Shadow of a Doubt (1943). 108 minutes. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Teresa Wright (as Charlotte “Young Charlie” Newton), Joseph Cotten (as Charles “Uncle Charlie” Oakley), Henry Travers (as Joseph Newton), Patricia Collinge (as Emma Newton), Macdonald Carey (as Detective Jack Graham), Wallace Ford (as Detective Fred Saunders), Hume Cronyn (as Herbie Hawkins), Edna May Wonacott (as Ann Newton), and Charles Bates (as Roger Newton).
Shadow of a Doubt is one of Hitchcock’s great triumphs, said to be his favorite of his films. It presents in many regards a very basic story about a small-town American family that is visited by an outsider, a relative from far away who brings with him danger and intrigue. But it manages to elevate this familiar narrative to the level of the exquisite through the artful creation of tension, through the beauty of its setting, and through its impressive writing and acting. Told through the experiences of Charlotte “Young Charlie” Newton (played by Teresa Wright), Shadow of a Doubt is also a coming-of-age story about what it is like to doubt a cherished companion—in this case, her Uncle Charles “Charlie” Oakley (played by Joseph Cotten). Especially in this respect, it resembles another Cotten movie, The Third Man (1949), although whereas in that movie Cotten plays the protagonist, here he is the nefarious companion.
Charlotte “Young Charlie” Newton is a young woman living in small-town Santa Rosa, California with her family. Concerned that her mother is worn out, she decides to ask her beloved Uncle Charlie, for whom she was named and with whom she has a special relationship, to visit. Coincidentally, Uncle Charlie has just sent a telegram to Young Charlie telling her that he is on his way to Santa Rosa. What Young Charlie does not know is that Uncle Charlie is fleeing two detectives (Graham and Saunders) who suspect him of being the infamous Merry Widow Murderer, a killer who strangles widows and steals their inheritance.
Once in town, Uncle Charlie gives many expensive gifts to the Newtons, including an emerald ring to Young Charlie. Uncle Charlie is concerned when Young Charlie finds an engraving on the interior of the ring from a previous owner, but Young Charlie insists on wearing it anyway. Later that night, Uncle Charlie becomes flustered about a news item in the evening paper and hides it in his pocket. When Young Charlie teases him about it, Uncle Charlie grows angry. Uncle Charlie grows more frustrated when Detectives Graham and Saunders show up at the Newton house posing as government surveyors who want to interview the Newtons and photograph the house. Detective Graham asks Young Charlie out on a date, where he tells her that he suspects Uncle Charlie of murder. She is horrified and refuses to believe it can be true, but then she finds the newspaper article Uncle Charlie had ripped out of her family’s paper in a library copy, learns it was about the Merry Widow Murderer, and discovers that the engraving in her emerald ring matches one of the murder victims’ names.
She makes Uncle Charlie promise to leave town (she fears that learning of his crimes would devastate her mother), but then Detective Graham informs her that the investigation of Uncle Charlie has been called off. Young Charlie knows that this is merely good fortune and that Uncle Charlie is still guilty; she is also astonished to learn that he now refuses to leave. Her hostility towards him grows, and he, sensing that she is dangerous to have around, attempts to murder her twice. When she threatens to reveal the ring to detectives, Uncle Charlie announces he will leave after all. When he boards the train and the family sees him off, he detains Young Charlie and attempts to push her off the train while it is moving at full speed. Charlie manages to free herself, and Uncle Charlie falls in front of an oncoming train, ending his life. At the end, a funeral is held for Uncle Charlie, in which it is clear that no one knows his true crimes; Young Charlie agrees with Detective Graham that they should keep what they know a secret.
In his article on Shadow of a Doubt, Roger Ebert points to the implausibility of much of the picture, and I agree with him that many of the characters’ actions are unlikely; but as Hitchcock revealed in his interviews with François Truffaut, he never put much stock in plausibility. So why does this movie work so extremely well, we might ask, and why did Hitchcock maintain that it was his favorite of his works? For one thing, there is the charming setting of Santa Rosa, which the movie offers us as a quintessential example of a modern American community, untouched by the war and national troubles. Santa Rosa is certainly one of the cozier Hitchcock locales, including the downtown, with its library and civic buildings; the doting crossing guard who knows Young Charlie by name; the imposing library; the little shops and restaurants; the tree-lined residential streets; and the neighbors who visit on the porch at night. Not coincidentally, the script featured a major contribution from Thornton Wilder, author of Our Town, the famous play about small-town America. His version of Santa Rosa emits pleasantness and peacefulness. It is upon this quaint and placid canvas that Hitchcock’s story of evil can be unleashed to great effect.
Shadow of a Doubt shares some of the preoccupations of that great genre devoted to the study of evil, film noir. As a movie that focuses on its protagonist’s youthful adulation of someone who is revealed to be a criminal, Shadow of a Doubt is a precursor to a film noir that happens to also feature Joseph Cotten, The Third Man (1949). In the latter movie, Cotten’s character Holly Martins comes to accept, after a great deal of resistance, that his childhood friend Harry Lime is a murderer. At that point, Orson Welles as Harry Lime delivers one of the most fantastic speeches in the cinema, when high above a ferris wheel he looks down upon the people moving on the ground and implies that the sudden death of the pedestrians below would not provoke any emotion in him. Similarly here, Cotten gives one of the greatest speeches of his career, and one of the most revealing speeches delivered by a murderer in any of Hitchcock’s films. The scene occurs when Uncle Charlie is seated at the dinner table and discusses the prospect of giving a talk to Emma Newton’s women’s group:
“The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands dead, husbands who’ve spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. And then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands. Drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge. Playing all day and all night. Smelling of money. Proud of their jewelry but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women… Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?”
Uncle Charlie’s utter contempt for these women reveals a deep-seated hatred, but one that is expressed with a kind of eloquence and rhetorical precision that makes him seem reflective and thoughtful—not the kind of speech that we typically expect from a serial killer. What is especially disturbing about this speech is that despite its repulsive attitudes towards humans and women in particular, we might wonder momentarily, given what we see in the movie, if the teeniest bit of it might be true. Perhaps we think of the Widow Potter, whom Uncle Charlie and Young Charlie encounter at Joseph Nelson’s bank. Dressed in black and wearing a veil, she is chatty and flirtatious, seemingly enjoying her widowhood a bit more than we might think is tasteful. We see Uncle Charlie make a move on her and see that it has the intended effect; we wish it did not.
Charlie’s crimes indicate that he is evil, but his eloquence and refinement are related to another aspect of his character—his magical and exceptional nature, at least in the eyes of his niece. He has a unique and exalted relationship with Young Charlie: “We’re not just an uncle and a niece,” she says. “It’s something else.” In Young Charlie’s mind, the two share a psychic connection. When Uncle Charlie’s telegram arrives just as she is sending him a message, she says it must be fate. They do share a strange bond: at times, when characters call “Charlie,” it is not clear which person, the uncle or the young woman, they are addressing, and the two personae blend in their shared names. Uncle Charlie’s treatment of Young Charlie even vaguely resembles the behavior of a man towards his cherished beloved. He gives her an emerald ring upon his arrival; he holds her hands and arms closely.
Later in the movie, Young Charlie will retreat from this relationship. and her transition from Uncle Charlie’s devoted admirer to his antagonist underscores the way that the film interrogates, in a sad way, our devotion to cherished idols. Uncle Charlie at first seemed mysterious and intriguing (“I have a feeling that inside you there’s something nobody knows about… something secret and wonderful. I’ll find it out,” Young Charlie remarks to him early on). Young Charlie soon comes to understand, however, that this mystery and intrigue are actually related to his success at crime. The vivacity with which he appeals to Young Charlie is also how he manipulates wealthy widows. In other words, the special and the charming prove actually to be an essential ingredient in the movie’s horror. And yet Young Charlie’s love for her uncle is so intense, we almost suspect that there has to be something redeeming about him—perhaps that is why she is determined to eradicate him. “You destroy the thing you love,” Hitchcock told Truffaut in reference to Young Charlie’s dilemma, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde. Presumably, that is one of the reasons she maintains the secret of Uncle Charlie’s crimes at the movie’s conclusions: she can destroy him, but not her feelings for him.
If in this movie Uncle Charlie’s unique qualities turn out to be repugnant, nonetheless being average, it would seem, is not all it is cracked up to be either. In a menacing scene towards the end of the movie, Uncle Charlie tells Young Charlie she is average as a sort of a put down: “You’re just an ordinary little girl, living in an ordinary little town”—in other words, what does she know about evil and the shadows of men’s souls, and what does she really know about him? It is true that the idea of being average does not sit entirely well with Young Charlie either. “I guess I don’t like to be an average girl in an average family,” Young Charlie tells Detective Graham, whom she still thinks is a government surveyor. “Average families are the best,” he retorts. “Look at me. I’m from an average family,” he continues, before also telling her that she is, in fact, not average.
Detective Graham is right: Young Charlie may be from an ordinary town, but she is sharp and astute (her father brags about her intellectual accomplishments in front of her uncle at the dinner table), and she is mature enough that, after a time, she is willing to accept the hard truth about her uncle. Although Young Charlie may not realize it fully, she is passionate, deep, and intelligent, and the Newton family is full of similarly clever people—the little sister Ann Newton who is a bookworm; the mother Emma, who explains to the detectives posing as surveyors how to make a cake in the most precise and technical terms; the father Joseph who unwinds in the evenings on the porch with his neighbor Herbie by discussing the latest mystery novel and inventing cleverer and cleverer ways of hypothetically committing murder. Joseph and Herbie’s obsessive discussions of the best ways to kill each other are some of the funniest and most morbid of any Hitchcock movie. They also remind us that although Uncle Charlie’s proclivity for murder (his preferred method is strangulation) may be limited to him in practice, morbid thinking is possible even in this small picturesque town. Thus while Shadow of a Doubt unabashedly embraces the beauty of Santa Rosa life, it also causes us to reconsider how average anyone in the story truly is. Perhaps “average” is a term we use to describe people and places whom we think are untainted by the darker side of life—but of course, one of the things this movie shows us is that the dark side, as represented by Uncle Charlie, can enter into our lives no matter where we live.
Ultimately, one of the things that makes Shadow of a Doubt seem distant from the typical film noir is the way in which Young Charlie and Detective Graham agree to keep Uncle Charlie’s crimes a secret at the end of the film. What film noir could hope to arrive at such a generous ending? And yet in its own strange way, Shadow of a Doubt offers us some hope about humanity in the generosity of its characters’ final decisions: it is not just that they would prefer to live with the lie about who Uncle Charlie was, but that they care so much for Young Charlie’s family that they cannot bear to think of how the truth will affect both it and the wider community. It was a compassionate ending for a crime movie, especially for a Hitchcock movie. Perhaps that is why it was one of his favorites.