IMDB #197 Shadow Of A Doubt

Get used to this Hitchcock fellow, everyone- today we take on his most American film of all in 1943's Shadow Of A Doubt.

There's plenty of doubts, not that many shadows.

The Key Players:

Good old Al moved from Britain to America in 1939 after singing a deal with megaproducer David O. Selznick, but it would be a few more years before he embraced small-town Americana. And who better to help him do so than Thornton Wilder, three-time-Pulitzer winning author of "Our Town." Wilder co-wrote the screenplay for Shadow Of A Doubt and gets his own special thanks in the credits, right before our director ("We wish to acknowledge the contribution of Mr. Thorton Wilder to the preparation of this production").

Star Teresa Wright is the only actor to be Oscar-nominated in their first three roles- she won Supporting Actress for Mrs. Miniver, and was up for The Pride Of The Yankees and The Little Foxes. Following that hat-trick with her best-remembered role here, Wright's promising start lead to a long career capped by stars on both walks of fame, film and tv.

Joseph Cotten is most famous as Charles Foster Kane's best friend in Citizen Kane, and would headline classics like The Magnificent Ambersons and The Third Man.

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The Story:

We open the film on a reposing and seemingly despondent Charles Oakley (Cotten), whose maid tells him of two men she turned away at the door. Breaking out of his reverie, he steps out and is followed by the two men, who are probably government agents (everyone's wearing hats, it's hard to say), but shakes them and heads for the train depot. He wires his sister in Santa Rosa, CA, that he's heading there for a visit.

That sister lives in a large house with her banker husband and three children. Her eldest daughter Charlie (Wright), named Charlotte in her uncle's honor, we meet in a similar repose and despondent manner- nothing ever happens in their picturesque small town, she complains, and has the idea to wire her uncle Charles to visit just before his own message arrives.

After some more small-town pleasantries (we get, they all know each other's names, great) they greet him at the train station. Soon they're exchanging pleasantries and gifts- he gives his niece an emerald ring, which is oddly engraved "TS from BM"- he claims the jeweler must have "rooked" him.

The next day two young men arrived claiming to be part of a government survey project (one of those random departments left over from the New Deal, surely) and need to interview and photograph the entire family. Uncle Charlie refuses to participate, and angrily demands the film when they snap him coming in the door.

The "reporter" takes young Charlie out for a night on the town, where he soon admits he's a detective pursuing the "Merry Widow Killer," an unknown man that's killed two rich widows. She refuses to believe her beloved uncle could be a killer at first, but he oddly steals two pages from the newspaper, and angrily grabs her arm when she tries to see them.

Fighting hysteria (and a very loud score), she goes to the library to find the clipping was indeed a story about the killer! Plus the next night at dinner her uncle compares rich widows to animals that need to be put down (Way to be subtle, pal). Also the killer's latest victim was named "Thelma Scheney," and was married to "Bruce Matheson."

Seeing her obvious suspicion, Uncle Charlie tells her that the police are after someone he got mixed up with, and she promises not to say anything as long as he leaves town...

The Artistry:

Aside from the usual histronic score, nothing struck me aesthetically about Shadow Of A Doubt. There was one odd editing touch: transition shots of couples ballroom dancing- a metaphor of some kind? And there's the usual noir contrast and attire, and the requisite Hitchcock cameo (about fifteen minutes in, playing cards on the train), but aside from the big ending, it all belongs to the script and performances.

Wright in particular is a great, bubbly presence, although she sells naivete better than fear in the later going (and she randomly falls in love with the detective guy, which seemed very thrown in). But she and Cotten have a downright creepy chemistry (like when he smilingly puts a ring on her finger) that keeps the tension high, even though it's pretty obvious to us from the beginning that he's bad news.

Every now and then Charlie's father and his friend hang around and discuss the best way to murder one another- it's just how they relax. It's an odd way to shoehorn in thematic relevance, not the least in the way a young Hume Cronyn plays the friend with a budding-serial-killer energy.

The story seems to take for granted a certain understanding of the small-town togetherness that I really didn't understand: a lot of emphasis is placed on the sister's joy to have her brother back after such a long time, and what his arrest would do to her. The detectives, once they zero in on him, tell Charlie they'll wait for him to leave town and arrest him then instead of just getting him at the house! Really?


A second Merry Widow suspect is killed fleeing from police in Maine, so Uncle Charlie is suddenly in the clear, but our heroine knows (from the ring, at least) that he's still involved, even though she lets her detective boyfriend think the case is over.

She then starts having strange accidents- a step breaks on her way down, and she nearly suffocates in the garage after someone starts the car, takes the key, and closes the door after her. Needing leverage, she goes through her uncles things to take back the incriminating ring- when he sees her wearing it, he announces his intention to leave town after all.

Bidding goodbye on the train, all three children see him to his compartment, but he holds his niece back as the train begins to move. He pushes her to the space in between cars, and moves to throw her onto the tracks. He has to, he claims, since she knows what she does.

But she struggles, and he ends up faling on the tracks instead, right the path of an incoming train! Another odd shot of couples waltzing, and we go to his funeral, where at least Charlie can tell the whole story to her detective boyfriend, if no one else.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Eh. I liked it, sure, but Hitchcock's best film? Shadow Of A Doubt certainly had a more exciting finish than the anticlimactic Rope, but it's hard to believe there's not better suspense out there. Cotten adn Wright certain tangle memorably, but the melding of Hitchcock's murderous existentialism and Wilder's aw-shucks communal togetherness didn't yield much for me.

The Legacy:

It was turned into several radioplays, and loosely remade in 1958 as Step Down To Terror. The only Oscar nomination was for the screenplay, and it's been included in the National Film Registry and all.

Allegedly Hitchcock referred to it as his favorite of his American films, so take that, Psycho.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Listen to the score as she runs to the library. Never has reading a newspaper been so dramatic!

Leftover Thoughts:

-Henry Travers (the dad) totally looks like Richard Nixon in this film. I found it distracting.

Coming Up...

196. Sleuth (1972)

195. A Streetcar Named Desire

194. King Kong (1933)

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