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Le Cinema Dreams Film Essay: Shadow of a Doubt - 1943
SHADOW OF A DOUBT 1943
Decades before David Lynch turned his twisted lens on small-town perversity in the masterfully weird Blue Velvet,
Alfred Hitchcock had already taken what I consider to be the definitive look at the pernicious effect of evil on small
town life in Shadow of a Doubt. You can keep your Psycho, Vertigo, and Rear Window — classics all— but for me,
there isn't a Hitchcock film that compares with Shadow of a Doubt.
Hitchcock to the left : Holding all the Aces
As a thriller, it has a simplicity of plot that is near-irresistible: A beloved uncle with a dark secret (Joseph Cotten)
visits his family in a small northern California town. A secretive, closed-off person whose misanthropic nature
contrasts starkly with the open friendliness he displays to insinuate himself into the lives of his distant family and the
townsfolk. It isn't long before Charlie reveals himself to be a true figure of evil; his presence threatening to disrupt
the conventional lives around him. His true nature also initiates a shattering coming-of-age for his adoring niece
Santa Rosa, California
If you can imagine Vincente Minnelli's small-town valentine, Meet Me in St. Louis crossed with Orson Welles' noirish
thriller The Stranger, then you have a pretty good idea of what a delightfully sinister mélange Hitchcock concocts in
Shadow of a Doubt. (Both Thornton Wilder of Our Town and Sally Benson of Meet Me in St. Louis worked on the
script for Shadow of a Doubt).
Teresa Wright as Charlotte Newton
Joseph Cotten as Charlie Oakley
Macdonald Carey as Det. Jack Graham
Patricia Collinge as Emma Newton
Henry Travers as Joseph Newton
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I've always been impressed by Alfred Hitchcock's ability to balance humor and terror in his films. It always seemed
like such a dangerous risk to take...potentially sacrificing mood or suspense for the sake of interjecting some bit of
levity...but his films always carry it off. Almost always. The humor in Frenzy and Family Plot verges on the painful.
In Shadow of a Doubt the humor on display is of the gentle type derived exclusively from the characters. To great
effect, Joseph Cotten's self-serious, misanthropic sociopath (how's that for a description? Reminds me of Wood
Allen's line: "I'd call him a sadistic, sodomistic necrophile, but that would be beating a dead horse." ) is contrasted
with the practical and sweet Teresa Wright and her decidedly dotty family. Each is lovably offbeat in some very real
way, and their harmless eccentricity lends them an endearing vulnerability in the face of Cotten's poisonous view of
"Really Poppa, you'd think Momma had never SEEN a phone! She makes no allowance for science.
She thinks she has to cover the distance by sheer lung power!"
The Newton Family: If cast today, the parents look too much like grandparents
I've always liked how Joseph Cotten never seemed to be too taken with his own good looks. He played both villains
and romantic leads with such a refreshing lack of ego that even his monsters were likable.
Charlie- "The whole world's a joke to me."
As good as the entire cast of Shadow of a Doubt is, it's the work of Teresa Wright that towers over the rest. A stage-
trained actress Oscar nominated for her first three film roles, Wright gives one of those performances that makes the
film unimaginable without her. She is a wonderfully natural presence in the film, very contemporary in her acting
style and apparently incapable of having a false moment on the screen. I can't think of another actress from this era
who exudes such a down-to-earth quality. While so many of her contemporaries spoke in that stagy, mid-Atlantic
dialect that telegraphed "acting!" Wright seemed not to be playacting at all. Her performance under Hitchcock's
direction is one of her strongest.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Years before he would succumb to stylistic self-consciousness, Shadow of a Doubt shows Hitchcock in full control of
his gifts as a master storyteller. The film is sharp and compact and zips by at an entertaining and very suspenseful
108 minutes. Indeed, in this era where a film like Sex and the City 2 can eat up more than two hours with a virtually
non-existent plot, or Quentin Tarantino can actually lose his way when confronted with a running time of less than 2
½ hours (Death Proof is like the work of a gifted 10 year-old let loose with a camera), Shadow of a Doubt looks like
nothing short of a miracle. There isn't a wasted frame, superfluous scene, or self-indulgent moment in this tightly-
structured film that economically achieves its desired effect without skimping on character development or plot
The almost psychic connection between Charlie and his niece Charlotte (Little Charlie), rendered cinematically.
Uncle Charlie- "We're old friends, Charlie. More than that. We're like twins."
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
My absolute favorite parts of Shadow of a Doubt are the scenes chronicling Teresa Wright's mounting disillusion with
her idealized uncle, Joseph Cotten. The psychological authenticity of her behavior and reactions are so keenly
observed and subtly performed. It's marvelous to me that the screenwriters had the sense and took the time to really
let Wright's awakening to her uncle's true nature be an integral part of the film's second half.
Everything is Suspect: Charlotte watches her uncle's powerful hands twisting a napkin.
Filmmakers today, afraid of losing the short attention-span of their audience, never seem to understand that unless
you devote enough time to the psychology of your characters, no degree of plot twists or action scenes can generate
interest in the outcome of a film. The most gripping moments from Shadow of a Doubt come from the scenes where
the loss of idealism in Wright's character is something we can literally see. The defeated body language, the
hardening of the voice, the way you can tell that she mourns for her previous state of ignorance. It's a masterful
I love how Wright's once-free physicality around Charlie gradually grows awkward, and how she can't seem to stand
looking at him. There are these great fleeting moments when you can see her studying him when he's not looking,
searching for a betraying trace of the evil she knows is there but somehow missed.
The post-library dinner table scene is, from a psychological standpoint, one of the most emotionally true,
discomfiting scenes of mounting family discord in modern cinema. It's in this scene that Teresa Wright really shines.
Scarcely an actress today could handle the complexities of that scene (Ok, maybe Natalie Portman or Cate
Charlotte notices a mysterious inscription inside of a ring her uncle just gave her.
As I've stated, Teresa Wright gives a stellar performance here, but kudos go to the team of writers who were smart
enough to mine the dramatic possibilities in a young girl being forced to confront the ugliness of the real world. They
could have played up the police/manhunt angle for the obvious action potential, but the film benefits greatly from
keeping its focus on what the characters are going through rather than the chase and the procedurals of police work.
Though the term is bandied about a lot these days, Shadow of a Doubt has a deserved reputation as a Alfred
Hitchcock masterpiece. A solid entertainment and suspenseful drama, but what resonates for me is that at its core it
is a cunningly perceptive treatise on nostalgia and the romanticism of the past.
Charlie: "I keep remembering those things. The old things. Everybody was sweet and pretty then, the whole world. A
wonderful world. Not like the world today. Not like the world now. It was great to be young then."
These words, spoken by a character embittered by what he sees as the corruption of good around him, are no truer
then than they are now. Every age thinks the age past is the ultimate age of innocence. If you look on YouTube you
can even read comments by people lamenting the state of the world today and denoting the '70s, '80s, and even the
'90s as a "kinder, gentler time." As a man past middle-age, I find myself caught in that inevitable "curmudgeon zone"
where everything about the world today seems somehow inferior (as is evident from my comments about
contemporary filmmakers) and my past seems endlessly cheerier and innocent. Now mind you, the innocent and
cheerier time I look back at with such rose-colored glasses are the '70s. And we all KNOW that the '70s were
anything but innocent.
But that's what I mean, the world of the past is always soothing to our minds and we go to great lengths to recreate it
as we wish to remember it. No matter how far from the truth it may be.
Hume Cronyn (right) making his film debut as a neighbor obsessed with the details of crime and murder.
The small-town life depicted in Shadow of a Doubt is a vision of America that never existed except in our minds and
perhaps on our TV screens and in our movies. It takes a special kind of myopia to be able to (or need to) see the
world in such a narrow fashion. To paraphrase Dickens, history has always been a combination of the best of times
and the worst of times. The world is never all good, nor is it all evil. Shadow of a Doubt artistically shakes us out of