Not really one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most praised films, but should you ever feel like pretending to know more about the greatest director ever you could always name Shadow of a Doubt as a favorite film. David Mamet once called it Hitchcock’s finest and the director himself was particularly pleased with it. Perhaps not quite as memorable as some of the Master’s more talked-about works of the 1940s, it certainly makes all the right sinister moves.
In need of a place where he can disappear
Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten) is in trouble. A couple of men are looking for him and he needs a place where he can disappear. He sends a telegram to his sister and her family who live in Santa Rosa, California; their beloved Uncle Charlie wants to come visit for a while. His niece, teenager Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright), is bored with everyday life in the Newton household and is thrilled to learn that her uncle is on the way. The reunion is very amicable, but one day two men show up in Santa Rosa pretending to be a photographer and a reporter. One of them, Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), tells young Charlie that he’s actually a cop and that her uncle is one of two men suspected of being a serial killer, the Merry Widow Murderer.
Charlie can’t believe what she’s hearing; the other suspect has to be the real killer. However, the more she thinks about it the stranger certain facts about dear Uncle Charlie seem…
A stroke of genius
The casting of Cotten was a stroke of genius. The star usually played likable characters and Uncle Charlie is supposed to fall under that category. His success as a serial killer depends on his reputation as a respectable, pleasant and dapper person, a supposedly perfect catch for wealthy widows. Cotten delivers a performance that cleverly balances his sunny persona with loads of darkness. This is not a mentally stable person and there are plenty of moments where his niece in particular gets to see little hints of his other side, quirks that his loving sister is far too naive to notice.
The filmmakers do their best to emphasize those moments. This was composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s first collaboration with Hitch and his score has many dramatic breaks even at times when nothing special happens… but they effectively symbolize the dangerous nature of Uncle Charlie. I also love it how Tiomkin has twisted the classic Merry Widow waltz, a signature of the killer, to make it sound darker. The whole concept is very Hitchcockian, right up until the thrilling, typically but irresistibly contrived and spectacular scene where Cotten’s character meets his destiny.
As expected, the film also has a great sense of humor; Henry Travers (as Cotten’s brother-in-law) and Hume Cronyn (in his film debut) are very amusing together discussing possible ways of getting away with murder, all in good fun, not realizing that they’re very close to the real deal. Wright is also good as the teenager who learns, in the worst possible way, that the world is an exciting place after all. There’s tangible terror between her and Cotten as they begin to play games with each other.
Another contrast in the film is the portrayal of a monster appearing in a typical, happy, middle-class town. In a speech delivered by Uncle Charlie, the screenwriters make the point that much malice may hide in suburbia. Choosing not to think about it is human, however… and in the end the filmmakers spare suburbia the horrible truth, leaving the once innocent teenager as the only one there to know what real malice looks like.
Shadow of a Doubt 1943-U.S. 108 min. B/W. Produced by Jack H. Skirball. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay: Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, Alma Reville. Story: Gordon McDonell. Music: Dimitri Tiomkin. Cast: Teresa Wright (Charlie Newton), Joseph Cotten (Charles Oakley), Macdonald Carey (Jack Graham), Patricia Collinge, Henry Travers, Wallace Ford… Hume Cronyn.
Trivia: Joan Fontaine and William Powell were reportedly considered as Charlie and her uncle. Remade as Step Down to Terror (1958) and as a TV movie in 1991.
Last word: “In England I’d always had the collaboration of the finest writers, but in America – writers looked down their noses at the genre I work in. That’s why it was so gratifying to find out that one of America’s most eminent playwrights was willing to work with me and, indeed, that he took the whole thing quite seriously.” (Hitchcock, TCM)