Years ago I attempted to “review” this film for a forum I frequent and the results lets say were less than stellar. The problem was I couldn’t think of anything to say and pretty much gave up and it ended up being a half-assed paragraph. Pretty embarrassing to say the least, going back and reading it all these years later. Well I owe it to this film to try again, it deserves it. Now that that’s out of the way, when it comes to Hitchcock’s it’s virtually impossible for me to pick an absolute favorite film. Even making a top 10 list would be incredibly difficult, as he’s one of those filmmakers, where, to me at least, you’ll be watching a film and be so wrapped up in it you’ll think to yourself “ Now THIS is my favorite!”, then you’ll watch another and think the exact same thing. While Hitchcock wasn’t immune to missteps, as no filmmaker really is, his consistency was quite staggering, plus it’s been said by many that even one of his lesser films is better than most directors at the top of their game, so I’m defiantly guilty of referring to a good majority of his films as “one of my favorites”. Now if I were to ever attempt to make said top 10 list, 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt would be sitting near the very top. Shadow of a Doubt was part of the first crop of Hitch flicks I watched way back when I was first getting into his work. I’ve stated before on this very site that I started watching Hitchcock films at a pretty young age, so naturally I wasn’t so quick to pick up on all the subtexts and things of that nature happening in the films, it was all about the story for me back then. As I got older and wiser to the ways of the world, with each subsequent viewing the more things jumped out at me and I began to appreciate the films much more and on an entirely different level. Case in point, Shadow of a Doubt. While the story of uncle Charlie will never fail to grip me no matter how many times I watch it, it wasn’t actually until a few years ago until I fully grasped just how dark this film really is, and while I may have a hard time determining just what my favorite Hitchcock film really is, the master himself certainty didn’t, as he believed Shadow of a Doubt to be his finest work, and it’s easy to see why.
Young Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) is an average bored American teenager. Nothing ever exciting happens in her small town of Santa Rosa, California and in her mind her life is just spinning it’s wheels and her family is going to pieces. On a whim she decides that the one person who could cheer her up and bring excitement back to the family is her uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton), whom she was named after. While sending her uncle a telegram she finds out that uncle Charlie is actually on his way to Santa Rosa from Philadelphia to stay with the family for a while. Upon hearing the news young Charlie is ecstatic as she absolutely idolizes her uncle, and indeed when he arrives in town young Charlie and the family seems to be rejuvenated. But uncle Charlie left Philadelphia for a reason, and he didn’t come alone. He’s being trailed by two men, men who trick the Newton family into thinking their survey takers in order to get closer access to uncle Charlie. One of the men takes a liking to young Charlie and during a night on the town reveals to her their true motives. They’re detectives and her uncle Charlie is one of two men suspected to be a serial killer known as the Merry Widow Murderer, a stranger of wealthy widows. Young Charlie of course refuses to believe it, furious that anyone would even think that about her uncle, but the detectives words do leave an impression and after doing a little detective work of her own she uncovers a sinister side of her beloved uncle that she wished she never found out about, and uncle Charlie is determined to keep it a secret.
Very early on in the film, Hitchcock gives us a brief overview of the town of Santa Rosa. It’s quintessential small town America, the kind of place where everybody knows everybody, idealistic and picturesque, a great place to raise a family it would appear. But that picture soon turns incredibly bleak. Like I said above, Shadow of a Doubt is a dark film, one of Hitchcock’s darkest in fact, as the façade of small town USA is peeled back, presenting a frightening possibility of what could lurk beneath the surface of such a place, and the idea of the happy all American family is totally perverted. It’s defiantly the family element that makes the ideas present in the film so effective. Anyone can imagine young Charlie’s horror of finding out her uncle, isn’t who she thought he was at all, and in that sense the film is almost heartbreaking, as this is a person she thinks the world of, someone who brought her out of her slump and brought some life back into her and the rest of her family. Not only does this revelation completely shatter young Charlie’s image of her uncle, it would appear that the way she views the world and others is tainted as well. For the first half of the film, the suspense element comes not in wondering whether of not uncle Charlie is the Merry Widow Murderer, but wondering if and when young Charlie will find out his secret, and what will come of it. (a type of tension building that Hitchcock would brilliantly return to with James Stewart’s character in Rope (1948). Despite the films title, there really isn’t a whole lot of “doubt”, as right from the first shot of the film it’s obvious that uncle Charlie is a shady character, being followed by the two men trailing him, pretending to be ill during his train ride to Santa Rosa plus his eccentricities after his arriving, such as vehemently refusing to be photographed by the two men when they pose as survey takers and tearing an article out of a newspaper, acting more than a bit defensive when young Charlie finds said article. It’s actually after young Charlie finds out the truth that Hitchcock really cranks up the intensity by making uncle Charlie a serious threat to his niece. Without giving anything away, you won’t believe what he does to try and keep her (very) quiet, and the way he acts so “concerned” about all the “accidents” his niece is suddenly having, one after another, and the matter of fact way Hitchcock presents it makes it all the more chilling. A lot has been said over the years about the actual look of the finale on the train (it was 1943 folks, movie making technology wasn’t what it is these days) but the scene itself is one hell of a nail biter, and as short as it is, you’ll be out of breath by the time it’s over. Pure Hitchcock through and through.
If all that weren’t more than enough to make for an unforgettable film, what really seals the deal are the performances of Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright. I believe that this was one of the few, possibly only time Cotten played a bad guy (correct me if I’m wrong as there are others who know more about that stuff than I do) and he relishes every moment of it. It’s Cotten’s performance of uncle Charlie that makes Shadow of a Doubt as unsettling as it is, because if you strip away all the widow murdering, uncle Charlie seems like a pretty good guy. He’s well traveled, sophisticated, and comes across as the consummate, loving family man, even bringing expensive gifs for the entire family (his gift to young Charlie becomes a major plot device by the way). He manages to pull the wool over the entire town of Santa Rosa’s eye as he’s well liked by seemingly the whole community. Uncle Charlie’s real personality comes out in the form of two brilliant monologues wherein he opines on his nihilistic views of life, women and the world in general. Cotten’s delivery is astoundingly sinister, and it’s after the second monologue, when it’s clear to him that young Charlie knows the truth, we no longer see the man with a secretive side, only the monster that young Charlie now sees, yet at the same time there is a slight sense of shame in self-loathing in uncle Charlie, as he pleads with his niece to never let her mother find out the truth, knowing full well it would devastate her as much as it does his niece. In sharp contrast to Cotten’s menace is Teresa Wright’s youthful innocence and naivety, making young Charlie an instantly likable character, and it’s these qualities that make it incredibly easy to sympathize with her as it’s is quite troubling to see this young girls ideas of her uncle smashed, and you’ll be wishing for her safety for the majority of the later part of the film. The two of them together is the definition of chemistry, both before and after the truth about uncle Charlie is revealed, and there is always this odd tension between the two, which brings me to something that’s always stuck with me about this film. Is it just me or is young Charlie a bit too enamored with her uncle? I mean, she even says at one point in the film (and I’m paraphrasing here) that she’s always viewed them as so much more, claiming she loves being seen with him in public, gushing at the fact that all her friends fawn over him when they see the two together. Maybe I’m the weird one for even thinking about it, or perhaps it was Hitchcock’s way of darting around a taboo without spelling it out completely, but regardless it’s just another aspect of the film to creep you out.
Of course with material like this the opportunity was prime for some of Hitchcock’s trademark black humor in the form of little Charlie’s father Joe (Henry Travers) and his best friend, the Newton’s neighbor Herb, played by Hume Cronyn. The two are avid murder mystery readers and spent most of their free time discussing crime (they even bring up the Merry Widow case) and how they would murder the other and get away with it and which methods were more effective than others. This is Hitchcock so naturally one such discussion is had at the dinner table (a running joke in the film is Herb always showing up at dinner time), much to little Charlie’s dismay. My favorite discussion of theirs is when Herb asks Joe if he tasted the soda he put in his coffee, about the same amount he would use if it were poison. Both men have great comedic delivery (Cronyn especially) and their scenes are always fun. There’s also the great “I’d die for a ring like that” remark made by young Charlie’s waitress friend after seeing the ring her uncle gave to her as a gift. The Newton family is quite the quirky bunch, especially Charlie’s bookworm little sister Ann, so Hitchcock does make time for some light humor along with all the doom and gloom going on in the film. One more note about the whole small town aesthetic, there’s a big reason why it feels as authentic as it does, the film was actually shot on location in Santa Rosa, California, and like I stated above it’s pretty much your average, Norman Rockwell-esque community. The perfect place for a killer to hide out with complete anonymity it would see. Just the right subject matter for Hitchcock. The idea of seedy characters existing in suburbia has been a theme for many a film over the years (Blue Velvet immediately springs to mind) and you can clearly see Shadow of a Doubt’s influence in such films. Like so many of Hitchcock’s works, the more you watch Shadow of a Doubt, the more little things pop out making you appreciate the film even more so, while the storyline remains as captivating as it was on the first viewing. It is absolutely an essential Hitchcock masterpiece, and it just might make you think twice about putting people on pedestals, no matter how well you think you know them.