I’ve mentioned this before during the run of this Cinematic Century project, but this whole thing began with me realizing I’d seen a shocking amount of movies from most of the years of the Twentieth Century. I’d found that I’d seen at least one film from 1920 to current day, with only two gaps. The first was 1929, which I filled with the campy and sleazy melodrama Pandora’s Box. And the second year was today’s, 1943. So, I began looking through the films that came out in 1943, and had two strong contenders to try out. The first film I thought about tackling was the British epic Life and Times of Colonel Blimp. I had heard great things about it, and it’s widely considered one of the finest films of the 1940’s. Unfortunately, I still haven’t seen it. I know I should, and hopefully will get around to it eventually, but it can be a tad daunting to jump into a three-hour war epic, a genre that I’ve typically had quite a bit of trouble getting into. But, even if I love Life and Times of Colonel Blimp I can’t imagine that it could topple the film that I’ll be discussing today. Because the second film that I picked from 1943 ended up Alfred Hitchcock’s personal favorite film of his career, Shadow of a Doubt. And it’s amazing. It’s the first time, of many, that I’ll be highlighting the world of Alfred Hitchcock, and it’s an absolute delight. Every now and then I come across a film and feel a little sad that I’d never seen it before and had it in my life longer, and I’ve got to tell you, Shadow of a Doubt is one of those films.
The film began as an idea that the husband of Margaret McDonell, the head of famed Hollywood producer David O Selznik’s story department, had after learning about a serial killer named Earle Nelson. Nelson had a habit of gaining older women’s trust, often landladies, and then killing them. McDonell’s husband was convinced that a story about a killer who preys on wealthy older women could really work, and eventually that story evolved into the tale that Shadow of a Doubt would eventually become, and catch the eye of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock became fascinated with making a story about a killer showing up in a wholesome American town. So, Hitchcock began making Shadow of a Doubt, filling with an almost Norman Rockwellian aesthetic of what American society should be, with the dark hint of murder threaded throughout. And it worked. The film received nearly unanimous praise when it was released, and became one Hitchcock’s most popular films to that time. It became Hitchcock’s personal favorite film of his, and it’s easy to see why. Shadow of a Doubt is a mission statement for all films that Hitchcock would come to make in the coming decades. It’s quintessential Hitchcock, and it’s a truly remarkable experience.
Shadow of a Doubt tells the story of a young woman named Charlie Newton. She lives with her family in Santa Rosa, California, and is incredibly bored with her tired suburban life. Nothing new or exciting ever happens in Santa Rosa, and she dreams of something happening to save her sanity. And, in answer to her wishes, she learns that the Newton family is going to be visited by her mother’s brother Charlie, who she’s named after. Uncle Charlie is a fascinating person, a world-traveler and a representation of everything she wishes her life could be. The entire family loves Uncle Charlie, and his arrival in Santa Rosa ends up becoming huge news in this small town, because apparently the very idea of someone travelling outside the country is mindblowing to these people. And none of this is very appealing to Uncle Charlie, because as soon as he shows up in their lives he makes it clear that he’s looking for some privacy. He just wants to spend time with his sister and her family and relax while basking in their adoration. He gives them presents and tells them stories about his travels and just generally enjoys being considered the most interesting man alive. But, almost immediately, it becomes clear that Uncle Charlie is trying to keep quiet about what he does, and why he’s here.
Uncle Charlie is incredibly suspicious, refusing to discuss his life other than in the most superficial terms, and seems dead set on keeping the family from reading newspaper stories about a series of killings on the East Coast. But things get very strange when the Newton family is suddenly introduced to two men who claim to be working on a national survey and who are on the hunt for the perfect American family. They’ve picked the Newton’s as this family, and begins popping by to take pictures and interview the family. Uncle Charlie is incredibly against this, and does his best to be gone whenever these interviews happen, even though the interviewers seem very interested in this visiting uncle. And, during the interviews, the younger of the pair, a man named Jack Graham, asks out Charlie. The two spend some time together, and Jack ends up admitting the truth to Charlie. They aren’t reporters, they’re detectives. They’re investigating a series of killings that are being attributed to a killer known as the “Merry Widow,” who is killing older women that he marries. And they think that Uncle Charlie may be the killer. Charlie is blown away by this, and insists that her uncle is innocent. But, now that she has it in her mind, she can’t stop thinking about it. She starts noticing how suspicious Uncle Charlie is all the time, and even picks up on some threatening things he says about older women one day while talking to her father and a pal of his who like to talk about true crime. And, pretty quickly, Uncle Charlie starts to pick up that Charlie is suspecting him of a crime.
Uncle Charlie then tells Charlie what’s going on. He explains that he’s a suspect in the murders, but says that he’s innocent, and asks her to keep it a secret. She does, but still isn’t sure about her uncle’s innocence. Unfortunately, things get complicated when the other suspect is killed after fleeing the police, and is then assumed to have been the real culprit. Uncle Charlie becomes thrilled that he’s no longer a suspect, but Charlie still has her doubts. And this isn’t helped when she starts to befall a series of peculiar accidents, all seemingly planned by Uncle Charlie who is trying to kill her to keep her quiet. She falls down a staircase that had been sabotaged and ends up locked in a garage with a running car, almost asphyxiating from the fumes. Charlie is terrified, and expresses her fears to Jack, who she’s continued to see, but doesn’t know what to do. Until the situation appears to take care of itself. Because Uncle Charlie has announced that he’s leaving town to live in San Francisco with a wealthy widow he met in the town. The family, and whole town really, say goodbye to Uncle Charlie as he boards a train to leave the town. But, before he leaves, he invites Charlie onto the train to talk to her. He begins intimidating Charlie, keeping her on the train as it begins to leave. He then makes it clear that he plans to toss Charlie off the moving train, killing her so she’ll never reveal that he was the actual “Merry Widow” killer. But, during the struggle, Charlie is able to push her uncle off the train, killing him. She then decides to keep her uncle’s crimes a secret in order to save her mother from the reality of who her brother was.
There’s a good reason that Alfred Hitchcock has gone down in cinematic history as one of the undisputed masters of the thriller. He just had an almost innate ability to craft mysterious and creepy stories that were absolutely dripping with tension and dread. Shadow of a Doubt is a terrific story. The idea of a family member of yours being something far darker than you’d ever have guessed and inflicting themselves upon your life is a very disturbing idea, and Hitchcock brings it to the screen beautifully. He’s able to create a picture-perfect little American world with his version of Santa Rosa, with a perfect little neighborhood, and a perfect little family. And then smash it to pieces. The way that he adds his customary shadows and unnerving angles to the quaint and picturesque suburban world is truly an accomplishment to wonder at. And all of that directorial genius is bolstered by a terrific cast. Joseph Cotton is clearly the driving force of the film, generating a wonderful charisma mixed with real frightening dread. He’s perfectly able to play Uncle Charlie as the man of the world that the family adore, and then believably slips into the “Merry Widow” killer, letting his mask slip and showing the dark interior. And, not to be outshone, Teresa Wright manages to hold her own against Cotton’s knockout performance, giving us a Charlie whose whole worldview is shattered after finding her life turned upside down, jettisoned from her storybook and dull life into the dark and tumultuous real world.
And it’s that idea that most fascinates me about this film, and Hitchcock’s filmography in general. Hitchcock loved to examine crime, and how it interacted with people. Murder was his biggest collaborator. But Hitchcock didn’t typically make standard crime stories. He didn’t often make straight noirs, stories about criminals and their crimes, or people whose jobs are related to crimes. Instead he took crime and investigated how it interacted with common people. This is a film that builds a sweet, wholesome little American family, normal people who don’t have a care in the world other than some boredom. Charlie is filled with suburban ennui, eager for anything interesting to happen to her life. And then her Uncle shows up, and brings the horrible reality of the world along with him. She’s been living in a bubble, thinking that the world really is all roses, and she then has to confront the horrors of the real world. Her dad and his buddy sit around talking about pulp novels and murders, discussing the perfect way to kill someone as a lark. They look at crime as something that happens to other people, something to joke about and discuss from a distance. And when actual crime, actual human darkness comes to their lives, they can’t even see it when it’s right in front of them. Charlie has her idealistic view of the world ripped away when she learns the truth about her Uncle Charlie, and realizes what a sheltered life she’s gotten to lead. Her life is forever changed, she has to finally grow up, and all because something that’s supposed to happen to other people happens to her.
Shadow of a Doubt was written by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and released by Universal Pictures, 1943.
Categories: Cinematic Century