Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Thornton Wilder & Sally Benson & Alma Reville
As Alfred Hitchcock’s supposed favorite film he ever made, Shadow of a Doubt presents an interesting analysis. For while the film is revered and appreciated largely by the film community, it does not maintain the reputation as one of Hitch’s very best. That honor usually goes to the likes of Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho, or North by Northwest. But alas, as we have already seen early on in this marathon of his films in Hollywood, Hitchcock is more than capable of crafting incredible films each time out, which results in a catalog where one of the “lesser known” can be the director’s personal favorite. Calling it a “lesser known” film is meant as no slight, as Shadow of a Doubt casts no shadow about its standing in the master’s work. While it might not be a consensus pick for the top tier, I believe it holds as solid a place in the very next tier as any of his other work.
Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten) appears to be a man on the run as he eludes authorities on the east coast. Unprompted, he decides to telegram his sister and her family in Santa Rosa, California, hoping to spend some quality time with them while laying low. Coincidentally, his niece Charlie (Teresa Wright), named after her uncle, learns of her uncle’s trip just as she is about to send a telegram to him, hoping to see him again. Charles is welcomed with open arms by the family, but soon a pair of suspicious survey takers (Macdonald Carey, Wallace Ford) appear, and paired with her father (Henry Travers) and neighbor (Hume Cronyn) constantly talking about the “perfect murder”, Charlie begins to grow suspicious of her uncle and his motives. Uncle Charlie appears to be avoiding the Merry Widow Murderer story sweeping the nation, and a shadow of doubt begins to cloud Charlie about her beloved uncle and what he may or may not have done.
Shadow of a Doubt is textbook classic Hitchcock. A story about a loving family, creeped upon by a thrilling scandal that threatens both their safety and perhaps even sanity. What elevates this version of the story are the central performances by both Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright, who are both incredible and really play well off of each other. It would be a different movie with different performances from different performers. Cotten is just innocent enough looking to be believable as the favorite uncle, while just mysterious and vacant to be a vicious murderer. Wright on the other hand is the epitome of innocence, which makes her discovery and doubt all the more telling and impactful. As the clues present themselves, and the doubt envelopes her, we see innocent Charlie be tarnished by the horrors of the world, including the explosive fact that not everybody is necessarily as they seem and evil can lurk even among one’s own family.
Setting the film in quaint Santa Rosa is another stroke of genius. This is not a hardened Noir-style city, no asphalt jungle. There is an overriding element of innocence about the town, all the way through the pedestrian cop directing traffic in the square and the friendly librarian willing to let Charlie in just as they’re closing for the night. There is friendliness and neighborliness about in droves, so when Uncle Charlie arrives with the shroud around him, including the snooping detectives posing as survey takers, the entire mood changes. It’s palpable, tangible. Hitchcock’s sense of mood and atmosphere is unrivaled, and Shadow of a Doubt is one of his best examples. It’s not hard to imagine him being good friends with Charlie’s father Joseph and the neighbor Herbie, plotting seemingly innocent ways to enact the perfect murder.
I think what keeps films like this one lower on most people’s Hitchcock totem poles is the simple fact that it lacks the kind of star power or pop sensibilities as his most renown films. Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright are incredible performers, but unfortunately they lack the name recognition, especially today, of a Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart or Grace Kelly. And while there is suspense throughout, the slower burn of the film tends to lend itself less to the type of frenetic action and high tension of the plane scene in North by Northwest, the shower scene of Psycho, and the like. But make no mistake, Shadow of a Doubt is a great film, and one worth seeking out for any lover of movies, and especially for any fan of Hitchcock who has not seen it. It lays out the blueprint for many Hitchcock films to follow, and many films in general that owe a lot to the work done here by the master of suspense.