Happy 4th of July and welcome to week one of the July Four (formerly five). For the next four weeks I’ll cover four performers and honor four of their films. Though the temperature on the thermometer may be high that’s no reason we can’t be a a little dark, so this week we’re honoring director Alfred Hitchcock!
“When I try to think of how I feel, I always come back to Uncle Charlie.” Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock’s 1943 thriller, is one of the more esoteric mysteries in his oeuvre often overshadowed (pun quasi-intended) by its surface story of a young girl and her uncle. Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) wants a miracle to get her family out of poverty, and believes her savior is her namesake, Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten). As fate, or something worse, would have it, Uncle Charlie soon arrives in town. But Charlie can’t shake the feeling that Uncle Charlie is hiding something.
Often cited as Hitchcock’s and star Teresa Wright’s favorite film, Shadow of a Doubt proves the necessity of a good script, in this case credited to heavy-hitters Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson (writer of the Meet Me in St. Louis) and Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville. A harmony of paranoia and coincidence, prevalent in most of Hitchcock’s work, is the foundation by which the film sits on. With Hitchcock’s formula established, the audience becomes tuned in to what they presume will happen; so when Uncle Charlie goes to the door in the first scene, pendulous piano music swells…as he reveals a tree-lined street and children at play. Hmm, not the neighborhood where a bad guy would reside, right? Hitchcock, like a cat playing with a mouse, toys with the audience, acknowledging his role as master of suspense and snidely telling the audience they’ll have to wait for the true fun!
Hitchcock told director Francois Truffaut that Shadow of a Doubt was about menace invading a small town, and with America deeply entrenched in WWII it’s impossible not to take the film as a commentary on the situation. Uncle Charlie, carried on a train belching black smoke, represents pretty much all the evil being fought across the pond or, in an ironic prediction of the future, the rise of Communistic invasion in small-town USA, later emphasized by Uncle Charlie’s paranoia about his family being “surveyed” as a study in the American family.
Young Charlie is the youthful, idealistic portrayal of the American spirit, walking towards doom with wide open arms. Once Uncle Charlie’s true intentions are revealed and he might just be the “Merry Widow” murderer, it’s up to Charlie to “destroy the thing she loves” without falling into Uncle Charlie’s cynicism about how wretched and irredeemable the world is. Cynicism manifesting in the homeland as well as overseas comments on the fatigue of war, as well as the U.S. exploration of simpler solutions, and maybe, possibly, forseeing the bomb itself?
Unlike Suspicion (1944) or Rebecca (1940), my main criticism with Shadow of a Doubt is there’s little ambiguity as to whether Uncle Charlie is the murderer. My mind went in a million different directions under the assumption that things weren’t so cut-and-dry – maybe the real murderer was the seemingly kind detective Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), the “man back East.” An issue watching so many Hitchcock films is you’re anticipating having your brain altered. So when things play out rather cleanly and characters are the way we assume them to be it is a bit of a letdown but never in disservice to the overall enjoyment of the film.
The performances and interaction between Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright give a stage-like atmosphere. Cotten and Jennifer Jones are the better known pair, but there’s no comparison between Cotten and Wright; the two reteamed almost ten years later for the fun, if unremarkable, The Steel Trap.
I could write quite the essay deconstructing Shadow of a Doubt and the Freudian concepts of the id and the ego, but I’ll refrain. Freud is worth bringing up though because the script emphasizes Charlie and Uncle Charlie’s singularity with each other; Charlie’s assumption that her and her uncle are telepathic because his telegram arrived as hers is being written is a prime example. It’s also difficult ignoring the romantic component between the two, with Uncle Charlie “proposing” to his niece with the gift of a ring.
I’ve watched Cotten as a romantic, but as Uncle Charlie the fear is in his self-effacement. He ingratiates himself with the family, who already love him because he’s family. But as Uncle Charlie’s secret bubbles to the surface the true horror stems from his coldness, whether it’s a total change of face or his attempts to blare out Charlie’s screams when she’s trapped in the garage. As enjoyable as he is, Cotten is bested by Teresa Wright. It’s funny hearing that sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland were considered for the role because they lack the youthful espirit Wright possesses – and while Wright’s age is never specified, she’s a child as far as we know, Wright was actually 25. With a playful curiosity and an adult personality, Wright’s Charlie is how I wanted Vera Miles’ character in Psycho () to be.
There’s certainly not a shadow of a doubt that this is a stellar encapsulation of Hitchcock’s work. A taut, dark thriller filmed where the sun shines bright, Cotten and Wright are utterly entrancing.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.