One of the most prolific and celebrated directors in film history, Alfred Hitchcock has a number of beloved films to his name and each has a distinct story and premise, though united through similar narrative structures and expert tension building. His 1943 effort Shadow of a Doubt is another brilliant work to add to his already impressive oeuvre, despite not being as heralded or well known as the likes of Vertigo orPsycho. While it was Hitchcock’s sixth film made outside of his native country of Britain and within the Hollywood system, it’s the first film where he truly discovered America, and was able to accurately depict what was perceived as normal suburban life in the early 1940’s. It’s a deeply unsettling deconstruction of the supposedly wholesome family values lifestyle of the mid-World War II era of America and is one of the truly great overlooked films made by the master of suspense.
The film centers around a man named Charlie, brought to life wonderfully by frequent Orson Welles collaborator Joseph Cotton. Charlie is a murderer on the run from the law, and takes advantage of the strong connection he has with his niece, also named Charlie, to seek refuge in her family’s small town home until the whole pursuit blows over. That is, until young Charlie gradually begins piecing together her uncle’s mystery as she begins to realize that he, like middle-class life, isn’t what he appears to be on the outside. The connection and familial similarities between the two Charlie’s are emphasized almost immediately, with the opening shots introducing both characters positioning them as mirror images of one another, with each of them facing opposite sides of the frame while laying down face up on a bed. Many subtle, Hitchcockian visual tricks like that are littered all over the film (refer to the drinking game for the recurring motif of Uncle Charlie’s murderous hands) and thus ensure the film to be just as nuanced and complex as the best of US cinema from the 40’s.
Aside from the surface level drama, which is very well done and engaging on its own, Shadow of a Doubt delves much deeper into its thematic material, analyzing the societal make-up of small town America as a gothic wasteland with lots of skeletons hidden in the closet and plenty of dirt underneath its fingernails. Uncle Charlie is portrayed as having a rather bleak outlook on people – women in particular – and spends his time as a serial killer who targets older, wealthy women he perceives as a drain on society, wasting the riches that he thinks are entitled to him, and therefore young Charlie must overcome her own initial impulses to idealize her Uncle in order to see him for what he really is.
Besides being thematically complex and dynamic, Shadow of a Doubt is also a visual wonder to behold, with cinematography and editing that was far ahead of its time, as was the case with many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Joseph Cotton turns in a fantastic and riveting performance as Uncle Charlie, as does Teresa Wright as the young “innocent” Charlie, whose struggle to defeat her uncle is a unique kind of coming of age tale that gets to the heart of the evil just below the surface of American society, especially in a time when innocence and purity were so sought after and valued on the home front.
Often cited as his favorite among his own works, Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt successfully crafts an intimate portrait of small-town American life, contrasting its hidden dark underbelly with its more polished, counterfeit exterior. Equally entertaining and intellectually nourishing, it fits right alongside some of the more revered Hitchcock classics, and deserves to be recognized as such.