Shadow of a Doubt: innocence, a happy family and insular small town America menaced by an outside force

Alfred Hitchcock, “Shadow of a Doubt” (1942)

A dark film that explores the potential for violence beneath the patina of an apparently happy family, “Shadow of a Doubt” was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s personal favourites. While the film is not distinctly Hitchcockian in most of its set pieces, it does feature strong characterisation and builds tension steadily but surely to its unexpected and shocking climax. The film’s cast may not be hugely famous but main actors Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright give strong performances as Uncle Charlie and his niece Charlie respectively.

Uncle Charlie suddenly appears in the small community of Santa Rosa, surprising his sister and her husband’s family who are wealthy and prominent folks. He quickly charms everyone in the family and the wider community with his good looks and worldly manners. He inveigles his way into his eldest niece Charlie’s affections: the girl herself has just left high school and is biding her time waiting for a suitor to woo and marry her. At the same time, two detectives posing as local news reporters looking to do a story on her family show up and Uncle Charlie, on seeing them, behaves rudely and abruptly towards them. The detectives spot this odd behaviour and warn the girl Charlie. Gradually the girl realises that Uncle Charlie may be a serial killer wanted by police across America for having married and then murdered various rich widows. At the same time, Uncle Charlie suspects that his niece knows who he is and he decides to get rid of her once and for all before she can warn her family.

It’s not often that two characters develop and mature into rich and realistic characters and Cotten and Wright seize the opportunity to fill their parts convincingly. Cotten plays the part of the suave and charming but sinister outsider who has the potential to split a whole family apart; Wright plays the innocent and sheltered young woman who must discover her inner courage and who learns something of the ways of the outside world with natural style and warmth. The other cast members basically fit around the two actors but special mention must go to actors Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn who play young Charlie’s father and his neighbour who keep up a running patter of jokes about killing each other as a humorous and tension-easing counterpoint to the main plot narrative.

Parts of the narrative may strain credibility but there is real tension that is sustained throughout and the film moves smartly and confidently to the inevitable (though rather unbelievable) showdown between Uncle Charlie and young Charlie. Unusually for films of its time, “Shadow …” features a climax in which the heroine is forced to fend for herself; the expected knight in shining armour cannot help her in her hour of need.

Hitchcock manages to insert many of his beloved themes into “Shadow of a Doubt”: the notion of an innocent world, represented by Santa Rosa, invaded by dark forces from outside; the contrast between appearances and the underlying dark reality; the social restrictions on young women like young Charlie, at the start of the film yearning for a more interesting life, who as a result are made vulnerable to predatory men in their quest for love and marriage; and familiar things and concepts turning out to be sources of menace and life-threatening danger. There might also be a sly dig at the American worship of family as an institution where one feels safe and secure, everyone gets along well and there are no closeted skeletons that rattle at inopportune times.

Refreshingly for a tense psychological thriller about a serial murderer, there’s no violence until the very end and even there Hitchcock deals with that brief scene of violence efficiently with quick edits. The climax is hokey and looks cut-and-paste clunky after everything that has built up towards it. Shame.

The use of camera is very deft in suggesting that the family home has hidden secrets and dangers. Long-range shots and voyeuristic scenes seen through windows or from the top of a staircase feature throughout the film. The use of light and shadows as contrasts to illustrate the action and heighten the conflicts boiling through the film is excellent.

Other directors like David Lynch would follow in Hitchcock’s foot-steps in portraying happy families and small town communities that turn out to be dysfunctional in some way; Hitchcock made sure to set the bench high for them to jump with this film.

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