Shadow of a Doubt

Year of Release: 1943     Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.     Starring Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright, Henry Travers, Patricia Collinge, Edna May Wonacott, Macdonald Carey, and Hume Cronyn.

When one thinks of Thornton Wilder, the first work that comes to mind is probably his beloved play, Our Town, or possibly his short novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  What Thornton Wilder is not commonly associated with is his screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt.  Shortly after seeing Our Town, Hitchcock himself approached Wilder and asked him to write a screenplay for one of his next movies.  The movie would take place in a small, quiet American town, the same setting used in Our Town, but instead of celebrating the value of life, Shadow of a Doubt threatens to destroy it with a looming shadow of evil.

The film centers around the relationship between Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) and her beloved uncle and namesake Charlie Oakley. (Joseph Cotten)  As the film opens, Uncle Charlie decides to leave his residence in New Jersey and travel to California to visit his sister and her family as a surprise.  Simultaneously, young Charlie wants more excitement in her family’s life and decides to invite her uncle to visit them.  Shortly after he arrives, Charlie says to her uncle, “We’re not just an uncle and a niece. It’s something else.  I know you…I have a feeling that inside you there’s something nobody knows about… something secret and wonderful.   I’ll find it out.”

That speech both summarizes her relationship with her uncle and foreshadows the remainder of the film.  In her childlike innocence and eagerness, Charlie strives to learn more about her uncle.  As she does so, a shadow of doubt begins to darken her idyllic image of him and creep between their relationship.

Most write-ups of Shadow of a Doubt tell the reader what young Charlie’s doubt is.  The back of the DVD box not only mentions the doubt, but it reveals whether or not that doubt is true.  Even though an alert viewer will figure out the answers fairly quickly, I think both approaches are mistakes and that is best to experience the clues and questions along with young Charlie.  Since the “mystery” is not that mysterious, the film is not suspenseful in the same way Vertigo is.  The viewer is not on the edge of his seat trying to solve a crime and figure out what happened.  The suspense arises from wondering what will happen.  The main conflict is: what will young Charlie do with the information that she learns, and when will she learn it.  That is why I think it is best for a viewer to experience this film from as close to a perspective as young Charlie’s as possible.

Shadow of a Doubt showcases two worldviews: one filled with hope, the other with despair.  At the beginning of the film, both Charlies are in a similar, pessimistic state of mind.  Both of them abandon that pessimism upon seeing one another, but their choices after that are very revealing.  As they spend time together, the viewer is able to see the contrast between viewing the world and people as full of goodness and viewing the world only as full of evil.

There are many examples of Hitchcock’s talent and genius throughout the entire film.  When both Charlies are first introduced, they are lying on their backs in their bedrooms, bemoaning the current state of their lives.  The camera is placed at identical angles for these two scenes to reinforce their similarities.  Offhand comments have more significance than anyone realizes.  When Charlie’s mother first enters out of breath, her casual comment returns in a true Hitchcockian fashion towards the film’s conclusion.  A waitress’ remark at a diner sheds more light on the proceedings as well.  Jokes that fall flat hint at a character’s true state of mind.  The ballroom waltz that plays underneath the opening credits figures into the plot at crucial points.  And Hitchcock structures brilliant comic relief from the increasingly dark proceedings with the mystery loving neighbor who concocts murder scenarios with Charlie’s father.

Hitchcock said several times throughout his career that Shadow of a Doubt was his favorite of all his films.  I think it certainly deserves to stand alongside his commonly accepted masterpieces, such as Vertigo and Psycho, using the same clever foreshadowing and calculated suspense that those better known films utilize.

Content Advisory: Scenes of menace and peril and dark themes.              Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Kids and up with much discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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