Shining A Light On “Shadow Of A Doubt”

by Ashley Naftule

I spent my New Year’s the same way I spend every New Year’s: Getting drunk at home and watching movies. Sure, it isn’t as glamorous as frolicking on a dance floor and trying not to trip on spilled champagne, but it beats getting a DUI.

This year I rang in 2017 by watching a bunch of Hitchcock classics on TCM. One of the ones they screened was one of his early American films, “Shadow Of A Doubt”. It’s one of my favorite Hitchcock movies. It’s also one of his most flawed and inconsistent films, but there’s something about it that I just can’t shake. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I recovered from my champagne couch hangover, so here’s a few thoughts on this flawed thriller.

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SPOILER WARNING FOR A FILM RELEASED IN 1943

A small, loving, and slightly eccentric family gets a visit from their uncle Charlie, a genial well-to-do urbane man who likes to strangle widows in his spare time. It’s a classic story: the snake in the garden of Eden. Evil comes to an idyllic town and wrecks havoc. Throw in some supernatural special effects and a gory death or three and you’ve got yourself a Stephen King story.

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Joseph Cotten, the Robin to Orson Welles’ Batman, plays the malevolent uncle Charlie. Watching Cotten, known for playing fools (“The Third Man”) and well-meaning second bananas (“Citizen Kane”), take on a two-faced role like this is fascinating. It’s interesting to see how the actor’s straight man persona can so easily be read as sociopathic.

He’s the odd man out in more ways than one: Even if he wasn’t a cold-blooded killer, Uncle Charlie would never fit into his family’s hometown. The townspeople like him, but he’s too self-aware, too willing to jab at other people’s fussiness (like the way he causes a scene at his brother-in-law’s bank) to ever become a part of this all-American town. He’s a sharp pebble in Norman Rockwell’s shoe.

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The only person he truly seems to connect with is his niece Charlie (played by Teresa Wright). Their relationship is one of the things that makes “Shadow Of A Doubt” standout. The two of them are very close, so much so that the film seems to imply that there’s some kind of psychic connection between the two of them. On the same day that Uncle Charlie shoots a telegram off to his family, his niece suddenly gets the urge to send him a telegram urging him to come visit. She gets a waltz stuck in her head at the dinner table and wonders out loud if songs that are stuck in a person’s head could jump into someone else’s. Disturbed by the song (and possibly by the implication that she could be right), Uncle Charlie knocks over a drink to derail this humming train of thought.

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It also isn’t hard to almost get an incestuous vibe from their relationship. Niece Charlie seems positively smitten with her dashing uncle. She walks arm and arm with him around town, even laughing to him about the way her friends look at him. She seems infatuated.

Her close connection with her uncle makes sense. Charlie doesn’t feel like a normal person- The way she expresses frustration over being thought of as “ordinary” when her family gets picked to do a survey because they’re a perfectly average American family says a lot about her character. There’s nothing ordinary about Uncle Charlie. Or the rest of her family, for that matter.

While her mother and little brother are textbook character types, Charlie’s sister is an obsessive bookworm and her father likes to spend his time talking about murder with his friend Herbert (played by Hitchcock regular Hume Cronyn). The brief scenes that Charlie’s father and Herbert spend together in their murder club are wonderful: The two old friends try to one-up each other by plotting and foiling their respective murders. The scenes take on an added blackly comic dimension when it becomes apparent that there’s somebody in the house who’s actually plotting real murder schemes while the two of them sit on the porch and argue over whether it’s better to bash someone’s brains in with a lead pipe or use poison.

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Anytime the film focuses on the two Charlies, it crackles with tension. Aside from the murder club digressions, any time spent away from the two of them is a drag. A pair of detectives show up and one of them (played by Macdonald Carey in pure whitebread gumshoe mode) takes a shine to Niece Charlie. What follows is one of the most perfunctory and rushed love stories I’ve ever seen. They go on one brief going-around-town-on-a-date montage before the film abruptly cuts to an angry Charlie calling her date out for being a cop. I’ve seen “Shadow Of A Doubt” multiple times and each time this transition happens it throws me. It feels like 2-3 minutes got lopped off between these scenes.

Post fight scene they make up, and within a few scenes they’re talking about possibly getting married. The fact that they have zero chemistry and just aren’t convincing as a couple makes these scenes feel like they go on for an eternity. While it makes sense to give Charlie someone else to connect with emotionally to make it easier for her to justify turning against her uncle, it’s hard not to root for her uncle to escape. After all, unlike Macdonald Carey’s Jack Graham, at least Uncle Charlie isn’t boring.

In addition to the terribly rushed love connection, the film also makes a huge misstep during a family dinner scene when Cotten goes the Full Moustache Twirl and unleashes a monologue about how widows are useless creatures that deserve to be slaughtered. It’s about as subtle as a sign spinner stepping into the frame to twirl a light-up arrow that says “THIS GUY IS A FUCKING PSYCHO”. The fact that NOBODY other than Niece Charlie seems perturbed by this ghoulish rant is hilariously preposterous. I’m just saying, I ain’t no snitch- but if I’m at a dinner party and some normal dude I knew started talking about how babies are useless and should be ground alive into dogmeat, I might go look up the anonymous tip line number afterward, ya feel me?

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But for a film with some glaring problems, there’s something about “Shadow Of A Doubt” that rewards repeat viewings. The black comedy, the way Joseph Cotton could toggle from “doting uncle” to “I have dead crocodile eyes and I will gut your soul”, the strange touches that never get explained (the humming waltz, the psychic link)… and above all, the craft in which it’s put together. Even a lesser Hitchcock (which “Shadow” certainly is; while I may love it, it’s nowhere near the ranks of something like “Rear Window”) beats the hell out of most filmmakers’ best efforts.

A friend of mine observed that maybe the reason “Shadow Of A Doubt” feels off is because Hitchcock made it shortly after coming to America. That he was too English to understand the nuances of small-town American life. I’d argue that lack of realism and nuance is precisely the point. Hitchcock is a filmmaker who delights in artifice. None of his masterpieces feel tethered to reality, either in terms of plots or in the universes they take place in. The ridiculous situations that plague Cary Grant in “North By Northwest”; the huge fake set that Jeff in “Rear Window” peeps on; the birds that tear at Tippi Hedren’s hair; the misty, spooky San Francisco that eats Kim Novak alive (twice!) in “Vertigo”… These are movies that take place in Movie Land. Only in Movie Land would a middle-aged Jimmy Stewart hesitate to put a ring on Grace Kelly.

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Even if Hitch had spent years living in the States, I doubt that the vision of small town life on display in “Shadow Of A Doubt” would have felt any more real. It’s not supposed to. The town and the people in it are just a giant dollhouse for the two Charlies to play in. They’re the only real things in this movie. Each of them are trying to escape in their own way. Niece Charlie doesn’t want to be an ordinary girl, and Uncle Charlie doesn’t want to be tied down by anything or anyone.

By the end of the film, only one gets away: Uncle Charlie dies beneath the wheels of an oncoming train, after trying to murder his niece. He’s given a huge funeral, mourned by his family; the only people who know the truth about his crimes are his niece and her soon-to-be boring husband. She gets to stay in Movieland, puttering around in the dollhouse.

On the bright side: maybe she’ll get lucky and get invited to join the murder club. I’m sure Herbert and her dad would be amazed by Charlie’s inside information.

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