Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville; story by Gordon McDonell
Cinematographer: Joseph A. Valentine
Producer: Jack H. Skirball
by Jon Cvack
After Saboteur (1942), I headed into the next of Hitchcock’s 1940s contributions, and again haven’t watched this since first receiving the Masterpiece Collection. Shadow of a Doubt is a bit different from most of Hitchcock’s storyline, in this case being about an murderous uncle who tries to hide out in a small American town.
“Uncle” Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten) arrives by train in Santa Rosa, California, where his niece Charlotte “Charlie” Newton waits for him; the train covers her in a thick dark shadow as it pulls in and Uncle Charlie gets off. They head back home where we meet the rest of the Newton family, including Charlie’s sister and Charlotte’s mom Emma Newton (Patricia Collinge) who absolutely adores her brother, Charlotte’s dad and true crime lover Joseph Newton (Henry Travers), and her younger erudite sister Ann (Edna May Wonacott). Together they all welcome them into their home, hoping that Uncle Charlie might agree to settle down nearby.
Suspicions are raised when a pair of news photographers visit the Newton home for a magazine story, who Charlotte later discovers are a couple of undercover detectives on the hunt for a killer; with one of the detectives Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) soon falling for her after she discovers his occupation. He reveals that they’re in town looking for the “Merry Widow Murderer” who killed a wealthy widow in San Francisco. It’s when Uncle Charlie gives Charlotte a beautiful and expensive emerald ring with strange initials in the band that Charlotte later pieces together the story when visiting a local library that contains one the news clipping about the murder, discovering that the victim had the same initials.
Throughout the film the oblivious father Joseph and his friend and fellow true crime connoisseur Herbie Hawkins (Hume Cronyn) try to piece together the perfect murder as a type of dark hobby; sharing all of the latest literature. Their schemes come to loggerheads shortly after Charlotte pieces together the story as Herbie offers wild poison mushrooms which Joseph dispels immediately. Charlotte erupts at dinner and Uncle Charlie immediately understands; attempting to tell her he’s only one of two suspects, and the cops have it all wrong. He’ll leave later that night if she stays quiet.
She agrees until Jack reveals that witnesses have positively identified him in the photos they took, and soon Uncle Charlie tries to kill her with what appears to be an accidental death. First by cutting the wooden staircase out back, causing her to fall, and later locking her in the garage where he left the car running with no keys in the ignition (strange to think this was ever a possibility in automobiles). She’s rescued at the last minute.
The next day, Uncle Charlie announces he’s leaving for San Francisco with the rich widow Mrs. Potter who has taken a particular liking to him. Seeing him off, Charlotte and her siblings board the train. When Charlotte is left alone with him he attempts to push her off the train, and in a scene that puts thrills above the murder, after a tense struggle, Uncle Charlie is about to push her off, deciding to wait for the train to pick up speed. Charlotte breaks free and flips things around, tossing him off and onto a speeding train roaring from the other direction. Aside from Jack, she doesn’t tell anyone about the details; having committed the perfect murder which her dad sure would surely care about.
This is a story that would get repeated throughout the 90s with films such as Domestic Disturbance (2001), The Good Son (1993), Fear (1996), and Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), with the main character discovering a dark truth about a friend or relative, struggling to get anyone to believe them. The hardest thing to pull off with these films is keeping the logic above water; allowing the other characters to maintain their doubts and remain oblivious. The closer the story can come to the line the better; as it’s that narrow escape, whether through death or information, that creates a sense of thrill.
Shadow of a Doubt does a great job in creating characters that would honor this premise. Emma is so adoring of her brother that both her love and inevitable heartbreak and blind devotion prevent her from ever piecing together the details. Herbie and Joseph succeed by the irony in obsessing over the perfect murder, failing to ever see what’s going on right in front of them; made all the juicier by having them never discover how close they were. The town and its upper social echelons are oblivious to the tragedy due to Uncle Charlie’s alleged generosity; overlooking his suspicious wealth and charm by personally benefiting from it.
It’s a film that’s third place Hitchcock; good but not great, as although there’s a particular thrill with watching a devastating secret slowly be uncovered, it’s the climatic sequence that prevents it from ever achieving a higher place. I’m not sure why Hitchcock engaged in such a thrilling sequence for the climax before allowing Charlotte to gain the upper hand. Uncle Charlie wanted to ensure her death, but the fight seems so determined to push Charlotte off that having him then pause, for Charlotte to then flip things around and kill him seems like it could have benefited from the reverse. The fight to Charlotte being thrown off could have happened quicker, when Charlotte then gains the upper hand, struggling to push Uncle Charlie off as the other train approached. The ending is deliciously Hitchcock, as it wasn’t even until I wrote this out that I realized Charlotte accomplished what her dad and Herbie were obsessing over.
It’s a great film with stellar performances all around, taking place in that idyllic small American town which seems uninterested in anything beyond their borders. The kind of place that would now be conservative, where today's toxic politics would now infect. Then again, that might make for an interesting update to an unexplored story as of late.
BELOW: Classic Hitch Creep
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