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Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

October 2nd, 2007 · 8 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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“Mr. Spencer” (Joseph Cotten) lies in a rented room, smoking a cigar, surrounded by loose cash. His landlady notifies him that two men are looking for him. Mr. Spencer’s icy demeanor turns hot. After eluding the men, he dispatches a telegram to his sister in Santa Rosa, California. He notifies her that he’s coming out to stay with her, closing his message, “And a kiss for little Charlie from her Uncle Charlie.”

In picturesque Santa Rosa, Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) also lies in bed. She’s a teenager bored by the routine in her life. Charlie lets her overworked mother (Patricia Collinge), oafish father (Henry Travers) and younger sister and brother know that she’s sending a telegram to Uncle Charlie, hoping he can pay a visit and break their monotony. Charlie enters the telegram office and is told that her uncle is already on his way.

Uncle Charlie comes bearing gifts and has everybody in the house eating out of his hand. Young Charlie seems to share an uncanny psychic connection with her charismatic uncle, telling him “I have a feeling that inside you somewhere there’s something no one knows about.” He gives her a warning, “It’s not good to find out too much, Charlie.”

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Charlie notices strange things about her uncle. He tears an article out of the newspaper so that no one will read it. Two men posing as pollsters show up at the house, alarming Uncle Charlie when they try to take his photograph. The younger of the men asks young Charlie to show him the town. He reveals himself to be Detective Graham (Macdonald Carey) searching for a wanted man he believes may be Uncle Charlie.

Young Charlie rushes off to the library to scour through the newspapers. She finds the article her uncle was trying to hide. The headline screams WHERE IS THE MERRY WIDOW MURDERER? Her fears are confirmed when an emerald ring Uncle Charlie gave her bears the initials of one of the victims. Not wanting to upset her mother, Charlie looks for a way to get her uncle to leave, but only ends up alerting him that she knows his secret.

Production history 
During production of Saboteur in May 1942, director Alfred Hitchcock was already looking for a project to satisfy the second of a two-picture deal with Universal. Unable to obtain the screen rights to anything that interested him, Hitchcock sought a return to the type of material he felt comfortable doing: a modern day serial killer thriller.

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A story editor for David O. Selznick mentioned this to her husband, a pulp novelist named Gordon McDonell. McDonell met with Hitchcock and pitched him a story he was calling Uncle Charlie. It was about a gentleman who arrives in a California town to visit his sister and his teenaged niece, Charlotte. The plucky niece discovers that her namesake Uncle Charlie is in fact a murderer, and when he learns she knows his secret, he plots to make her his next victim.

McDonell was busy writing a novel and only supplied the director a six-page synopsis. Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville brainstormed ideas with her husband, but the director needed a writer who could bring small town America to life. Hitchcock dispatched a thousand word telegram to Thornton Wilder, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of Our Town. Wilder confided to a friend that the idea sounded “corny,” but he wanted to leave his mother and sister some money before he left for military service.

After five productive weeks working with Hitchcock in Los Angeles, Wilder had to report to Uncle Sam. To rewrite the script with a lighter touch, Hitchcock hired Sally Benson, a short story writer known for her wit and familiarity with adolescent girls. But the dry humored director was so grateful that “Mr. Thornton Wilder” had agreed to write a serial killer movie for him, he would acknowledge it in the film’s opening credits.

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Early story treatments described the heroine as “a Joan Fontaine type.” Hitchcock wanted Olivia de Havilland for the part. The star wasn’t available, so the director’s next choice became Teresa Wright, a 24-year-old contract player who’d been nominated for an Oscar in her screen debut, The Little Foxes. In July 1942 – three months after reading McDonell’s synopsis – Hitchcock was shooting in Santa Rosa.

The film has terrific qualities. The underlying theme of evil hiding in plain sight has power to it; David Lynch had to have been inspired by this when he wrote Blue Velvet. Joseph Cotten is both dapper and remorseless as Uncle Charlie, one of Hitchcock’s greatest villains. The visual sheen of the black and white film is striking.

Shadow of a Doubt has moments of clever play between the two Charlies, but they’re fleeting. Almost everything about the script is obvious. It feels more like a stage play than a movie, with the playwright broadcasting his themes loud and clear so the folks in the cheap seats can follow along. Teresa Wright is over the top as well, and while the finale is rousing, most of the movie is melodramatic, as opposed to suspenseful or unsettling.

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Ben Delbanco at Jiminy Critic says, “Shadow of a Doubt is not flashy … It is however, a very suspenseful look at the duality of good and evil, which is played up in the fact that the number two is seen repeatedly.”

“I’d only seen Shadow of a Doubt once before … and for the majority of the film, I was upset, remembering it being much better than it unfolded. But once the end came around and especially the neat coda, I had bought into it entirely,” writes Andrew Wickliffe at The Stop Button.

Terrence Brady at Dial H For Hitchcock says, “Murder is one of the key ingredients in almost all Hitchcock films and Shadow Of a Doubt handles it in a taut, complex manner that ingeniously mixes Capraesque domestic comedy with the harsh realities of horror.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Coming of age · Dreams and visions · Golden Age of Hollywood · Interrogation · Paranoia · Psycho killer · Road trip · Small town · Train · Woman in jeopardy

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Heather // Oct 2, 2007 at 10:11 pm

    I am very curious to know what the psychological effect of 31 Hitchcock movies in 31 days will be. Please keep a side journal of your own emotional state and report to the fans of this distracted globe from time to time!

    I love the fact that you are drawing in historical information and quotes from other reviewers — I have the feeling I can just come here and learn more than I ever wanted to know about Hitchcock films.

    Good luck with the remaining 29 days!

  • 2 Jeff McM // Oct 3, 2007 at 12:13 am

    I like that Hitchcock uses vampire-movie iconography to color Uncle Charlie, who’s lying in bed with his arms crossed over his chest when we first see him.

  • 3 M. Durón // Oct 3, 2007 at 7:45 am

    Not a favorite though very worthwhile watching: admittedly solid proof of Hitchcock’s superior narrative skills in developing a story.

    However, the storyline is such that reviewers will have a hard time commenting this movie without giving away what is meant to be a suspenseful uncertainty.

    There is lesser Hitchcock (‘Suspicion’ or others) where full certainty of their predictability (mistakenly having cast Cary Grant in it) takes place only after the ending confirms it; nowadays, audiences familiar with the director cannot expect otherwise, which makes the issue of an apparently mistaken identity (‘The Wrong Man’) somewhat of a letdown, not so much as happens in ‘I Confess’.

    Motion picture aficionados more sophisticated in reading the clues (for which sophistication, for good and bad, Hitchcock himself is considerably accountable) and there are the previews, blurbs and promotional ads to spoil the intended suspense.

    Acute observation from Jeff McM, that.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Oct 3, 2007 at 12:24 pm

    Heather: Leave it to a sociologist to suggest that I keep a psychological log of my emotional and mental state after overexposure to Hitchcock. Let’s say that after seven films so far, I know how to commit a perfect murder, but do not yet have the urge to carry it out. Thanks for commenting.

    Jeff: Man, in a thousand years I would have never made that connection. Thanks for bringing your horror movie acumen to each of these articles and sharing your thoughts with The People. I appreciate it.

    M: The film might have been more of a psychological thriller if Uncle Charlie’s guilt was in question throughout, but I never got the impression he was innocent or that Hitchcock intended to keep us guessing. Ole Uncle Charlie is acting pretty suspect right from the start.

  • 5 M. Durón // Oct 5, 2007 at 7:19 pm

    JOE: Hitchcock did introduce Uncle Charlie under the somewhat sinister circumstances described above and, in his not having gone to the authorities after being given chase by the two unidentified men, audiences indeed had cause to suspect him. So, the director might not have intended to make a thriller ouf of this.

  • 6 Damian // Oct 7, 2007 at 7:53 pm

    I’ve always considered this one to be one more of a drama that just happened to involved a murdering uncle rather than the usual “Hitchcock thriller” fare. Personally, I tend to think it’s one of his best (if perhaps not one of his most revered and/or typical) films. I know, however, it was his confessed personal favorite, so maybe that influences my thinking in that arena a bit.

  • 7 Justine // Oct 8, 2007 at 11:18 am

    One of my favourite Hitchcocks, I only rewatched it this weekend. I had no idea Hitchcock wanted a Joan Fontaine character for the role of young Charlie, I’m happy he decided against it because Fontaine is one of those actresses who annoys me to no end…especially in Rebecca. As it happens when rewatching an old favourite, you notice something new everytime. Two days ago when I watched it I was all about how Hitchcock used the camera, it was in almost constant movement, moving around corners, tracking down streets, etc. Many of them are difficult to pull off but done absolutely effortlessly so that you barely even notice them. There is also the comedy of the situation and characters, which I think probably falls into what you call melodrama. It’s more tongue and cheek than I ever thought, over the top, but I think it’s intentional…

  • 8 Joe Valdez // Oct 8, 2007 at 8:56 pm

    Damian: Hitchcock did infer this movie was his “most satisfying” for many years, but seemed to backtrack when talking to the Cahiers du cinéma crowd for posterity in the 1960s, saying it was only “one” of his favorites. A lot of people whose opinion I respect do rank this as one of their favorite Hitchcock movies of all time, if not #1, but I doubt it would crack my top 10. I’m a mutant like that.

    Justine: Damian addressed your question about the tone of the picture. Yeah, I don’t know if I’d call this a “thriller” either. Like so many of Hitchcock’s films, it defies easy categorization. I’ll keep your comment about Joan Fontaine in mind when I watch Rebecca and Suspicion. Or, I’ll try not to!

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