21 doubt

#21 — Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)

Family is a twisty, tricky thing. For Charlie (Teresa Wright), a cheery teenager in a small California town, the imminent arrival of her uncle, also named Charlie (Joseph Cotten), is cause for rejoicing. The two have an obvious connection through their shared nickname (he’s Charles, she’s Charlotte), but there are hints at other parallels, with director Alfred Hitchcock framing them in similar ways in their respective introductions. The connection is positioned as profound, which of course only serves to make an eventual spiritual betrayal all the more harsh. Shadow of a Doubt might be the first full and proper manifestation of Hitchcock’s worldview.  It’s not his first great film — there are at least three or four other titles that can vie for that honorific — but if offers a shrewd, potent version of the thesis of lurking discontent that would shade the best of his work in the decades to come, along with a view visual precursors of the greatness to come. Towering achievements like Psycho and Strangers on the Train hold echoes of shouts first issued here.

Young Charlie quickly suspects that her namesake relation is hiding dreadful secrets, specifically of murderous crimes. She begins investigating, consistently worried that Uncle Charlie is onto her, perhaps putting her own well-being at risk. This is where Hitchcock’s masterful ability to orchestrate scenes comes into play. There’s not a lot of trickery nor manipulation to the storytelling. Instead, Hitchcock coaxes maximum menace out of the slightest of reactions. Cotten doesn’t particularly play Charlie like a looming threat. Indeed, it’s the casual calm of the performance that instills so much menace, making Charlie unpredictable. Wright is similarly contained in her anxiety, depicting the character as trying her level best to keep her composure lest it trigger further suspicions. Hitchcock loved his cat and mouse games, but Shadow of a Doubt has a defter touch than that. Overt gamesmanship is replaced by a mutual effort to avoid stirring worry, which is of course a more realistic depiction of how such a scenario would play out. Though Hitchcock’s instinctual playfulness is one of the great pleasures of classic cinema, watching him master a tighter, more intensely focused tone raises a different sort of joy.

As usual with a Hitchcock film, several different writers received credit for the screenplay, including his spouse and most invaluable collaborator, Alma Reville. It’s the fingerprints of Thornton Wilder, five years past the seminal play Our Town, that give Shadow of a Doubt one of its most intriguing elements. Hitchcock had previously played with the idea of evil shadowing a supposedly safe relationship, but this film plays up its invasion into an idyllic corner of America. That incursion is not simply from the visitor from a big, Eastern city (Philadelphia, to be precise), but in a odd morbidity that swirls around like dizzy gnats, exemplified by the conversations between young Charlie’s father (Henry Travers) and a neighbor (Hume Cronyn), fellow fans of crime story magazines who openly speculate about how to commit the perfect murder. The constructed safety of Americana is a canard. There are any number of individuals looking at the white picket fences and ruminating on how easy it would be to impale a person on one of the slats. In part, Shadow of a Doubt is about unwittingly inviting danger in through the front door. More than that, it’s about how evil has been inside all along.

2 thoughts on “Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Twenty-One

  1. One element of Shadow of a Doubt I find fascinating is how Hitchcock and Wilder use the film as almost a parable on normalcy. Teresa Wright’s character starts out the film bemoaning her position as an average girl from an average family, but then her decidedly un-average uncle comes to town, and Wright has to grapple with how un-average she might wish to be. By the end of movie, her mild-mannered boyfriend is driving the point home with unsubtle frankness when he asks, “What’s wrong with average?” But, like you said, Hitchcock and Thornton’s portrayal of average is not idyllic in any traditional sense. Wright’s father and friend are, in some sense, just as perverse as Cotten, and while Wright acquiesces to average normalcy by the end of the film, I’m not sure we’re supposed to find that a triumph more than just a relief. In much the same way that the Wizard of Oz does, Shadow of a Doubt offers up the story of a girl straining against stifling normalcy, yearning for adventure, and then, by the end of the story, skittering back to the life she once found so stifling. But, just like It’s a Wonderful Life, Shadow of a Doubt’s negative portrayal of small-town life and what it can do to the life of the mind is never (to my mind, at least) outweighed by both film’s third-act shift toward viewing small-town life as ideal. And, while this conviction might be reinforced by my own personality and biases, I don’t think it isn’t in either text. Hitchcock and Wilder (and Capra, for that matter), complicate their stories considerably by the sympathetic renderings of their heroes. Cotten’s un-normal sociopath is frightening (and a world with George Bailey nightmarish), but are we really supposed to believe that Teresa Wright is going to be happy settling down in her hometown with her aggressively normal boyfriend? I don’t suppose there really is an answer there, but one thing that I love about Shadow of a Doubt is the way in which Hitchcock and Wilder complicate their story considerably without ever resolving said complication. By the end, the question isn’t just “What’s wrong with average?” but also what’s so right about it too.

    1. Beautifully put. With Hitchcock films, especially the best ones, it’s always interesting to consider how his themes extended across his career. The consideration of normalcy shows up all over the place, especially since one of his favorite tricks to was to place an average person in the midst of extraordinary circumstances. That itself was of course one of Hitchcock’s methods for playing the audience. Maybe more than any other director save Spielberg, Hitchcock is always keenly aware of the audience: what they need, what they don’t need, what elements of dramaturgy are ultimately incidental to stirring the right reaction. Over and over again, Hitchcock’s protagonists crave an escape from normalcy, get exactly that, endure it with varying levels of anxiety, then emerge from the darkness to the relative safety of the familiar. Sounds a little like going to the movies.

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