Of all the directors of his generation, Alfred Hitchcock’s films are probably the most widely available, both on streaming and on physical media. Even his early British films are available, sometimes in less-than-stellar public domain prints. But beyond the most famous “masterpieces,” there are other, smaller films that don’t always get their due, or are ignored in favor of Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest, or Psycho. Horror streaming service Shudder has put up several of Hitchcock’s better known works, including Shadow of a Doubt, the 1942 tale of murder in small town America that has us all asking: why in God’s name would you trust Joseph Cotten?
Cotten is Uncle Charlie Oakley, beloved younger brother of Emma Newton (Patricia Collinge) and uncle of “Young Charlie” (Teresa Wright). After some unspecified problems with the police, Uncle Charlie decides to visit his sister and her family in Santa Rosa, California. He arrives in the small, idyllic burgh and charms his way into the town’s life. Coddled by his sister, adored by his niece, and beloved by the townsfolk, Uncle Charlie seems like the perfect man. But then two police officers show up in Santa Rosa and start asking questions about Uncle Charlie, and Young Charlie begins to suspect that her wonderful uncle is the Merry Widow Murderer, a charming killer of wealthy older women. As she sees his behavior in a new light, Young Charlie has to grapple with proving her uncle’s innocence, or deciding what to do about his guilt.
Shadow of a Doubt falls into a similar category as Hitchcock’s other major “wrong or right man?” narrative, Suspicion. The viewer is privy to more information than Young Charlie at first – we see the police pursuing Uncle Charlie in San Francisco, and then his curious transformation in his arrival in Santa Rosa, as he goes from being a stooped, arcane figure to a dashing, upright gentleman as soon as he spots his niece. The relationship between the pair is teased out both explicitly and implicitly – Young Charlie feels she has a special connection to her uncle, who is a good bit younger than her mother, and their scenes are tinged with implicit indications of incestuous desire. Hitchcock toes the line with this narrative, exploiting the young girl’s fascination with her uncle, her burgeoning relationship with a young police detective, and the conflict that arises when she begins to believe that her uncle is not what she thought he was.
This has often been called a noir, and there’s some truth to that – Hitchcock’s camera exploits the bright, beaming sun of southern California and then reveals the darkness beneath it, walking his characters into permutations of shadow and light. At the center of it is Cotten, a living vampire, who arrives to shatter the illusions of a teenage girl and reveal the darkness beneath her idyllic home’s surface. Hitchcock plays with the macabre fascinations of small town life – Young Charlie’s father (Henry Travers) gets together every evening with a friend (Hume Cronyn) to (academically) discuss murder; there’s a seedy side of town, where “bad girls” work in dimly lit bars. The darkness lingers just at the peripheries, hardly touching the family, until Uncle Charlie arrives to peel back the layers. But Uncle Charlie is a symptom of his society, not the cause of it. He comes into a household that is not dysfunctional, per se, but that has the potentials for dysfunction, and from thee exploits the needs and desires of his own relations as well as those he’s only just met. As time goes on, his nihilism and misanthropy are revealed to be more than just cynical facades, but his positioning as a beloved brother undermines and eventually threatens the suspicions attached to him. Though all this, Young Charlie will not be able to retain her naivete nor her innocence, but it is an open question about whether she’ll be able to retain her goodness.
Shadow of a Doubt is one of Hitch’s finest “middle period” films. He’s not experimenting in the way that he will with Rope or Dial M For Murder, but has established the style, the character tropes, and the interests that weave their way through much of his American work. But Shadow of a Doubt is unique in its depiction of small-town America, and the darkness that dwells within it. If you haven’t seen it, take this opportunity to do so. You won’t regret it.
Shadow of a Doubt is available to stream on Shudder, and to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and Vudu.