We have a rather definitive view of what an Alfred Hitchcock film should be: tense, filled with intrigue, murder, and suspense, probably involving a train, possibly involving a case of mistaken identity, and the very rare battle over a national monument. Enter Shadow of a Doubt, the 1943 film set in the Californian suburban sprawl. It’s Hitchcock’s favorite film, which is funny since it contains few of the trappings of a typical “Hitchockian” movie. Sure, there’s suspense and murder and great camera work and editing. But he also mines sociology, striking on something that would not be explored in pop culture until Rebel Without A Cause. Hitchcock gives America a peek into the most covert, intelligent, and dangerous creature roaming the country: the common teenager.
This is a story that hinges on two different Charlies, of two different sexes, one named after the other. Uncle Charlie is very much in the mold of a Hitchcock killer. We meet him in Philadelphia, down and out, laying on a bed in a beaten up hotel room, dressed completely in suit and wingtips. His de facto casket is surrounded by loose money and half-drank glasses of booze. The scene would be incredibly bleak if not for the fact that this man is played by the handsome and universally-loved Joseph Cotten. When G-Men come to search him out, he escapes, making a bee line to the West Coast, to reconnect with his family.
He’s on his way to a perfect cover. His sister, Emma, lives in the comfort and security that the suburbs were created for. As London got the blitz, Santa Rosa, California got opulence. Kids bike by, their parents drive by in their shiny new cars, moving past every house outfitted with a second floor, every plot of land with its three magnificent trees (which might just be a city ordinance). She is the matriarch of the typical American family. And you know it’s true since they all constantly deny this fact. But look at the set-up:
We have Emma, the mother, who dotes about without it being too overt. She’s married to Joe, a banker by day and a murder mystery enthusiast by night, sharing elaborate “perfect crime” plots with his friend Herb. The middle daughter, Ann, is one of those girls you call “charming” in a backhanded manner. She chastises her father for reading kiddie stuff like his “Unsolved Crimes” comic book while she’s halfway through “Ivanhoe.” The youngest is Roger, about 8 or 9, who counts the steps to and from the local drug store. To us, a normal family. To Uncle Charlie, a bunch of marks, rubes, and suckers.
But standing apart from this family is Young Charlie, a recent high school graduate who is quite adept at doing what teens do best: lamenting. We meet her as she lies prone in her bed, much like how we met her Uncle, except her angst is more metaphysical than actual. While the rest of her family doesn’t see any real issues, she feels like she’s living out The Fall of the House Of Usher. Sure, Dad just got a raise a few months ago, but she’s not talking about materials, she’s talking about souls, citing how they all just “eat and sleep and that’s about all. We don’t even have real conversations. We just talk.” She thinks like an adult, noting how hard her mother works and how much she deserves something for it. But she’s enough of a child to resign herself to non-action when prompted to think of what that “something” could be. As her head falls back into the pillow, she pins her hopes and dreams on getting out of this rut via some sort of miracle. What else is a teen to do? Work for it?
Her only idea on how to save everyone is to get in contact with her Uncle Charlie and beg him for a visit (but not for money, as her mother informs, the first instance of a disconnect between what they think he is and his true nature). Funny, as Uncle Charlie is already on his way. This is the first in a series of almost telepathic connections that occur between the two. It’s never explained practically, and she certainly deserves due credit for being a smart and observant young woman, but there is something special that exists between the two. She even points it out to him, explaining that they’re “not just an uncle and a niece, it’s something else.”
If that sentence feels a tad incestuous and wrong to you, dear reader, you’re on the right track. Uncle Charlie is a smart man and fully realizes his greatest asset: that he looks like Joe Cotten. He charms the pants off of everyone he meets. Even his sister doesn’t treat him like a younger brother, but some sort of pop idol that she used to go to high school with and left her for the big time. It certainly helps when Uncle Charlie greets his sister by saying that she’s been replaced by someone else, looking like, “Emma Spencer Oakley of 46 Burnham Street, St. Paul Minnesota, the prettiest girl on the block.” Of course she falls hook, line, and sinker. Later she laments that after he left her so long ago she never thought he’d return to her. Her husband wears the requisite hangdog expression.
A villain is usually taken down by his own hubris, and Uncle Charlie is not immune to this. But it’s hard to really blame him. When he looks out the window, two dottering old ladies stand on the corner, not investigators. What could befall him here? Seasonal allergies? He, like most of America at the time, did not think twice about the dangerous mind of the suburban teenager. From the onset, Young Charlie knows there is something up with Uncle Charlie. She says as much, citing how he has a secret and she’s going to find it out. And in this playful banter we get a lovely turn about play; now Uncle Charlie turns from predator to prey. She has no idea how little she should want to find out.
But figure it out she does. She knows that he ripped out a section of her father’s newspaper and made a newspaper house for the kids as some sort of rouse. At first she refuses the lavish gifts Uncle Charlie but she soon accepts the ring, but not before pointing out that it was engraved with someone else’s initials, which she’ll later use to link-up the story he tried to get rid of and the initials of the deceased woman on the ring he gave her. Randomly, she hums “The Merry Widow,” a tune her uncle does not like hearing one bit. What starts out a fun little parlor game of cat and mouse quickly escalates.
She figures out his ruse with the newspaper and goes to tell him about it, all smiles and chuckles, until he forcibly rips the paper from her hands, throttling her wrist, with his killer grip in the process. This is a side of her dear uncle that she has never seen before. He realizes his mistake, and immediately begins to rectify, bringing her in close, dropping his voice to a purr, forces a smile, and puts his hand on her cheek. By the time he lets her out the door, everything is back to normal.
These little flashes of the “true” Uncle Charlie are telling, and pop up more frequently as the story progresses (and the closer Young Charlie gets to the truth). When a group of investigators posing as members from the “national survey” try to infiltrate the house, Uncle Charlie belittles his sister, calling her a sucker, and saying how he thought she wouldn’t be fooled like this. The investigators start to work on Young Charlie–at that point the staunchest defender of Uncle Charlie–asking about his whereabouts, the quirky things that he keeps doing, the man himself walks through the room and has his picture “accidentally” taken. He drops the act and coolly demands the entire reel of film. The titular “doubt” begins to creep in to Young Charlie’s head. Uncle Charlie senses it, and again tries to woo her back.
This is matched by Jack Graham, the younger of the two investigators, who sees his opening in the adoring gleam in Young Charlie’s eye when she talks of her uncle. Jack talks her up, saying how she isn’t normal at all, but an extraordinary young girl. He even takes her out that night to try and pump information out of her on the sly. But she’s too quick for that, quickly launching into, “You’re not in the survey at all! You lied to us. You lied to mother! You just wanted to get in our house! Yes, that’s what it is. What do you want with us? What are you doing around here lying to us?” She even realizes that she’s trying to get information out of her! He calls himself a “not very good detective”; there’s an understatement.
As both men try to keep Young Charlie down and toss her considerable intelligence to the side, she keeps churning. As she walks past her father and Herb, the two murder experts who blindly discuss ways to catch a murderer while totally missing the one who sits just inside the house, Young Charlie begins to put the pieces together herself. She checks the newspaper that was destroyed and, with a helpful tip from her sister, takes off to the library to find the article that Uncle Charlie removed. Much to her dismay, the excised article is titled “WHERE IS THE MERRY WIDOW MURDERER?” which goes into great detail on how he throttled these older women with his obviously strong hands. The deceased are listed, with initials that happen to match those on the ring he gave her.
No one in the family could know. Hell, no one in the family would even believe her. During dinner one night, Uncle Charlie launches into an impassioned (and heavily creepy) treatise on how rich widows are worthless globs of money, throwing it away carelessly at bridge games while the world starves. Young Charlie is disturbed, everyone else jokes about it, as if this was somehow normal. She finally snaps when her father engages in a conversation about murder. Young Charlie launches to the street, practically jogging down the street toward downtown. Uncle Charlie, finally sensing how dangerous his niece is, quickly chases after, dragging her into a seedy bar. His turf. His way.
For the last time, he tries to seduce her back in, not totally sure of how much she knows. As he tries to play it off as some small mistakes, his hands churn, tightening on a napkin. They both notice. He stops, downs his double brandy in a gulp, and begins to talk to her like an adult, his equal. He informs her of the way of the world outside the sprawl: the brutality, the sickness, the real problems that people face. The real problems she has no idea about. Then he tries to deal with her evenly, desperately, even invoking how she can’t say anything cause it will kill her mother. There is another man being chased up the east coast at that moment. Maybe, they both hope, he’ll take the wrap and they’ll all be done.
Just like that, the other suspect gets eaten up by turbine engine (guess he was wearing a cape) as he was chased by investigators. Case closed, as far as the police and Young Charlie are concerned. But not for Uncle Charlie. Not with his niece a loose end, who is now an item with one of the investigators. As Young Charlie walks down the outside steps, one breaks and she falls. Her mother remarks that she could have died there. Young Charlie looks ominously forward. One evening, the “rickety” garage door gets closed and locked while the car is on and Young Charlie is trapped inside. Whoops.
Finally. as Uncle Charlie is about to make his departure on a train (to the chagrin of the family, to the relief of Young Charlie), he takes his special niece with him. He plans to throw her off the train, finally giving himself a clean slate. Somehow, some way, Uncle Charlie is the one that gets tossed out the side car, just as another train is pulling in to the station. There is no real logical way to figure out the struggle. He’s much bigger and has nearly all the momentum.
But that’s the way it works with kids these days. No idea what they’re capable of.