Saturday, February 19, 2011

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) **1/2

(This article is from guest contributor The Lady Eve and first appeared at  The rating in the title is my own.)

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) was Alfred Hitchcock's fifth American film and the first of his films that he believed truly depicted America. Hitchcock's "first draft" attempt at this had been Saboteur (1942), but he hadn't had the cast he'd wanted, he felt the script was weak and that he'd been rushed into the film before he was ready...none of this was the case with Shadow of a Doubt.

The narrative was based on a story called "Uncle Charlie" by Gordon McConell. For the adaptation, Hitchcock got Thornton Wilder, convinced that the author of Our Town possessed the concept of small-town America he wanted for Shadow of a Doubt. Wilder, who helped Hitchcock select Santa Rosa, California, as the setting, wrote a prose outline of the story before being mobilized into World War II. Hitchcock then turned to screenwriter Sally Benson, another writer deeply steeped in Americana. Her "5135 Kensington Avenue" stories had been the basis for Meet Me in St. Louis.

The opening scenes of Shadow of a Doubt make it clear that the man we come to know as Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten) has sinister secrets and a dark side, so when he descends on pristine Santa Rosa and his sister's family, the Newtons, we already know that something is quite wrong, but we don't what it is. Oakley is handsome and smooth. His voice is velvet and his manner is insinuating; he has seen the world and flaunts his style and money with confidence. When he comes to stay with the Newtons, their staid community is bedazzled and responds by immediately embracing him.

Santa Rosa, scene of much location work, is blissfuly serene, a spotless tree-filled little town of quaint houses with broad porches, lush flower beds, friendly neighbors, fussy librarians, crusty traffic cops, immaculate churches, a stately and bustling bank and every trapping of the ideal American town in the 1940s.

At the heart of the film is a doppelganger motif personified by young Charlie (Teresa Wright) and her Uncle Charlie. They are admitted "doubles," she was named for him and adores him; he obviously favors her. The two Charlies seem to have a psychic link, share a restless spirit and other traits. But one of the pair is pure while the other is corrupt, and the two eventually come to an unbridgeable abyss and a stand-off. Teresa Wright delicately renders Charlie as an intelligent and decent girl impatiently verging on womanhood. Intuitive and strong, she has her mettle tested and must grow up quickly and profoundly when she realizes her beloved uncle is a cold-blooded killer. Uncle Charlie, intricately wrought by Cotten, is a ruthless sociopath of indecent charm. His view of humanity is far beyond cynical: "Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses you'd find swine?"

Wright and Cotten contrast and play off each other beautifully; their scenes together are rock solid. Backing them up is an excellent supporting cast that includes Hume Cronyn making his memorable film debut as the Newton's eccentric next-door-neighbor; Henry Travers, cozy and congenial as small-town-dad Joe Newton; Patricia Collinge, note-perfect as fluttery and sentimental Emma Newton. Also very watchable are Edna May Wonacott as the cheeky little sister and Wallace Ford as a detective on Oakley's trail.

Shadow of a Doubt has been called Hitchcock's first fully-realized masterwork. I'm not so quick to write-off his direction and overall imprint on Rebecca, but agree that Shadow of a Doubt, multi-layered and meticulously orchestrated, is among his very best films. The juxtaposition of a simple and complacent American small town with the lethal killer creeping toward its heart is neatly executed, and the early kinship that becomes a battle-to-the-death relationship between the two Charlies ensures that the dramatic tension never eases up.

What are your impressions of Hitchcock's vision of America in Shadow of a Doubt? Any comments about his style and technique or technical aspects of the picture? Which of the performances are standouts for you and why? Does it seem to you that the film is referencing the international situation of the time? What other films owe a debt to this one? ...And have you heard about or noticed the repeated use of "twos" or "doubles" (starting with the two Charlies) in Shadow of a Doubt?


  1. I thought this was a very good review by Eve, and had to stop by to read it again. I am a big fan of Shadow of a Doubt, with its innocent American town setting, Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright excellent in their roles, and the supporting cast was superb. I hope this inspires interest in those who have not seen it. It's an important film among classics.

  2. I'm possibly the only person alive who finds "Shadow of a Doubt" unworthy of the praise it receives.

    Hitchcock was famous for stating -- using a "time-bomb under the table" analogy -- that suspense is better than surprise. And you can't have suspense without audience awareness (qv, "Sabotage"), right? Well, not always.

    What Hitchcock overlooked is that the audience can create its own sense of "awareness". In showing us right at the beginning that Uncle Charlie murders women for a living, Hitchcock DESTROYS any sense of suspense. Without that knowledge, there would be rising anxiety produced by our LACK of knowledge about Charlie -- who is he, why he does such odd or mysterious things. WITH that knowledge, there is no "shadow of a doubt" for the audience, and it is simply a matter of counting down the minutes until the picture is over, because we /know/ Charlie will not be killed by her uncle.

    Simply scissoring off the opening of the film would greatly improve it (though other changes would likely be needed for clarity and continuity).

    The opening titles -- showing people dancing to the Merry Widow waltz, is idiotic. It does nothing the set the stage for the story -- which is about the dirty things under the surface of everyday life.

    1. I suspect their others who have issues with the film. You make a good point about Hitch destroying the element of suspense very early in the film. As for the merriment in the opening shots, I expect that was a product of Hitch's dark humor.

  3. This is a nice guest review you have here. I like the film for much the same reasons. Interesting backstory.

    1. Yes, the Lady Eve is a Hitchcock enthusiast, so she knows a lot about the man and his films.