Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Shadow of a Doubt, like Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), is about the deconstruction of myth, to some extent. They are similar films, following one character’s increasing paranoia that someone they love is a monster. In the former, Joan Fontaine begins to worry that the man she married, played by Cary Grant, has murder on his mind, and in this film a young woman’s infatuation for her uncle turns inside out as she suspects he is a serial killer.
In the first film, studio involvement necessitated that the male hero be just that, a hero. Despite Cary Grant’s insane character, one clearly meant to be a little unhinged, the end of the movie is intended to be a happy union between Grant and Fontaine. If Hitchcock had his way, Grant would be revealed to be the sociopath Fontaine suspects him to be throughout the film.
Hitchcock gets his way with Shadow of a Doubt. The male hero, Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) is very clearly guilty, but of what we don’t know. The movie opens with Charlie on the run from a couple of mysterious men who have it out for him. Soon he will venture out to quiet Santa Rosa, California to stay with his sister’s family. This prologue sets the story in motion but also strips away most of the mystery surrounding Charlie’s past. Soon his niece (Teresa Wright), also named Charlie, will grow suspicious of him, but given that we already know this, our point of view is not the same as the younger Charlie.
This creates a gap between her and the audience unlike in Suspicion in which we were meant to feel exactly what Fontaine felt. This gap makes it so that we look at young Charlie with more objectivity. We see her flaws almost immediately, and we begin to study her. Why does she see the world, namely Uncle Charlie, the way she sees it? Shadow of a Doubt is a character study presented as a psychological thriller, only with the typical Hitchcock thrills washed away.
The young Charlie is a bored daughter of an affluent family in a quiet town where everyone knows each other. If we didn’t already know for sure that Uncle Charlie was guilty of something, we might be able to doubt her suspicions of him and write it off as the crazy fantasy of a young character with too much time to think. Before she ever lets her imagination run, however, young Charlie has a strange obsession with her Uncle. She hasn’t seen him in quite some time but looks to him as something like a kindred soul. The most obvious reason is their shared name, though she surely sees him as an exciting intrusion into her boring life.
The way she builds him up makes the subsequent fallout much more inevitable. Though the town gives Uncle Charlie some attention, no one sees him quite like young Charlie. He might as well be her guardian angel, someone always meant to arrive to bring her out of her spell.
Charlie is a free spirit in this time before free spirits. She would’ve found herself right at home an hour or two south in Golden Gate Park were this the 60s and 70s. She knows there’s something more to life, and she never wants to live the same boring life as her mother. She doesn’t know exactly what she wants, but she knows she hasn’t found it and neither have the people around her. She’s a character ahead of her time.
The arc of Shadow of a Doubt is mainly concerned with young Charlie’s coming of age life lesson, seeing the world for what it is. At the same time, Uncle Charlie’s eventual evil is distressing because it forces her to retreat into a box she never wanted to be in.
When Uncle Charlie arrives, he is everything she hoped he would be. Almost immediately, though, she notices his strange behavior. Either he is cartoonishly paranoid or she is just an incredible detective. She mostly overlooks this strange behavior, desperate to let Uncle Charlie be the man she dreams he is, but then a detective apprehends her and makes it known that they are investigating him for murder.
There’s no turning back now, and young Charlie struggles to be anywhere near her uncle. As she squirms free of him, the young detective, Jack Graham, asks her mother if it is okay to take young Charlie out. This is appropriately old fashioned, and in a modern period piece this moment might be more damning, a sign of the outdated ways in which women were subjugated to existing power structures. But young Charlie says she is happy to go on the date, and eventually this will be the love interest that ends the film.
Now, this might be a benign moment, just the instigation of a requisite love story, but I see it as the first step towards Charlie living the same exact life as her mother, the one she loathes. Jack might be innocent enough at first, and there’s nothing wrong with him, but he only turns out as appealing as he is when presented next to Uncle Charlie, a serial killer. It’s Uncle Charlie’s evil that makes young Charlie accept the same, boring life her mother has led.
In the end, the adventurous, spiritual young Charlie is gone, and what’s left is a woman happy to fulfill the societal role assigned to her. “[The world] seems to go crazy every now and then, like your uncle Charlie,” Jack says, and it’s this phrase that makes it seem as though any connection young Charlie had to her Uncle is negative. The way she once saw him is now dead and with it, seemingly, any of her ambitions for life.
Up Next: Gates of Heaven (1978), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Thin Blue Line (1988)