones in Portrait of Jennie
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That smile! 

I didn’t mention that Joseph could be a funny man, but he could! As much as he could be a villain, he could also be one of the nicest men in the world and a true gentleman. When I think of a funny Joseph Cotten, I can think of this scene at the beginning of The Magnificent Ambersons when he tries different sorts of hats in front on a mirror, or this scene in The Farmer’s Daughter when he get up of bet to go close the windows: “One-two-three-go!” As a matter of fact, he really makes me think of me in this scene. We can also see a humorous and laughing Joseph Cotten in this episode of “What’s my line”. How sweet he is when he laughs!

Another thing we certainly can’t forget about Joseph Cotten is his voice. That deep voice. Once again, that was a perfect tool to play with our emotions, being sinister on a side and sensual on the other. I should always think that, among the many things that made Joseph Cotten be Joseph Cotten, this voice can be known has his trademark. Of course, we know other actors with a deep voice, but none ever sounds like Joseph Cotten’s one. It’s a voice that suited him perfectly.

Except being a talented actor on his own, Joseph was a true professional by being able to make such a good team work with the other actors. If his character was fond of another character, then the love chemistry could be perfectly seen between the twos. I recently talked about September Affair. Well, Joseph Cotten and Joan Fontaine certainly make our hearts beat in this film. Just the way they look at each others, they hold their hands, kiss , is a real on-screen poesy. They don’t need to say any words to electrify us. If his character has an enemy, then he  know knew to complete his enemy’s emotion to create an opposition and, at the same time, a whole.

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A tender Joe in September Affair, with Joan Fontaine

Among all my favourite actors, Joseph Cotten is one of those from whom I have seen the biggest number of films: a total of sixteen, plus this Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode. Joseph is like a drug, once you discover him, you become addicted and want to see all his films. He made me discover masterpieces, but also less known movies that came to be real hidden-jewels. Joseph Cotten once was my 11th favourite actor, but the more I seen his films, the more he was higher in my top list. Today, he is my 7th favourite behind James Stewart, William Holden,  Marlon Brando, Cary Grant, Burt Lancaster and Gregory Peck.

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In the famous noir The Third Man

I’d like now to share with you a top 10 of my favourite Joseph Cotten’s films. Here I won’t include the films where he only has a very minor role (Touch of Evil, Soylent Green), neither the Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ episode. Anyway, you already know that it’s my favourite one.

1- Shadow of a Doubt
2- Portrait of Jennie
3- Gaslight
4- The Magnificent Ambersons
5- September Affair
6- Niagara
7- The Third Man
8- Hush… Hush… Sweet Charlotte
9- Under Capricorn
10- The Farmer’s Daughter
As you can see, Citizen Kane is not on the list. The reason is, as much as I recognize it’s a great film, it had never been a personal favourite of mine. But I love Joseph Cotten’s performance in it, that I must say!
Before leaving you, I invite you to watch my video tribute to this superb actor. You’ll, of course, recognize the music. 😉
If you are a newcomer in the world of classic films, I advise you, please, to see some Joseph Cotten’s films and pay attention to him. Because, as I said, once you’ve noticed him, you can’t possibly forget him.
Happy heavenly birthday Joe! ❤
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22 thoughts on “The Magnificent Joseph Cotten

  1. I first saw him in Gaslight and he immediately grabbed my attention. Then I watched Portrait of Jennie, which I just loved (I read the book to that one). Since then I’ve also seen him in Shadow of a Doubt, The Third Man, Journey Into Fear, and the Hitchcock episode, as well as read his autobiography (which is really good!). Of course, there are several of his movies I still want to see, most from the 1940s.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree that Cotten as super under rated! I LOVE HIM IN NIAGARA!!! Ohh- He’s wonderful and The Third Man is awesome on so many levels- but his presence makes it even more so! HAVE YET TO SEE SHADOW OF A DOUBT- DARN IT! Great post!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Really insightful, informative, and stylishly written article as always. Your blog is a great place to learn about movies and your a superb instructor always!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. nice tribute, Virginie!! You’re right, he is one of the most underrated actors. Many young people have never heard of him. I like the post on Facebookw hich you probably saw where 3 directors said he starred in their favorite films- Hitchcock(Shadow of a Doubt), Wells(Citizen Kane) and Carol Reed ( The Third Man)

    Liked by 1 person

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