The Hitchcock Haul: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

I really enjoyed this movie on many levels. I watched it a couple of times, actually, before surrendering it back to the library. If you enjoy Strangers on a Train or Rope, I highly recommend you give Shadow of a Doubt a watch.

This is a very Hitchcock film. It focuses on a perfect, typical, all-American family in Santa Rosa California and the evil that lurks where they least expect it. It’s a simple and exciting story (by Gordon McDonell, screenplay by Thorton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville) set in a small-feeling world. Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright), a young woman facing the complexities of adulthood, decides that the best thing to cure her existential dread is to invite her uncle Charlie (who she is named after, played by Joseph Cotton) to visit the family. She greatly admires her uncle and the excitement he brings. When she goes to send him a telegram, she is surprised to find one from him already waiting for her. He’s beaten her to the punch and has decided to come visit the family! She thinks it’s fate. But when Uncle Charlie arrives, things start to get weird. Two men suddenly show up, insisting they are surveying the typical American family and want to take pictures and write an article about the Newtons. They seem extra interested in Uncle Charlie, however, and Uncle Charlie’s odd behavior toward them tips Charlie off that something here isn’t right.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers because that would ruin the magic, but I think you get the idea of how it unfolds from there. Why I feel like it works so well is because it’s a bit of a loss of innocence story, with Charlie’s small, simple, contained world being ripped apart and her heart being broken. But with that wound comes new, more mature happiness. This is just a really excellent domestic thriller and a solid entry in Hitchcock’s filmography. I would love to see it remade today, just because I think it’s very much in line with what is popular in film and books right now.

Apparently, Shadow of a Doubt is Hitchcock’s favorite of all his films. I love this detail. It wasn’t his most iconic (Psycho) or his flashiest (Vertigo), but just a simple, black and white thriller. And I’m not 100% sure on the writing details, but seeing Thorton Wilder’s name on the list of screenwriters set off a little alarm in my head. I know Wilder best from his plays, and Hitchcock has always had a thing for creating film adaptations of stage plays (for better and for worse). And while Shadow of a Doubt was not a play and does not exactly feel like Hitchcock’s play adaptations, it does have the smallness, contained-ness of a play, if that makes sense. And that adds so much to the effectiveness of the plot.

One of my favorite elements of this film is Charlie’s dad and his friend Herb. They are obsessed with detective stories and murder mysteries, and Herb shows up unannounced (hilariously) throughout the film to talk about the best way to murder someone and get away with it. I was like, hey, it’s me and my girlfriends!

I also really loved the role of the library in Shadow of a Doubt (of course). Early on in the film, Uncle Charlie does something to a newspaper, making it unreadable. As Charlie starts to get suspicious about her uncle, she begins to wonder if the paper had some important clue in it. As soon as I saw the destruction of the newspaper in question, I yelled to my fiance, “THEY CAN JUST GO LOOK AT IT AT THE PUBLIC LIBRARY”. Library services haven’t changed all that much in the past 80 years. We’re still important to solving murders. Anyway, Charlie finally takes my advice later on in the movie and literally runs to her public library and bangs on its doors to let her in. It gave me so much joy! And, even though the library was closed, the librarian locking up STILL let her in. We give a fuck about you guys, ok, and we want to support your amateur detective careers and make sure you solve all your cold cases.

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Teresa Wright seemed to have taken the acting world by storm when she hit the scene. When I was reading her IMDB I saw that she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her 1941 film (and debut) The Little Foxes and was nominated for Best Actress for her role in The Pride of the Yankees (1942). She actually won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress that same year fro her role in Mrs. Miniver. She was already an Oscar winner when she starred in Shadow of a Doubt. Overall, the acting was pretty great in this film, but also very typical for the time. Joseph Cotton is predictably excellent and terrifying as Uncle Charlie, and Henry Travers and Patricia Collinge are great as the slightly clueless parents. My favorites, however, were whoever the brilliant actress is who plays the waitress at the dive bar Uncle Charlie drags Charlie into and Hume Cronyn as Herb. They were minor characters but they added some wonderful comic relief and really stole the show!

Anyway, I really got a kick out of this one and highly recommend it!

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