Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
“A Blast of DRAMATIC Dynamite exploded right before your eyes!”
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, Macdonald Carey
Synopsis: A young woman discovers her visiting “Uncle Charlie” may not be the man he seems to be.
Alfred Hitchcock was perhaps the only director of his era who would have chosen to take a peek beneath the cosy myth of suburbia in 1940s America. And in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) he doesn’t just lift a rock to see what’s crawling around underneath — he reaches into the deepest, darkest cave to find that rock: one in which insanity, murder and, possibly, incest abide. He shot the film in the town in which the story takes place —Santa Rosa, California — a place of clean, broad streets, expansive, neatly trimmed lawns and white picket fences. It’s the kind of town in which people sit on their porches in rocking chairs of an evening. Everything looks peaceful and normal, but madness is never far away, and threatens to blow apart the whole ‘Andy Hardy’ niceness of it all in an instant.
Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) is bored at home, and yearns for the company of the dashing Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) after whom she was named. Uncle Charlie is young — much younger than young Charlie’s mother (Patricia Collinge) — and good looking, and seems to lead the kind of exciting life that young Charlie fears she’ll never get to taste. And she’s so keen to see him that she goes down to the telegraph office intending to wire him to come and pay a visit, only to find that he’s beaten her to it and has wired that he’s on his way over. This almost telepathic link between the two Charlies is something to which Hitchcock repeatedly — and increasingly disturbingly — returns to again and again. There’s a weird kind of sexual tension between them that neither overtly acknowledges but of which it’s easy to infer that both are aware.
The family are overjoyed to have Uncle Charlie in their midst once more, but it’s not long before young Charlie begins noticing strange behaviour. One evening, her Uncle makes a house out of the pages of a broadsheet so that he can surreptitiously pocket a page which carries a report about the exploits of The Merry Widow Killer, a murderer on the loose who slays rich widows for their money. Later that same evening, young Charlie spots the folded up page in the pocket of her Uncle’s jacket, but when she tries to read it he roughly snatches it out of her hand. He also gives an odd but memorable speech at the dinner table about how he despises ‘fat, faded greedy women.’ ‘Are they human,’ he asks, ‘or are they fat, wheezing animals?’ None of the rest of the family seems particularly disturbed by Uncle Charlie’s behaviour, but alarm bells are ringing for his young niece by now, especially after a detective (Macdonald Carey) bizarrely posing as some kind of government researcher into the typical American family, reveals that they suspect either her Uncle or one other man out East of being the Merry Widow Killer.
The theme of insanity lurking beneath the apparent normality of suburban America life is a familiar one to us today, but it must have been something of an eye-opener back in 1943 — although Shadow of a Doubt didn’t fare particularly well at the box office, so it was clearly a subject that not too many Americans seemed interested in. But the clear depiction of Uncle Charlie as the cold-blooded killer, driven to kill, apparently, by a childhood blow to the head and a jaundiced view of the world, is only the tip of the iceberg in Hitchcock’s movie. Uncle Charlie opens a jagged little cut in the pleasant fabric of Santa Rosa’s society, and in doing so he affords us fleeting glimpses of another, altogether more disturbing side to so-called civilised society. Young Charlie’s father (Henry Travers) and his timid neighbour Herbie (Hume Cronyn) like nothing more than discussing how to commit the perfect murder, while — even more disturbingly – young Charlie is prepared to allow her murdering Uncle to get away with it (and presumably kill again) if it prevents her mother from getting upset about finding out her baby brother’s a serial killer. Added to that is the previously mentioned suggestion of repressed incestuous desire between the two Charlies, who are frequently depicted as opposite sides of the same coin. Hitchcock even introduces each of them in identical fashion, lying deep in thought on their respective beds. By doing so he emphasises how alike they are and, by extension, how easily the innocence of childhood can become tainted by life experience. You can almost see the twinkle in Hitch’s eye when he first handled Thornton Wilder’s script.
Joseph Cotten delivers his most memorable performances as the chillingly plausible Uncle Charlie, a suave charmer whose icy self-control masks a deep mistrust of the world and its inhabitants. Charlie’s madness is internalised, meaning that it falls upon Cotten to convince us of his twisted state of mind with a level of subtlety that is completely unique for the era in which the film was made. Although Teresa Wright is a little too old for the role of young Charlie, she acquits herself well, managing at the age of 25 to capture that brief moment in a young life when innocence still holds sway despite being on the cusp of adulthood. Ironically, although Wright was only five years younger than Macdonald Carey, who plays her love interest in Shadow of a Doubt, the relationship between Charlie and Detective Graham really is a big mistake. Her innocence is laid on so thick that it feels like Graham’s grooming a minor when he finally makes a move.
Hitch claimed that Shadow of a Doubt was his favourite of all his movies, and it’s not difficult to see why. Filming in a pretty, picture-postcard town like Santa Rosa rather than trying to pass off a sound stage as the Newton’s hometown contributes massively to the sense of evil entering unseen the lives of ordinary people. It’s a theme that promised much but which sadly took a wrong turn when it was hijacked by the anti-Communist hysteria, and thus presented the audience with cartoonish villains rather than the apparently reasonable and charming likes of Uncle Charlie.
(Reviewed 15th May 2013)