With the Hitchcock season soon to come to an end, it seems fitting to look at one the director’s best and often underrated pictures. His middle period from when he first left England for David O’Selznick’s studio produced a run of astonishing films, often overshadowed by his later American films such as Vertigo (1958) and Rear Window (1954). These films, often in black and white, are dark, tense exercises in peeling away the American psyche, almost trying to define that weird America feel that exudes in aspects of later films such as the policeman in Psycho (1960) or any number of American films from the late 1960s.
From this period, Shadow of a Doubt (1942) sticks out for its warming welcome and seduction of the viewer into its cosy world but also for its manipulation of this to create a tense and surprisingly adult menace. Middle America is the perfect housing for a vile villain and Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie is one of the best screen killer’s of the Hollywood’s golden age.
Uncle Charlie is a charming and socially exciting relative visiting his family in the perfect, cookie-cutter town of Santa Rosa. Lying low from the law, Uncle Charlie is actually the infamous Merry Widow Murderer on the run from the law with a wad of cash and hiding in plain site with charm and sophistication seems to have been the best option. The film is a master class in tricking the viewer into feeling safe. Though the films opens with Uncle Charlie on the run from the police, sinisterly smoking a fat cigar, the first forty minutes of the film seem as quaint and similar as Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) which also stars Cotten in the lead.
However Cotten’s character here is about as far from Eugene Amberson as possible. His charming exterior hides such a vile and dark character that the shock of seeing his true colours is a genuine one. His niece, also called Charlie, seems so proud of showing him off to the girls around town; he seems to almost flirt with her, which must have seemed shocking for the time. Yet Uncle Charlie is more than a niece seducing murderer. His philosophy is that “the world is a joke”. He’s one of the most deliberately misogynistic characters in film and the close up of his mouth as he spits his bile about the stupidity of women is one of the most powerful scenes Hitchcock ever filmed.
Teresa Wright gives a great performance as the niece at the centre of her Uncle’s deception. Her realisation that this perfect man is in fact as psychotic murderer is so perfectly played. From framing her with that typical soft focus that more romantic films of the time used obsessively for their leading females to her finally stopping her evil Uncle’s plans by accidently bringing him to sticky end; she’s one of Hitchcock’s more rounded and strong female characters.
Shadow of a Doubt is about a subtle menace that enters the nest. Dialogue plays such a key role in this, similar to Charles Laughton’s Night Of The Hunter (1955), where a perfectly normal sentence is shot and delivered in such a way that sends a shiver down the spine. “Something’s come between us, I don’t want that to happen, we’re old friends” and lines like it have a hidden menace just like the idyllic town where the film is set. Everything in the film is designed to hide Uncle Charlie’s true character from this ambiguous dialogue to Dimitri Tiomkin’s romantic score and this is what makes it such quintessential Hitchcock.
In the end Uncle Charlie meets his fate, but the emotional damage has been done. Kubrick took full advantage of the scenario of finding out a loved one was in fact psychotic and capable of murder in The Shining (1980). Here the scenario is forty years earlier and Hitchcock is pushing the boundaries, not just of storytelling but of just how much you could get away with in film. Psycho is often quoted as the influential film from his macabre world but Shadow of a Doubt’s influence can be seen everywhere from The Shining to American Psycho (2000). The idea of a charming killer is one so accepted today in cinema; it’s not often that a killer in the same scenario can be successful in a narrative without that element of Uncle Charlie like allure.
“How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something” – Uncle Charlie.