Happy first week of fall! In order to celebrate the arrival of my favorite season, I decided to use this installment of the B&W Cinema Series to talk about one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock films, Shadow of A Doubt. Released in 1943, this psychological thriller follows the relationship between Charles Oakley/Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) and his niece Charlotte/Young Charlie (Teresa Wright). When Uncle Charlie pays Charlotte and her family a visit, his niece suspects he is keeping a secret, and begins following clues that reveal her uncle’s criminal history.
I saw all of Hitchcock’s best known films before I reached my 20s. Shadow of A Doubt was my first dive into somewhat lesser known Hitchcock thanks to a box set I received as a Christmas present nearly 10 years ago. I was blown away by this film the first time I saw it and still rank it among my top five Hitchcock works. It’s a nearly two-hour master class in foreshadowing, character development and tension-filled dialogue. It’s also a fairly uncomfortable film to watch. Much has been written about how the film serves as an allegory about abusive family relationships, emotional manipulation and incest.
That uncomfortable feeling begins as soon as Charlotte realizes her Uncle is coming for a visit. The teen is bored with the dull pace of life in her hometown of Santa Rosa, California and complains that her family is stuck in a rut. When she finds out Uncle Charlie is coming for a visit, she quite dramatically proclaims that he is coming to save them. Her family does lead a very typical day in, day out existence. The oddest thing about them is how obsessed her father Joseph Newton (Henry Travers) and his friend Herbie Hawkins (Hume Cronyn) are with crime fiction and trying to plan entirely hypothetical murders. I’ve always found the scenes between Joseph and Herbie amusing, but I laugh a little harder now that I know Alex and Allison, who have many similar conversations in the context of discussing crime podcasts. Joseph and Herbie’s murder talk is also a bit of Hitchcock himself blended into these characters’ traits. Perhaps it was a bit of co-writer Alma Reville poking fun at her husband through her work. Were he alive today, Hitchcock absolutely would be a murderino.
When Uncle Charlie does arrive, Charlotte’s reaction to his presence borders on swooning. When Uncle Charlie offers her a gift, she says “I don’t’ want anything” and “right now, I have enough.” She also states that “we’re not just uncle and niece, we’re something else.” Uncle Charlie encourage this behavior in the way he talks to her, looks into her eyes and holds her hands. It’s creepy. I feel as if it is exacerbated by the fact that explicit sexual imagery and behavior could not be depicted in films of this era. Romantic arcs had to be subtle in conveying attraction and physical desire, so Charlotte’s bond with Uncle Charlie seems all the more inappropriate because she acts towards him in the same affectionate but not overtly sexual way teenage girls in movies from this era would act around love interests. However, we get concrete evidence early on that Charlotte does not have inappropriate feelings towards Uncle Charlie. She compares their bond to that of twins and also appears to share telepathy with him.
I’ve always found the telepathy subplot undercooked. It’s not present or intriguing enough to be a true McGuffin and it really doesn’t add much to the character dynamics, nor does it impact the plot significantly. Most of what Charlotte learns about her uncle comes out through their discussions and his behavior. Perhaps the telepathy subplot was added to dial down the incestuous undertones and avoid upsetting censors.
After the “twins” comment, Uncle Charlie’s behavior towards Charlie continues to be creepy. The more suspicious she becomes of him, the more he tries to manipulate her feelings in order to keep his crimes hidden from the family. Joseph Cotton’s performance is perfect, and he’s my second favorite Hitchcock villain. Only Norman Bates is better. So much of what is unsettling about Shadow of A Doubt is how it manages to suggest incredibly heinous behavior without being at all graphic. Uncle Charlie’s treatment of Charlotte and the things he says about women, particularly during a key dinner scene, offer glimpses of the violent sexual predator who lurks within. The “merry widow killer” as the newspaper calls him, is a side of Uncle Charlie we only really see in brief flashes, but every line and every movement of this character is suggestive of the misogyny fueled evil within. We slowly realize that the way Uncle Charlie manipulates his niece is the same way he preyed on the widows he eventually murdered.
The script is also brilliant in how it offers a subtle but powerful indictment of patriarchy. We see Emma Newton (Patricia Collinge) occupying the housewife role that society expected women to conform to, while Joseph works at the bank and supports the family financially. It is an example the standard encouraged by the patriarchal U.S. society of the 1940s. Women were expected to rely on their husbands and keep a house, yet, as evidenced by Uncle Charlie’s “faded, fat, greedy women” speech, abiding by those rules was still not enough to provide women shelter from male wrath. The widows he murdered followed society’s rules, but were still greeted by contempt and violence from a man who believes they did nothing to earn what their husbands left them. Uncle Charlie is a manifestation of the patriarchy’s hypocrisy, selfishness, disrespect and hatred.
Most of the film’s thrills up until the last act come from dialogue and small actions that reveal Uncle Charlie’s criminal past. We know from the first scene, where he flees from two law enforcement agents, that he is a dangerous individual. The tension in the film comes from our desire to find out what he did, how Charlotte will uncover the truth and how she will react once she knows it. I have not seen it, but I’ve read that there was a made for TV remake in 1991 where Uncle Charlie was played by Mark Harmon. That version opened by showing Uncle Charlie seducing and murdering one of the widows. I imagine that scene is detrimental to the impact of the story. Hitchcock’s version makes it very clear from the opening scene that Uncle Charlie is a criminal, but places us in Charlotte’s shoes to help us find out what he did. Opening with the murder seems like it would ruin a lot of the tension in the plot that follows.
Shadow of A Doubt remains a disturbing, tense, darkly funny and thoughtful thriller and makes for perfect fall/Halloween viewing.