Being an inveterate Alfred Hitchcock fan, when someone asks me to name my favorite film from the prolific director, I find it a difficult question to answer at first. I can give a top five quite easily: North by Northwest, Strangers on a Train, Notorious, Rear Window, and Shadow of a Doubt. Each of these, I feel, is a perfect example of what makes Hitchcock so fascinating a filmmaker–every film an unparalleled concoction of mystery, suspense, romance, humor, and unrelieved examinations of human behavior.
The final two on that short list, I believe, far and away represent the best movies Hitchcock ever directed. I can make a pretty decent case (I think) for both of these movies as the pinnacle of Hitch’s repertoire. But choosing between these two to name “the” best Hitchcock effort? Seemingly an insurmountable task.
If I had to make a choice, though, I would choose Shadow of a Doubt, one of Hitch’s more subdued, and thus more sinister and insidious, Hollywood productions, as not only my favorite of Hitchcock’s films, but as the best (I believe) he ever made.
Now, I recognize that Psycho and Vertigo have their champions, many of whom fervently believe that one or both of these films are far superior to the rest of Hitch’s body of work. And while I enjoy Psycho quite a bit, and respect the charms Vertigo has to offer, so much critical attention has been paid to these two films that it’s safe to assume many casual film fans consider these movies the “best” because … well, because they’ve been told, by critical minds far superior to my own, that these films define Hitchcock’s artistic milieu.
Hitchcock certainly considered Shadow to be a highlight of his career, though whether he labeled it his personal favorite is questionable. Several reports over the years indicate that Hitchcock did, in fact, make the claim, but in his celebrated 1967 interviews with French filmmaker (and self-professed fan) Francois Truffaut, the director clarifies, “I wouldn’t say that Shadow of a Doubt is my favorite picture; if I’ve given that impression, it’s probably because I feel that here is something that our friends, the plausibles and logicians, cannot complain about.”
It is true that Shadow presents one of the more plausible plots in the Hitchcock repertoire. Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten), a charismatic bachelor, arrives in beautiful, charming Santa Rosa, California to visit his sister, Emma (Patricia Collinge) and her family. “Uncle Charlie” is especially beloved by Emma’s oldest daughter, eighteen-year-old namesake Charlie (Teresa Wright), who shares an almost abnormally close connection with her uncle. Charlie greets her uncle enthusiastically, certain that his presence will be the cure for the “rut” in which she feels the family has fallen. But unbeknownst to them, Uncle Charlie is an itinerant killer nicknamed “The Merry Widow Murderer” and is on the run from detectives seeking evidence of his guilt. As Uncle Charlie’s behavior grows more suspicious, young Charlie finds herself wondering if her uncle’s loving façade hides a more dangerous side.
Shadow of a Doubt is one of Hitchcock’s most meticulously-crafted films, and he coaxes career-highlight performances from his two stars: Cotten and Wright are essential to the movie’s success, and the two actors deliver, serving as brilliant counterpoints for one another on screen. The film is a deceptively simple and forthright depiction of the story; take a closer look at the way in which Hitchcock constructed his narrative, however, and you can see the layers and details used to put together one of the most symbolic and, frankly, twisted movies in his catalog. There are so many observations I could make about this movie; re-watching it recently, I wrote down five pages of notes about the themes, the symbolism, and the things that made me geek out like … well, a geek.
Near the start of the film, when Charlie receives a telegram from her uncle informing the family of his impending arrival, she marvels that she must share some sort of “telepathy” with Uncle Charlie, as if he can read her mind—and her desperation—across the long distance between them. Hitchcock does not do much with this idea, though: the director is more concerned with crafting the complex relationship between uncle and niece. Their bond is characterized as not merely familial, but filial in nature. Much like a parent would teach a child, Uncle Charlie takes it upon himself to indoctrinate his niece into adulthood, forcing her to accept grown-up truths about the world while introducing her to areas of Santa Rosa to which she had never been previously exposed, such as the seedy dive bar that marks their big confrontation. This parental inclination is underscored by Uncle Charlie’s telegram, in which he sends “a kiss for little Charlie,” a move that both infantilizes his niece and elicits a whisper of uneasiness … for there is an uncomfortable indication of incestuous lust in the relationship between the two Charlies.
Whether intentional on Hitchcock’s part or not (and when was anything Hitchcock ever did as a director “accidental?”), the undertones of sexual tension between the two is hard to ignore. When Cotten’s character presents young Charlie with the emerald ring that belonged to his most recent victim—both a gift and a trophy of his “victory” over its previous owner—there is a matrimonial import in the way in which he places it on Charlie’s finger, as if he is forcibly “wedding” himself to her, despite her protests. By giving Charlie the ring, Uncle Charlie inextricably links the two of them: she becomes implicit in his crimes through her soon-to-be-gained knowledge of what he has done.
The familial links do not end here. In many ways, Uncle Charlie functions as a mischievous sibling; he and young Charlie are in a silent conspiracy to brighten Emma’s life, and his initial interactions with the girl are disarmingly childlike, as he teases her much as a brother would. And to Charlie, her uncle is less an “uncle” than a peer:
“We’re not just an uncle and a niece. It’s something else. I know you … we’re sort of like twins, don’t you see?”
This sense of duality permeates the film, as Hitchcock very deliberately builds the story around mirror images and doubles. This manifests itself in several ways, most notably in the manner by which people are regularly paired throughout the movie. Of course, the most explicit example of these pairings is the two Charlies, but other pairings include: two suspects in the Merry Widow killings; two detectives pursuing Charles; Charlie’s two younger siblings and her two girlfriends; and the bumbling pseudo-murderous duo of Charlie’s father (Henry Travers) and their neighbor, Herb (Hume Cronyn), to name a few. These pairings underscore the coupling that is so central to the film: that of young Charlie and her uncle, who are, in essence, two sides of the same coin—she the innocent, he the corrupted. Young Charlie provides a link to the past, however tenuous, for her uncle; older Charlie unceremoniously ushers his niece into adulthood, with all its troubles, heartbreaks, and dangers:
“You think you know something, don’t you? You think you’re the clever little girl who knows something. There’s so much you don’t know, so much. What do you know, really? You’re just an ordinary little girl, living in an ordinary little town. You wake up every morning of your life and you know perfectly well that there’s nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day, and at night you sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep, filled with peaceful, stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares. Or did I? Or was it a silly, inexpert little lie? You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world is hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something.”
By the end of the film, as Charlie becomes aware of her uncle’s true nature and survives his attempts on her life, she becomes “corrupted,” too, her innocence lost in the face of the evil to which she has been exposed. She turns from being the one who is threatened to the one doing the threatening:
“Go away, I’m warning you. Go away or I’ll kill you myself.”
And in essence, she does just that, foiling Uncle Charlie’s machinations to preserve her own life. She loses a “twin” only to regain control of her own soul, and the young detective, Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), returns to Santa Rosa at the end of the film, having accepted the role of a more suitable, equitable partner for Charlie.
To heighten the sense of duality, Hitchcock deliberately frames the film in mirrored scenes: two scenes at the Santa Rosa train station, marking Charles’ arrival and his demise; two dinner table scenes; two scenes in the garage; two scenes of a traffic cop guiding pedestrians in town—and, later, two scenes of the traffic cop stopping Charlie as she rushes down the street; two scenes at the church. This is extended even further to include the set-pieces; there are two staircases in the house, and both Charlies hover on the stairs at different times in the film in order to listen to conversations going on below them.
Symbolically, smoke plays a large part in Hitchcock’s depiction of Uncle Charlie on screen—at multiple times throughout the film, his influence in a scene is marked by the presence of smoke, lending a devilish connotation to Cotten’s performance. Even the most seemingly innocuous moments in the film are smoke-filled; as the movie introduces us to Charles Oakley, lying on his back in the darkened boardinghouse room, a curtain of smoke hangs above his head; a similar cloud of smoke surrounds Charles’ head as he discovers the newspaper article about the Merry Widow Murderer; a haze surrounds him during both major confrontations with young Charlie (in the dive bar and in front of the house after church, when the Charlies discover that the other Merry Widow suspect has died).
In fact, throughout the movie, there are few scenes in which Charles is not shown to be smoking. That in itself is not entirely strange; it’s not unusual to see copious smoking in films from the 1940s. But rarely has it been so essential to the development of a character. Charles does not smoke merely for enjoyment; the smoke signifies deeper aspects of his character. The smoky haze that surrounds him throughout the movie obscures our view (and that of the other characters), indicating the success of Charles’ charade; and it becomes an effective weapon for him—when he locks young Charlie in the garage with the running car, the smoky exhaust from the automobile nearly kills her. And it is hard to ignore the thick, black smoke bellowing from the train as it pulls into Santa Rosa at the start of the film, heralding the metaphorical devil’s arrival.
The ennui that has seemingly driven Uncle Charlie to murder is marked by an enmity for humanity that is both startling and appropriate, considering the film’s production took place in the midst of World War II, when views of the world were far from happy-go-lucky. Charles has little consideration for this world, or for his fellow man … and fellow woman. The misogyny inherent in Charles’ murderous acts is highlighted by his comparison of wealthy widows to animals:
Uncle Charlie: “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? … horrible, faded, fat, greedy women.”
Young Charlie: “But they’re alive, they’re human beings!”
Uncle Charlie: “Are they? Are they, Charlie? Are they human, or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?”
But Charles is not merely misogynistic—he professes a bone-deep hatred for people in general and the world itself in particular. His view of the past is strangely contradictory; while Charles protests that there is little use in “looking backward,” his reminisces with Emma about their childhood are relatively idyllic:
“Everybody was sweet and pretty then … the whole world … not like the world today. Not like the world now.”
Even his affection for his daffy sister and his nieces and nephew is, at best, a surface emotion; he chides Emma sharply for what he sees as her gullibility and, when threatened by young Charlie’s knowledge of his crimes, does not hesitate to try to remove the threat by killing his own niece.
In short, Shadow of a Doubt, perhaps more so than any other Hitchcock film, effectively portrays the sociopath as the complex, multilayered creature he typically is. There is no sense of exaggeration; Cotten’s performance does not delve into overacting or melodramatic hysterics. He is charming, matter-of-fact, and clinically precise in his actions, more realistic than most of the villains in Hitchcock’s expansive rogues’ gallery.
And therein lies the strength of this movie. Shadow of a Doubt is all the more chilling because it’s a realistic portrait of a relatively innocent small town being infiltrated by an evil so insidious that most of the people there never even realize how close they have come to danger. And it proves that Hitchcock does not need twisting plots or “shock and awe” to get his point across—sometimes, all it takes to frighten someone is to show them what could be lurking in the next house, the next street, the next neighborhood.
This post is part of an ongoing countdown of Hitchcock’s twenty greatest films. Shadow of a Doubt is tied for #1 on that list. For other entries in this series, check out our category devoted to “Hitch.”