Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
“What’s the use of looking backward? What’s the use of looking ahead? Today’s the thing. That’s my philosophy.”
Shadow of a Doubt is a film obsessed with morality and our concept of it, of evil things lurking beneath our cheery exteriors. It’s Blue Velvet forty-three years before the fact, a movie obsessed with nihilism long before the bleak post-World-War-II period, and it’s one of Hitchcock’s best films.
Uncle Charlie isn’t just everyone’s favorite uncle in a small town; he’s also “The Merry Widow Killer,” a psychopath who kills rich widows and takes their money as a sacred duty. He comes to the town of Santa Rosa to hide in plain sight with his adoring family and the niece who was named for him. Ironically she’s the one who starts to suspect that things are not what they seem. It’s one of Hitchcock’s best scripts, filled with small town details that are both charming and disturbing. It’s a town where everyone knows each other’s names, yet the streets are full of loud cars and neon signs. It’s a dark, corrupted vision of America.
After hearing a pitch from novelist Gordon McDonell, Alma Reville and Hitchcock developed the bones of the story together and turned to an unlikely co-writer: Thornton Wilder. Wilder was best known for Our Town, which effectively made him the poet laureate of small-town-America. But Wilder was a sophisticated writer looking to branch out; he happily took five weeks of work with Hitchcock before he went into the Army. Together they concocted most of Shadow of a Doubt’s incredible story, with Wilder contributing many of the details that make the film so unusually authentic and character-based. Wilder worked on the film for a short time, yet Hitchcock acknowledged him not just as a co-writer, he also thanked him in the credits for his special contribution. Perhaps a sentimental gesture, or maybe a publicity ploy exploiting the famous writer’s name. Knowing Hitchcock, both are possible.
Shadow of a Doubt is often referred to as Hitchcock’s favorite of his own films, but I’m not sure where that rumor started. The famously contrarian director explicitly says it’s not his favorite in Hitchcock/Truffaut, although he always spoke fondly of the movie. More likely this was one of his favorite productions, with extensive location shooting in Santa Rosa near his beloved home in Northern California. Hitchcock was far away from studio interference with a cast he enjoyed and his family by his side. The resulting atmosphere would help him create of his best films.
After the credits end, Hitchcock opens in a classic macro to micro scenario where he takes us from the big picture down to a closeup. First we see the sooty skyline of Newark, New Jersey. We dissolve to a street scene with factories in the distance, then to a grimy boarding house, then to a window, and finally inside to find Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), lying on his bed waiting (an echo of Hemingway’s The Killers suggested by Wilder). Later, when niece Charlie is introduced, Hitchcock follows the exact same pattern, showing us Santa Rosa, idyllic street scenes, a lovely home, a window, and young Charlie (Teresa Wright) lying on her bed in the same pose. Note: from now on, as it’s confusing to keep referring to “Charlie,” I’ll be referring to them by the names of the actors.
Wright & Cotten are twinned from this very first appearance, with Wright even remarking “We’re not just an uncle and a niece. We’re sort of like twins.” Both share an existential ennui, an awareness that something exists beyond the sleepy hamlet of Santa Rosa, and both flaunt societal convention. But Cotten and, I suspect, Hitchcock pushed this idea even further on set. Cotten seems positively charged with sexual tension in his scenes with Wright. It’s uncomfortable on purpose, and Cotten is remarkably willing to show his dark, unlikable side (often an issue for matinee actors who didn’t want to alienate their fans).
Looking at the film from the suspense vs. whodunit angle, Hitchcock tips his hand extremely early in the film by introducing Cotten on the run from detectives. When he shows up at the house, despite being touted as the answer to everyone’s problems, we already know something is terribly, terribly wrong with him. Imagine instead if the film had begun with Uncle Charlie arriving, no preamble. It might have been interesting as a whodunit: did he actually do it, or not? Is he really the Merry Widow killer?
Yet Hitchcock doesn’t like this kind of ambiguity. When we know something’s up with him, every scene with Uncle Charlie is full of foreboding. When he gives Wright a ring, we know it’s from one of his victims. We scrutinize his every gesture and movemen, and wait for the horror that we know is coming. To go back to the bomb under the desk example, Uncle Charlie is a ticking time bomb during the entire film.
Hitchcock shows enormous restraint throughout the entire film, carefully building the suspense and the story through long comedic sequences with the family (including some great foreshadowing interludes with Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn discussing the perfect murder). Compare this with the breathless kitchen-sink filmmaking of 1942’s Sabotage, an excellent film done in by its restlessness. Here, Hitchcock is using lessons in pacing from his Selznick pictures with his boundless innovation to create what I’ll call his first true Hollywood masterpiece (Rebecca is a terrific film but it’s more of a Selznick picture than a Hitchcock one).
Ultimately Shadow of a Doubt rejects the prescient nihilism that Uncle Charlie espouses as Wright sees the value to love & family. Yet Cotten remains one of Hitchcock’s most compelling villains. Some have argued that it’s because we never see him actually kill anyone, so it’s hard to associate him with evil. But I don’t think that’s quite right. We see him lock Wright in the garage and try to suffocate her. In an even more chilling scene, we see him rush to the stairs when she falls, not to help but to see if she killed herself tripping on the step that he cut in half. And worst of all there’s this scene, where Cotten talks about how men have worked their whole life to make money only to see their wives, their silly wives, eat the money, drink the money. When Wright protests that they’re people, Charlie, who has eerily been looking away from the camera during this monologue, turns to look right at Wright, right at us, and murmurs “Are they?”
Uncle Charlie isn’t compelling just because he’s suave and uses his charisma to get what he wants; he’s a fascinating character because he’s something we can all relate to: someone we loved at one point in our lives, only to grow up and see them revealed as who they truly are. I don’t think that Uncle Charlie is or wanting to be caught; I think he’s acting the way he always has and the rest of the family remains blinded by love (the mother, his sister) or indifference (the husband and the other kids). It’s only because Wright wants something more, because she can see past the veneer, because she has something of his restlessness inside her, that she’s able to see him for who he truly is: a monster.
I have my own “Uncle Charlie.” We all do.
“You’re my uncle…We thought you were the most wonderful man in the world.”
Mine is also my uncle; let’s call him “Paul.” Uncle Paul was always my favorite, and the favorite of everyone in the family. He was a minister in a small church in another state. Going to visit was one of my favorite parts of childhood, ranking up with visits to Disneyland. I’d play with his kids and run all over his church. They had a gigantic backyard with a little creek running through it and I’d run down there clutching a walkie talkie to stay in touch. Uncle Paul made tons of bad jokes and puns that are still with me today. We’d go to the movies, cook out, and play long, cutthroat games of Monopoly. I even made a “Monopoly Kit,” with a towel to cry into when you’re losing, gloves with fingers in the holes to look like a hobo when you lost, and special playing pieces. I loved Uncle Paul. When I was in elementary school and had to write about someone I admired, I wrote about Uncle Paul.
Towards the end of Junior High or High School, things started to change. I noticed that Uncle Paul was just recycling the same jokes and that while he was always happy to see me, he didn’t make much of an attempt to get to know me. He always had a new computer but never knew how to use it and would fall asleep in the movie theater. I heard whispers from my mom and dad that he was bad with money and had lost most of his wife’s inheritance.
But I figured this was all normal stuff. My dad didn’t hold the same place of hero worship that he once did either. Once I went to college, I kept visiting Uncle Paul and the family, usually for Thanksgiving. The visits became less fun and more obligation, but I kept it up because it seemed worthwhile. My cousins had kids of their own and it was fun to see them. Those voices of duty were ringing in my head: Your family is all you have! We all think you’re the most wonderful man in the world!
In the early 2000s it all changed. I was making plans to come visit when I got the news: My uncle had been arrested for soliciting from a prostitute.
Now I’m not equating prostitution with being a serial killer like Uncle Charlie. But for someone like Paul, who took the moral high ground, who was a leader in the community, who encouraged my mom and dad to stay married because it was what God wanted, it was a shock. The way he handled it was even worse, insisting that it was entrapment (while side-stepping the issue of what the fuck he was doing in the first place).
It destroyed that side of the family. He had to resign and while he was supposed to attend counseling, I don’t know if he ever did. My cousins were forced to leave the church they’d grown up in because people were harassing their kids. The small town they lived in turned cold. What was left of my uncle’s marriage went to hell, although his wife never divorced him for reasons I will never understand.
I had it the easiest; I never went back after that final Thanksgiving trip when the phone kept ringing and we kept avoiding it. I didn’t have to go back. I didn’t have to deal with my uncle’s hypocrisy and his unwavering insistence that he was the victim, despite all the evidence to the contrary (and my cousin’s belief that even after this arrest, he kept going back to the same area to cruise for prostitutes).
Uncle Paul crumbled before me and I saw him for what he was: a flawed man who made a bad situation a thousand times worse through his own hubris. A once powerful man convinced that he and he alone was right, willing to destroy his entire family and all of his relationships in a futile attempt to prove that he didn’t do anything wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to put anyone on a pedestal since.
“He thought the world was a horrible place. He couldn’t have been very happy, ever.”
It’s true that we shouldn’t be trapped by the past or afraid of the future. But rational minds have to look backwards in order to learn from our mistakes, to find empathy, and to move forward. I turned 40 last week and overall I didn’t mind it as much as I thought I would. But it’s definitely been a time of reflection, as well as a time for looking ahead.
This week my therapist asked me to list things about myself and my life that I was happy with, and I was able to come up with a lot of things. That wasn’t always the case, and it’s a mark of how far I’ve come. I still have a long ways to go. I’m still struggling with empathy, compassion, and forgiveness. I haven’t been back to see Uncle Paul or the rest of the family. It’s hard for me to find empathy or forgiveness for him, not because of his indiscretion, but because of his inability to acknowledge his mistake.
But I’m also thinking about the future, and instead of feeling trapped, I’m starting to feel excited. Thinking about trying to buy a house. Thinking about making my own movie. Changing and streamlining my business. Becoming a better person. And sharing my life and my love with my family, friends, and girlfriend. Uncle Charlie isn’t wrong when he said that the world is a sty, but it’s what we do with that information that defines us. My Uncle Paul chose to hide his darkness and pretend it wasn’t there. But I think it’s better to acknowledge how dark & cruel the world can be; it makes the victories and the moments of light that much brighter.
We all come of age in different ways. I’ve seen Shadow of a Doubt probably a dozen times, several since my Uncle Paul was charged. But I’ve never made that connection until now. Movies and art at large keep on giving like this; they change and reinvent themselves in ways that we, or even Alfred Hitchcock himself, could never dream of.
Shadow of a Doubt is not streaming on any services, but can be rented on Amazon or iTunes, or rented from your library.
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