Tasha: You just can’t fault early Hitchcock as a stylist and a storyteller. There are a lot of things to dig into in Shadow Of A Doubt’s visual style and the way its story is shaped, but I’m going to lead off with one of the smaller things that really grabbed me: the way Hitchcock introduces characters and settings here. There’s an efficiency and cleverness in each case, as the initial shot of each character tells the audience most of what they need to know right off the bat. There’s the establishing shot of Uncle Charlie’s run-down urban neighborhood, with the shell of a junked car practically hugging a sign that says, impotently, “No dumping allowed”—an image that simultaneously suggests lawlessness and apathy. There’s the first shot of Uncle Charlie himself, lying in his nasty boarding-house room in his nasty neighborhood, wearing an immaculately groomed, expensive suit even in private, ignoring the piles of money literally spilling out of his wallet onto the floor, and staring up at the ceiling. In one shot, Hitchcock establishes that Uncle Charlie has high standards and no immediate needs, but is careless and bored with his life. And then the film introduces Young Charlie, first seen in the exact same position in her own bed, staring at the ceiling with the same air of bored hostility, establishing the connection between them.
The narrative economy extends to other characters as well: My favorites are Herbie, who shows up at the Newtons’ home anxiously clutching a pile of pulp magazines with prominently displayed titles related to crime and murder; Ann, who walks to a ringing phone and answers it without once looking up from her book, and informs the caller that she can’t take a message because her head is full of more useful thoughts; and Roger, who storms into the house, leaving the door wide open, and shouting to everyone about how many steps it takes to get from the store to home. Each one of these character introductions is simple, straightforward, and dense enough to spin out into a short story of its own.
Scott: What stood out for me while watching Shadow Of A Doubt again is Hitchcock’s careful deployment of effects. In our current age of aggression over cohesion, where camera moves are often motivated more by a need for general “intensity” than a more specific emphasis, it’s striking to see Hitchcock wait until the most dramatic moments of the film to unleash the stylistic flourishes. There’s Uncle Charlie’s famous “widow” speech, where the camera dollies in slowly until Joseph Cotten’s face fills the screen; the crane shot at the library after Young Charlie discovers the missing page from the newspaper; the dramatic framing of Young Charlie by the door as her uncle turns on the top of the stairs, realizing she has the drop on him. Because Hitchcock holds back and modulates his style to the needs of his story, all these moments hit with maximum impact.
Matt: There are just so many simple, efficient storytelling touches, particularly in establishing Uncle Charlie as a creature of almost vampiric menace. He’s introduced lying on the hotel-room bed, arms folded, like Count Dracula in his coffin; when he arrives in Santa Rosa, the train pulls into the station spewing black, ominous smoke. Charlie’s family loves him, but Hitchcock immediately hints at his malevolent past.
I also love how Shadow Of A Doubt inverts Hitchcock’s beloved “wrong-man thriller” formula, where an innocent accidentally stumbles into a dangerous situation. (See: The 39 Steps, Saboteur, North By Northwest, Frenzy.) The film hinges on the fact that there are actually two suspects in the case of the Merry Widow Murderer: Uncle Charlie and another man back east. In a more traditional Hitchcock film, that guy on the run in Maine would be our hero. In Shadow Of A Doubt, we follow Uncle Charlie, which I guess makes it a “right-man thriller,” where the police are correct in their suspicions, and the suspense is in wondering if (and sometimes, thanks to Hitchcock’s brilliant use of POV, hoping that) he’ll wriggle free.
THE TWO CHARLIES
“Shadow Of A Doubt is a coming-of-age story as much as it is a thriller: Young Charlie learns about the world outside Santa Rosa, yet she finds a mature, courageous response to it.”
Scott: There’s an Adam and Eve quality to the relationship between Uncle Charlie and Young Charlie in Shadow Of A Doubt, some hard lesson to be drawn from the curious young woman taking a bite from the apple of knowledge. Hitchcock doesn’t condemn her for her interest in Uncle Charlie, but she leaves the film chastened by her exposure to this representative of the larger world outside Santa Rosa, California. For his part, Uncle Charlie is excited by her intellect and sophistication—unlike those dumb widows he’s murdered—but grows increasingly threatened by her dogged pursuit of the truth. Unlike her mother Emma, who wishes to remain blissfully oblivious about her brother’s nature, Young Charlie isn’t the type to wall herself into the small-town homeyness of Santa Rosa, and she pays a price for it.
Nevertheless, the two Charlies share a deep bond, and it’s shattering to watch Young Charlie (played so beautifully by Teresa Wright) as her enthusiasm curdles into disappointment and terror. The two Charlies seem to exist on a separate plane from the other characters, who are either willfully old-fashioned and ignorant like Emma or, like Young Charlie’s father and his buddy Herbie (a funny Hume Cronyn), consider murder so foreign to their experience that unsolved cases are a parlor game. Uncle Charlie and Young Charlie are modern people, with eyes wide open, and Hitchcock registers their similarities and differences sharply.
Nathan: To me, the crucial difference between Uncle Charlie and Young Charlie is that the latter is supremely open to the world. That’s part of her attraction to Uncle Charlie: He represents a big, complicated, mysterious world she can’t wait to explore once she casts off the shackles of her small town and its small-town thinking. Uncle Charlie, in sharp contrast, is supremely closed off. He has seen the world his niece is so damnably excited about, and doesn’t like it one bit. He’s an inveterate misanthrope who takes his hatred of humanity in general, and women in particular, to its extreme by ridding the world of some of those dizzy women he dislikes so. Young Charlie is hungry to live; Uncle Charlie has a sour willingness to kill.
Noel: At the risk of stating the obvious, there’s one big difference between the two Charlies: Uncle Charlie is a man, and Young Charlie is a woman. And that matters, because while Uncle Charlie wears his misogyny on his sleeve (suggesting that some women aren’t even human, but rather “fat, wheezing animals”), a huge amount of gender bias is built into the culture in the film. Two scenes leap immediately to mind. First, when Detective Jack arrives, posing as a census-taker, he defaults to condescending mode with Young Charlie, explaining the parameters of his survey as though she were a small child and he were her teacher. And later, when Uncle Charlie declares his intentions to leave Santa Rosa, his sister Emma breaks down crying, and talks somewhat incoherently about how she and her brother were so close when they were kids, until she got married and settled down. It’s enough to make the prospect of Young Charlie marrying Detective Jack seem not like a happy ending, but rather the repetition of a depressing pattern. Young Charlie can be like her Uncle and be a free-range sociopath, or she can be like her mother and—as her uncle might say—“keep busy.”
Matt: Uncle Charlie and Young Charlie are doppelgängers, another common Hitchcock motif—most famously in Strangers On A Train, where two men meet by chance on a train and discuss swapping murders. Trains factor into Shadow Of A Doubt as well; a train brings Uncle Charlie to Santa Rosa, and then a train ushers him out of Santa Rosa (and, uh, life), during a struggle with Young Charlie. The train symbolism is a bit more overt in Strangers On A Train, which includes a famous point-of-view shot of a train switching tracks, but it’s here in Shadow Of A Doubt, too. Young Charlie’s life is headed in a straight line until Uncle Charlie arrives. In the finale, he tries to literally throw her off-course; by tossing him aside instead, she’s able to continue on her path toward a future with Jack.
DOUBT, ALIENATION, CONFORMITY
Nathan: Like many smart, ambitious young people, Young Charlie is profoundly alienated from what she rightly sees as the conformity and small-mindedness of small-town life. In a later era, Young Charlie’s angst and alienation might have rendered her a beatnik, hippie, goth, or new-waver. In Shadow Of A Doubt, it sparks her uneasy attraction to Uncle Charlie, a genuinely transgressive figure who broadcasts his contempt for humanity and the rules lesser minds must follow, whether he’s making his harmless brother-in-law profoundly uncomfortable by joking loudly about embezzling during a trip to the bank, or obliquely disparaging the women he murdered.
Shadow Of A Doubt came out during World War II, when seemingly the while United States pulled together to keep the world safe for democracy. Conformity consequently served a political and moral purpose, helping ensure everyone was committed to doing their part to fight an epic battle against good and evil. Yet Uncle Charlie is committed only to his own survival, to pursuing his own needs at any cost, even if it means murdering his favorite relative to keep his deadly secret. He is alienated from the rest of society and also from his better angels. In Uncle Charlie, Young Charlie sees both the allure and the dangers of non-conformity.
Noel: There’s a certain amount of “be careful what you wish for” in Young Charlie’s non-conformity, though. Before Uncle Charlie arrives, she’s asking for someone to “save us… shake us up,” but it becomes clearer as the film goes on that her idea of rule-flouting means showing up at the library right before it closes, and even then, she feels compelled to apologize profusely to the librarian, just as she does to the traffic cop when she jaywalks. Young Charlie is also too concerned about what people think of her to be seen in a bar, and she’s practically scandalized when Uncle Charlie muses that church attendance should be going down because “the show’s been runnin’ so long.” Hers is a Santa Rosa non-conformity, not a “killing the undeserving” non-conformity.
“Because Hitchcock holds back and modulates his style to the needs of his story, all these moments hit with maximum impact.”
Tasha: And as you imply, Noel, it’s more an aspirational non-conformity than an actual one, given what a meek rule-follower Young Charlie is around anyone besides the family. It fascinates me how far Jack and his partner get in breaking into the Newton house, interviewing everyone about Uncle Charlie, getting closed-door access to his room in his absence, and shooting photos of it, all by claiming they’re part of a study, and that it’s incumbent on the Newtons to help. Every time Young Charlie protests, they reiterate: It’s a study. I mean, you have to help with a study, right? Some vague, possibly commercial, possibly governmental agency wants you to! It’s your patriotic-ish duty! And no one particularly questions this; even Young Charlie, in all her suspicions, seems more put off by the idea that the Newtons are being studied as “an average family” than by the flimsiness of Jack’s story. Compare this with the automatic suspicion of strangers and governmental agencies today, and try to imagine anyone letting a couple of strange men roam their house unsupervised with a camera because “someone” wants them to. The whole film takes place in an environment where social conformity operated at a much higher bar than it does today.
Scott: Noel makes some very nice distinctions between Uncle Charlie, Young Charlie, and other members of the Santa Rosa community. Young Charlie gets excited about Uncle Charlie’s visit because he brings the promise of worldliness to their little town, but he’s mainly a non-conformist in that most people don’t murder wealthy widows for their money. She’s a truth-seeker and a moral person, perhaps naïve about the darker ways of the world, but unwilling to retreat in their face, either. Shadow Of A Doubt is a coming-of-age story as much as it is a thriller: Young Charlie learns about the world outside Santa Rosa, yet finds a mature, courageous response. She isn’t a conformist like her mother, who would prefer to be walled into fantasy, but she’s able to respond to Uncle Charlie’s corruption with a measure of small-town decency.
Nathan: Scott, I think you’re dead on about Shadow Of a Doubt ultimately being a coming-of-age story as much as a thriller. Young Charlie hungers for a world beyond Santa Rosa. If she were a man, she might find that escape and character-building adventure fighting in World War II. She has an insatiable curiosity about the world that sets her apart from many of the characters in the film, whose imaginations appear to be limited to what they have already experienced, and Uncle Charlie and his egregious crimes are far outside their frame of reference. They’re too conformist to even conceive of people within their community straying so far from what is acceptable, making them willfully oblivious to the danger confronting them. In that respect, Young Charlie’s intelligence, curiosity, and resistance to conformity get her into trouble (if she didn’t poke her nose into her uncle’s business, he’d have no motive to try to murder her), but also protect her. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing; a lot can be deadly.
Scott: One thing we haven’t talked about that’s worth a mention: Uncle Charlie is evil. Unambiguously. There’s no good rationale for the horrible crimes he’s committed, no terrible thing done unto him that accounts for it, nothing like the psychological underpinnings that explain a creature like Norman Bates. He’s just bad. I don’t want to speculate whether World War II affected anyone’s thinking in this regard, but at that time, you could certainly have reason to believe that there was such a thing as absolute evil in the world, and that it was up to the upstanding and courageous to acknowledge it and take a stand against it.
Matt: Emma does mention one incident from Uncle Charlie’s childhood where he was riding a bicycle and got hit by a streetcar and almost died. After that incident, he was different, restless. “It was just as though all the rest he had was too much and he had to get into mischief to blow off steam.” It suggests that the trauma of the accident warped Charlie’s personality (or maybe it physically affected his brain) and he was never the same again.
“Uncle Charlie and Young Charlie are modern people, with eyes wide open, and Hitchcock registers their similarities and differences sharply.”
Still it’s true; Uncle Charlie doesn’t have mommy issues like most Hitchcock villains, and he’s not even particularly violent, at least onscreen. (We see him threaten people, and he tries to bump off Young Charlie on a couple of occasions, but he never successfully kills anyone in the film.) While he certainly is evil, there’s also something kind of fragile and pathetic about him; before he arrives in Santa Rosa he seems to be ill, and he spends most of the rest of the movie on the run, acting less out of malevolence than pure survival instinct. But that’s yet another Hitchcock signature: He never met a killer he couldn’t make the audience feel some kind of sympathy for.
Noel: As the designated noticer-of-things-people-eat-in-movies, I am obliged to point out Emma’s pink finger sandwiches, made from wheat bread, cream cheese, and paprika. (I feel obliged in part because Emma felt obliged, as though her guests would be averse to eating a snack with such outrageous coloration, and would naturally gravitate to the other, soggier sandwiches on the tray.) Also, even though it’s a well-worn convention, I’ll never get used to how quickly people fall in love in old movies. Young Charlie and Detective Jack know each other for, what, three days? And have like one date? And then he tells her he loves her. If this were a modern sitcom, that would be more of a “season two” thing, and they’d devote a whole episode to it.
Nathan: Scott, you’re right about there being no easy psychological underpinnings for Uncle Charlie the way there was for good old Norman Bates. But I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to see Uncle Charlie’s unfortunate predilection for murdering widows as the ultimate manifestation of his misogyny and misanthropy. Like Young Charlie, Uncle Charlie feels fundamentally different from other people, but that alienation manifests itself very differently. Uncle Charlie’s alienation registers as sociopathic arrogance: To him, the people he murders are barely even human. They don’t deserve to live, in his reckoning, whereas Young Charlie’s alienation leads her to seek out people who might understand her; she wants to really connect in the worst way, and nearly loses her life in the process.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion began yesterday with the Keynote essay on Shadow Of A Doubt’s creeping malevolence, and continues tomorrow with a comparison between the film and its Mark Harmon-starring TV-movie adaptation from 1991.