#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.