Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt has its 70th anniversary this year. It was probably the most prominent of his films that I had never seen before, and I took care of that last night. I learned that it was Hitchcock’s favorite of his films. His daughter thinks it was because he took an idyllic small town and inserted it with menace.
The spine of Shadow of a Doubt is a familiar one in Hitchcock’s work–suspicion. Just two years earlier he’d titled a movie that, and this one bears some parallels with his first film, The Lodger. In this case it’s a man, seemingly on the run, returning to the bosom of his family, especially a niece who adores him. But slowly she, and the audience, realized he’s not quite what he seems.
The man, Uncle Charlie, is played brilliantly by Joseph Cotten, who allows us sneak glimpses into his psyche as he otherwise deals genially with his family. They are his older sister (Patrica Collinge) brother-in-law (Henry Travers), and the niece named after him, Charlie (Teresa Wright), along with two other small children. All we know is that he beat it out of a boarding house back east when two unknown men are looking for him.
Cotten and Wright have a special bond. Not only do they share the same name, they have a kind of kinship that reminds one of twins. She is first seen as hopelessly bored with her average, small-town life, and decides she’s going to wire Uncle Charlie to come visit. As she is in the telegraph office, she learns that he is on his way, and wonders if they have a telepathic connection. When he arrives, she kiddingly tells him that she is going to learn all his secrets, which makes his eyes narrow just a bit.
As usual with Hitchcock, the characters and the audience learn things at the same time. Cotten gives a few clues, such as trying to dissuade Wright from saying “Merry Widow” aloud, or removing a page from a newspaper. But his past is catching up with him when two detectives, masquerading as government information gatherers, visit the house. Cotten is wise to them, and tries to avoid meeting them or being photographed.
One of the detectives, Macdonald Carey, takes a liking to Wright, and takes her out to dinner. There’s an interesting cut from them having a good time to Wright accusing him of lying to her. He comes clean, telling her that a man they are looking for may be her beloved uncle. She confirms her fears by finding a copy of the newspaper that Cotten disposed of, which sets up one of those Hitchcock scenes where its suspenseful whether Wright can get to the library before it closes.
I’ll leave the rest of the plot unspoken of for those who haven’t seen it, but suffice it to say Cotten is not a good guy. Wright must deal with her familial devotion and her fondness for Carey. In a certain way it’s all very Freudian, as Wright, the person who loves Cotten the most, is the one who brings him down.
This is a very subtle film. I noted that it’s not until the halfway mark that we learn of Cotten’s crimes. In a way, it’s like Ozzie and Harriet crossed with a thriller. The film was shot in the place it was located, Santa Rosa, California, and it was Hitchcock’s first real foray into the American psyche (Saboteur was the first film he did set in America). Much of the success of the film has to do with Cotten’s very subtle performance. He easily turns on the charm, but it has rough edges, as when he visits Travers in the bank and makes inappropriate jokes. At times the lid blows off, such as a speech at the dinner table about widows squandering their husbands’ fortunes. But even up until the climax of the film, on a train, we can’t help but liking Cotten just a little bit.
Hitchcock supplies numerous touches to the film. When Cotten’s trains arrives, it casts a shadow over his awaiting family. The middle child, Ann, is played by a wonderful young actress, Edna May Wonacott, as a precocious girl who has a built-in bullshit detector. When Cotten gives all the kids gifts, she gets a stuffed animal, and there’s the briefest flash of distaste that crosses the face of this girl who would rather read Ivanhoe.
Other things of note in the film: Hume Cronyn makes his film debut as Travers’ friend. The two get together and talk about true crime stories, and think up the best ways to kill each other, certainly something that Hitchcock would appreciate. The script was mostly written by the exemplary chronicler of small town life, Thornton Wilder (he wrote Our Town), with some dialogue by Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville.
Shadow of a Doubt ranks in the top tier of Hitchcock’s films.