Shadow of a Doubt pic 3

It makes sense that Shadow of a Doubt was Hitchcock’s favorite of his own films.  Hitchcock seemed to have a fondness for his more modest projects, as he told François Truffaut in a series of interviews.  When discussing Psycho with the French director, Hitchcock explained that he had never imagined that the film would become a box office phenomenon, nor had he tried to design a film that would be so successful.  He had never envisioned it as a masterpiece, but rather a lovely little film (“lovely” in a very Hitchcockian sense) that would be an entertaining project in which to pour his creative talents.  Shadow of a Doubt, though brilliant and undeniably a master work, has this same unassuming, “little film” quality about it.

If it is sometimes overlooked as one of the director’s greater films it might be in part that it falls outside of Hitchcock’s two most famous production periods: his work under the strained aegis of producer David O. Selznick (this period would result in Rebecca and Notorious), and his grandiose Technicolor period (giving us Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest).  Shadow of a Doubt was made in 1943, and though Hitchcock had not yet fulfilled his tension-ridden contract with Selznick, he made the film while on loan to Universal (and thus free of Selznick’s fiercely directive hand).  Strangers on a Train, another remarkable Hitchcock film– and, interestingly, Psycho— also falls into this no-man’s-land: Strangers was made after Hitchcock had severed ties with Selznick, and Psycho was a notable return to black-and-white in the midst of his color period.  These films, along with Shadow of a Doubt, have neither grand nor epic pretensions. They are clean, beautifully uncomplicated, and—of course—wickedly suspenseful exercises in filmmaking.

In the opening sequence of Shadow of a Doubt, Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten) lies face-up on the bed of a Philadelphia boarding house, with an unusual amount of money strewn haphazardly on the night table next to him.  He is alerted by the landlady that two male visitors—suited, fedora-wearing visitors– came inquiring about him only minutes earlier.  Charles Oakley quickly realizes he has outstayed his welcome in Philadelphia.  Meanwhile, in Santa Rosa, California, a teenaged girl (Theresa Wright) also lies face-up on her bed.  She goes by Charlie, the same name as her uncle whom she adores.  Charlie Newton is depressed by her well-scrubbed surroundings and her family’s day-in day-out routine, and decides that a visit by her Uncle Charlie will be just the remedy for the doldrums of the Newton family.  But when she arrives at the town telegraph office to send for her uncle, she realizes that Uncle Charlie (one and the same as Charles Oakley) has sent her a telegraph and is already on his way to Santa Rosa.  So excited her pretty features could burst, young Charlie asks the telegraph officer, “Do you believe in telepathy?”

And so Uncle Charlie comes to town.  He rides in on a train, much like the villains in many a Western, with a cloud of black smoke that ominously shades the eager Newton family on the waiting platform.  At first Uncle Charlie’s stay is warmly and jubilantly received, most of all by young Charlie who cannot stop beaming beatifically.  Yet an unease begins to settle, undetectable at first but then ever greater with each passing day.  Uncle Charlie smuggles portions of the daily newspaper up to his room, seemingly to keep the Newton family from reading certain articles.  He refuses to have his picture taken or to be interviewed when a pair of “reporters” come to the house for a national survey.  The emerald ring Uncle Charlie gives young Charlie has a strange and unrecognizable engraving on it.  This tension swells with a perfection that could only be achieved by as fine a director as Hitchcock and two equally as sharp actors as Cotten and Wright.  Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie is a menacing man with black, lifeless eyes that seem to have the ability to strangle.  Theresa Wright’s performance is flawless, moving with skill from ecstatic happiness to sinking, cold suspicion.  When the moment of truth is upon her, and young Charlie reads the newpaper article (stolen out of view by Uncle Charlie) about the uncaptured “Merry Widow Murderer,” one can see the girl’s last hope breaking irrevocably—and making way for a calculating strategy for survival.

Shadow of a Doubt looks at the 1940’s American home, that thing so often portrayed with a sunny, milk-fed loveliness, and finds it sinister.  Hitchcock is particularly fond of the staircase in the Newton household.  A typical, banistered flight of stairs transforms into a foreboding, broken plane of suspicious glances when given the correct camera angle and high-key lighting.  When Uncle Charlie hears tell that another man also suspected of the Merry Widow murders has been caught and killed, he saunters up those stairs with a depraved self-satisfaction that only a smug serial killer could muster.  Yet he doesn’t reach the top landing.  His confidence falters for a moment and he looks back to see young Charlie silhouetted in the frame of the front door below, staring at him with a newfound, quiet malevolence that says, “I know the truth.”

While the Newton’s household becomes an increasingly ominous visual space with the arrival of Uncle Charlie, the normalcy of the Newton family also comes vividly into question.  It is the biggest joke of the film that the detectives tailing the murderous Uncle Charlie disguise themselves as reporters who want to interview and photograph a “normal” American family such as the Newtons.  Young Charlie goes into existential tizzies over her family’s averageness and (initially) sees her uncle as the thing that will save her parents and siblings from their lives of routine banality.  Yet Uncle Charlie is less of a savior and more of a sickness that seeps into the modest carpets and tablecloths of his kind, unassuming relatives.  He is a perverting force that threatens the American family.  This is seen in a most squirmingly uncomfortable fashion in his relationship with young Charlie.  Uncle Charlie stands very close to young Charlie when he speaks to her, holds her hand for a fraction too long when he slips the emerald ring on to her finger (Theresa Wright communicates this queasy tension brilliantly as she wriggles her hand out of his, a bright smile still on her face—she has a discomfort with her uncle that she herself hasn’t yet consciously acknowledged.)  When the two are out on a sunny afternoon they link arms intimately, more like lovers than like uncle and niece, and local girls stare on enviously at young Charlie’s mysterious older man.  When Uncle Charlie comes to town, the relationships in the “normal” American family are exposed as far from normal.  In keeping with this, young Charlie’s ultimate reaction to her uncle has a shocking intensity, an intensity that transforms her with alarming swiftness from a wide-eyed girl to a jaundiced-eyed woman.  Young Charlie confronts her uncle on the dimly-lit porch at a late point in the film.  Her exquisite profile quivers with rage and certainty: her uncle is a murderer, and she detests him for it.  Young Charlie takes a step closer to Uncle Charlie and says in a voice that knows no compromise, “Go away, I’m warning you.  Go away or I’ll kill you myself.  See, that’s the way I feel about you.”