Original release: January 12th, 1943
Running time: 108 minutes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, Alma Reville, Gordon McDonell
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright, Patricia Collinge, Macdonald Carey, Henry Travers
Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography was once a gaping hole in my film knowledge but when I started university I decided to remedy that. After being somewhat underwhelmed by Psycho (1960) my interest waned, but a double bill of Rear Window (1954) and North By Northwest (1959) inspired me to seek out more.
After stumbling across Shadow Of A Doubt a few years ago, I slid it into the DVD player and what followed was a film that’s now one of my favourite Hitchcock films.
It opens with a procession of socialites dancing behind the opening titles, immediately juxtaposed with two tramps sat below the Pulaski Skyway in a shot that would normally be reserved for young lovers and the Queensboro of Golden Gate Bridge. That’s not the world that Charlie Spencer (a.k.a. The Evil Holly Martins, a.k.a. Joseph Cotten) usually inhabits though. We glide past junk and grime and arrive in a cheap motel room where the drapes cast shadows that evoke the bars of a jail cell. Charlie lies on a bed, in his suit, languidly smoking a cigar with a drained hip flask on his bedside table and money strewn across the floor.
After evading two men following him – we assume they’re policemen but can’t be sure – Charlie sends a telegram to his sister, Emma (Patricia Collinge), in California with good news; he misses them so much that he’s coming to visit. The Newton household is immediately aflutter with excitement as the extravagant brother and favourite uncle, whom teenage daughter Charlotte (Teresa Wright) is named after, is on his way. However, he arrives on a train funnelling foreboding black smoke into the sweet California air and things don’t get better from there.
Shadow Of A Doubt is a tension filled noir, transplanting our cynical black-hearted character from the seedy streets of New Jersey to the sun-drenched white picket fences of Santa Rosa. Whilst the family only sees the generous, wealthy uncle they love, we get to see the menace in Joseph Cotton’s eyes. This contrast is illustrated aptly by a sequence in which Uncle Charlie notices an unwanted news story and covers it up by a game of making a house out of the daily paper.
With the arrival of the two tailing policemen, the adoring Charlotte begins to suspect her uncle of being the serial killer known in the press as the Merry Widow Murderer; a killer of rich widows. Charlotte’s romantic entanglement with the younger of the cops, Detective Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), makes her scenario all the more dangerous as her elusive and growingly shifty uncle becomes a more threatening presence in her life. At the same time she must battle with the knowledge that were she to confirm her suspicions, it would destroy her mother.
The film is full of good performances, both straight and comical. Man of the house, Jo (Henry Travers), spends his spare time relaxing with friend and neighbour Herb (Hume Cronyn) by devising ways to murder one another and get away with it – naturally providing a little dramatic irony – whilst Edna May Wonacott provides further light relief as the precocious younger daughter Ann. Most of all though it’s Cotton and Wright who enchant as charming but deadly Uncle Charlie and anxious, then terrified but ever defiant Charlotte.
Taking on its darkest moments as we are given a glimpse into the mind of the disillusioned Charlie and the subsequent fears for his niece’s life after she decides he’s in fact the killer, Shadow Of A Doubt is truly gripping. Its crisp black and white photography includes some perfectly judged visual motifs fantastic sequences both in terms of character, morality, and tension; it’s a Hitchcock film after all.
Whilst it may not quite hit the heights like Vertigo (1958) and Rear Window, this is a fantastic entry into the Hitchcock canon and one of my favourites to revisit.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.