An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…
Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
When Charles Oakley needs to lie low, he heads to California to stay with his sister and her family – but niece Charlie soon begins to suspect why Uncle Charles is on the run…
Alfred Hitchcock said this was his favourite of his movies, and it’s very easy to see why. It’s a dark and addictive story about pervasive evil in a sweet, all-American setting. The cast is excellent. And there are plenty of twists, turns and shocks.
The film grabs you straight away: Charles Oakley (a terrifically complex Joseph Cotten) is staying at an inner-city flophouse. Two men come calling, asking after him, but he gets the landlady to tell them he’s not in. Then, clearly avoiding the heat for *something*, he leaves a film-noir Philadelphia for apple-pie Santa Rosa in California to stay with his sister, Emma (Patricia Collinge), and her husband, Joseph (It’s a Wonderful Life’s Henry Travers). The couple have three children. The eldest is the movie’s lead character – Charlie, played by a soulful, charismatic Teresa Wright.
Charles brings life and excitement to an otherwise staid and sleepy town. He wows his family with presents then flashes some cash around at the bank, where he meets and flatters a rich widow. But it’s young Charlie with whom he has the biggest connection. She was named after her uncle and idolises him; his arrival shakes her out of a bout of ennui. The two characters are also two sides of the same coin. Each is even introduced in the same way – in their respective first scenes, they’re lying down on a bed fully dressed. At one point, a smitten Charlie says they’re like twins, but there’s also an incestuous feel to their relationship. They stand just a bit too close to each other; he sleeps in her bed while he stays at the house (she moves to her sister’s room); and he even gives her a ring as a present, slipping it onto her finger himself.
However, then comes the darkness. Charles has to think quickly when Charlie spots that her new ring is engraved with the initials TS. He also turns nasty for a moment when Charlie realises he destroyed Joseph’s newspaper to prevent the family seeing a certain story. Then two men show up, claiming to be conducting a government survey. But Charles sees through them straight away and realises they’re after information on him. They blag their way into the house and he tries to avoid them. It now becomes clear what Shadow of a Doubt really is: it’s a more polished, more intriguing and more multi-layered version of the idea that powered Hitch’s earlier film Suspicion. In that movie, the lead character comes to believe that her husband is a murderer. Here, the scales fall from Charlie’s eyes as she begins to doubt her uncle.
One of the snoopers, Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), takes a fancy to Charlie and asks her out. Their sweet romance runs through the rest of the film, and is a subplot that grows Charlie up from naïve youngster to strong woman. (Her age in the story is debatable. The actress was 24.) Jack also admits that he’s a detective on the trail of a criminal, and that criminal may be Charles. Charlie doesn’t want to believe it, but the seed of doubt has been sown. She races to the local library to find a copy of the day’s newspaper: the story Charles ripped up was about a serial killer called the Merry Widow Murderer. One if his victims had the initials TS.
The menace level is now creeping up and up. Charlie’s clearly upset, so Charles confronts her, dragging her into a seedy bar to find out what she knows (the fact he picks that kind of location is a another example of their relationship being less than wholesome). It’s classic cat-and-mouse stuff: every scene is working on different levels as characters know more than they’re willing to say. Then Hitch cranks up the intensity significantly as uncle tries to kill niece…
Sometimes called Alfred Hitchcock’s first masterpiece, it might be fairer to say that it’s his first ‘modern’ film. Now established in Hollywood and working with American stars – Wright had had three Oscar nods in the previous two years, Cotten was fresh from starring in Citizen Kane – Hitch can go full throttle on suspense and darkness. But he never forgets to balance it with humour and charm. Shadow of a Doubt is an absolute marvel.
Nine men playing bridge out of 10