Alfred Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense and I have seen and enjoyed many of his movies. However, my personal favorite – and reportedly his, too – is Shadow of a Doubt, which I believe is also his most human and relatable.
When Alfred Hitchcock first left England to make movies in America, many of his early American movies were still set in England: Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), but he wanted this movie to be more uniquely American in setting. He chose as his location Santa Rosa, California, and he did much of his shooting on location.
At the center of Shadow of a Doubt is the evil that comes to an innocent small town and an innocent family. Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) is named after her mother’s much loved younger brother, Uncle Charlie or Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten). She feels that they are extremely close, because of their names, but also because of how they think and feel. She likes to say that they are like twins. The movie begins with Charlie feeling like the family has gotten into a dull rut and what they need is Uncle Charlie to visit them. When Uncle Charlie does come unexpectedly, she and her entire family are thrilled and excited, especially her mother, Emma (Patricia Collinge).
What they do not realize is that Uncle Charlie’s money (he is described as being “in business”) has actually been acquired through murder. He is a serial killer, the Merry Widow Murderer, and he is on the run from the police and hiding out at their home. Hitchcock is simply masterful in how he builds his movie. Not long after he arrives, Charlie begins to suspect her uncle in some way and soon she figures out the truth. It is this growing of Charlie’s suspicions and Uncle Charlie’s realizations of her suspicions and how the two of them deal with each other that provides the tension. And Charlie’s realization that not only is her uncle a serial killer, but he’s quite willing to kill her, too, which is not at all the same thing as being willing to kill a random stranger.
What I love about this film is how infinitely relatable it is. It’s not glamorous, like many of Hitchcock’s other films. There are no gangs, international espionage, spies, thefts of priceless jewelry, epic chases, women running about in impossibly gorgeous clothing (I’m thinking, here, of Grace Kelly). The people in it are people we can imagine knowing or being like, people we might even have met.
We don’t dress like Grace Kelly and Cary Grant isn’t going to walk into our lives, but we can understand a family member – someone we assume we can trust – and we can imagine ourselves reacting to that situation. Would we tell our mother that her favorite brother is a serial killer; would we think our family would believe us? We can all imagine ourselves being at a loss trying to deal with this situation.
I think what Shadow of a Doubt taps into is how little ordinary people expect to encounter evil. We read about it and people in the movies always seem awfully eager to suspect and discover crime and conspiracy, but in real life we don’t really anticipate encountering that, especially in our own family. We generally expect to find real life somewhat prosaic.
I think it is also significant that it was made in 1943, during WWII. There is a sense of lost innocence for Charlie, having encountered this terrible evil that is in her uncle. He was originally a romantic figure for her, presumably emblematic of the world outside her safe and ordinary existence, but his view of the world is that it is a “sty,” an ugly place so ugly that it doesn’t matter what happens in it, even murder. He is the one to shatter her peaceful, sheltered and innocent view of life. He is like the Nazis horrifying the world with unimagined evil. It is partially a coming of age story for Charlie.
The cast is marvelous (Hitchcock always did have marvelous casts). Teresa Wright had recently enjoyed great success in The Little Foxes, The Pride of the Yankees and Mrs. Miniver, where she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She is perfect as Charlie: innocent, but intelligent, grappling with the enormity of what she has learned, but not backing down. Joseph Cotten usually played nice guys, but he is excellent as Uncle Charlie, displaying charm, but always with hidden menace. Patricia Collinge is Charlie’s mother, who seems incapable of seeing the tension between Charlie and Uncle Charlie and is so blinded by her love of her brother, as if he represented everything good about life to her: her happy childhood, her young dreams and hopes. Henry Travers (known as Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life) is her father, a banker who relaxes by discussing murder mysteries and murder methods with his friend, Herb (Hume Cronyn), which provides a great deal of the whimsical humor in the film.
There is also a standout performance by Edna May Wonacott as Charlie’s sister, Ann. She is a bookworm who doesn’t quite like Uncle Charlie but never really knows why or even thinks about it. There are also two detectives lurking about (Macdonald Carey and Wallace Ford), who think Uncle Charlie might be the Merry Widow Murderer, and are cultivating the acquaintance of Ann and Charlie.
One of Hitchcock’s best and by far my favorite of his films. Suspenseful, but also more character driven then his usual movies. He tries to explore Uncle Charlie’s motivations and Charlie’s coming of age is a definite departure for Hitchcock. Coupled with his emphasis on the ordinary rather than extraordinary, it is a highly compelling, relatable, human, and even endearing story. It absolutely captured my imagination.