Beginner’s Guide to Alfred Hitchcock: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Shadow of a Doubt is considered to be Alfred Hitchcock's favorite film of his. In 1964, Hitchcock said so himself, in an interview with TV host Fletcher Markie. Hitchcock later denied the remark, and then went on to repeated it in other interviews. Like with anything Hitchcock says, I just don’t know what to believe. However, if he did consider Shadow of a Doubt to be his favorite film, I cannot blame him. Hitchcock offers some sublime direction to complement the poetic screenplay and stunning lead performances. Shadow of a Doubt is not glamorous nor does it feature international intrigue, instead it tackles the sinister underbelly of peaceful small town America.
The film stars Teresa Wright as Charlie, a bright young woman living in Santa Rosa, CA. As the eldest daughter in a busy family, Charlie longs for something more. She’s devoted to her namesake, Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), and is thrilled when he sends a telegram announcing his impending visit. Uncle Charlie has a secret, however, and his behavior during his stay with the family becomes increasingly odd. Charlie starts playing detective—along with the real detectives chasing after Uncle Charlie—and discovers the true nature of evil.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Hitchcock made films in England. Then in 1940, Hitchcock signed a contract with David O. Selznick, and their first film together was Rebecca, which won the Best Picture Oscar. Despite being Hitchcock’s first American film, Rebecca is a very British gothic romance. Also in 1940, Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent was released, which was a spy thriller set in Europe. Then Hitchcock made a screwball comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith in 1941 and another spy thriller, Saboteur in 1942. Shadow of a Doubt then becomes the first film where Hitchcock gets to explore “real America.” The small town California setting allows for Hitchcock to explore the dark evil that lurks beneath such a cheery veneer. I am sure Hitchcock delighted in tearing down the façade of a peaceful little town to bring Charlie into the real world of danger and horror.
Shadow of a Doubt features one of Hitchcock’s finest acting ensembles. Teresa Wright delivers a truly stunning performance as Charlie. Her portrayal is inherently sympathetic and compelling, as a young restless woman confronted with a sinister world she doesn’t recognize. Charlie represents pure innocence—she isn’t naïve but rather optimistic and hopeful. As she discovers the truth about Uncle Charlie, her resolve doesn’t break. She becomes determined to wipe out the evil or at least protect her family from it as much she can.
Joseph Cotten is very menacing and vampire-like in his performance, bringing his own reasonableness to his murderous insanity. He’s so convincing and charming that one can easily be seduced. Hitchcock directs Uncle Charlie like Dracula, showing him lie down in bed like he’s in a coffin, only going through the back door, and being averse to the sunlight. There’s an otherworldly air about him that is distressing. Patricia Collinge plays Charlie’s mother, and she is warm, sympathetic, and moving in the role. I really find her to be a interesting character, one who has a bad feeling in her heart she just can’t name. She’s trying to run a normal household but something’s not quite right.
Shadow of a Doubt builds a very colorful world with quirky characters to contrast the dangerous Uncle Charlie. Charlie’s family has a lot of life to them, and their interactions with each other feel authentic. Hitchcock presents this family as crowded and busy, as opposed to some sort of “happy homemaker” fantasy. Hitchcock also indulges in his disdain for the police with this film. While the detectives aren’t completely useless, they get in the way more than they help. Hitchcock stages a romance between Charlie and one of the detectives and let’s just say it’s not one of Hitchcock’s best love stories.
Whether or not this movie was Hitchcock’s favorite, it does provide the director with a far more intimate thriller than he had made before. Many of his films are grand and epic, but this movie revolves around an ordinary family thrust into an impossible situation. However, Shadow of a Doubt isn’t a cynical descent into chaos. While Charlie loses her rose-colored worldview, she is determined that her family keeps theirs. Small town America isn’t tarnished by evil as long as someone is there to protect it.