SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) : “We’re no ordinary uncle and niece.”

SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) – Universal Studios – Rating: ★★★★½

B&W – 106 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Principal Cast:  Teresa Wright (Charlotte “Charlie” Newton), Joseph Cotten (Charlie Oakley), MacDonald Carey (Jack Graham), Henry Travers (Joseph Newton), Patricia Collinge (Emma Newton), Hume Cronyn (Herbie Hawkins), Wallace Ford (Fred Saunders), Edna May Wonacott (Ann Newton), Charles Bates (Roger Newton).

Produced by Jack H. Skirball

Written by Thornton Wilder & Alma Reville & Sally Benson, from a story by Gordon McDonell

 Director of Photography:  Joseph A. Valentine

 Film Editing:  Milton Carruth

 Original music:  Dmitri Tiomkin

Charles Oakley lies on his bed in a nondescript boardinghouse.  He is a picture of ennui, and everything about him suggests carelessness, from the recumbent way he smokes his cigar to the money scattered on the floor.  He stirs from his lassitude when the landlady informs him that two gentlemen asked about him;  he then gathers his things and leaves, giving the “gentlemen” the slip.  Suddenly a man of determination, he sends a telegram to his sister and her family in Santa Rosa, California, informing them of his intention to visit.

Dissolve to Santa Rosa, a picturesque American town.  Oakley’s niece, “Charlie”, is lying on her bed, in much the same state as her uncle.  She is in the dumps, and wants to do something to shake up the family.  Suddenly an idea occurs to her, and she rushes to the telegraph office to invite her Uncle Charlie to visit.  She arrives just in time to receive the telegram from her uncle announcing his impending arrival.  It’s almost as if they were reading each other’s minds, speculates Charlie.   

Soon thereafter Uncle Charlie arrives, descending from the train under a plume of dark smoke that presages the arrival of something sinister in sleepy Santa Rosa.  At first the family is delighted to see him, from sister Emma Newton, to brother-in-law Joseph and the three children.  Uncle Charlie brings fine gifts for everyone, including an emerald ring for his favorite niece, his namesake Charlie.  The ring inexplicably has in inscription, initials that Uncle Charlie insists were not put there by him.  She does not care, saying that makes the ring more precious, because somebody happy had worn it before her.

Two men arrive at the Newton home who claim to be conducting a survey.  They wish to ask questions of the household and take photographs.  Uncle Charlie is evasive, refusing to be involved and bordering on rudeness when he encounters the two men in the home.  Could these be the same “gentlemen” who were inquiring after Charlie at his boardinghouse?  Soon enough niece Charlie learns from one of the men that they are police, and are indeed on the trail of her uncle, who may be involved in some pretty nasty crimes, namely the murder of several widows and the theft of their money.  Charlie does not want her mother to know, for it would break her heart.  She begins an investigation of her own, and soon discovers the answer to the question of her uncle’s guilt or innocence.   This portion of the story involves a cat-and-mouse interplay between uncle and niece, with the rest of the family ignorant of the  situation and implications.  At the same time Charlie begins an awkward romance with the detective who had tipped her to her uncle’s situation.

The contest of wills between the two Charlies seems to be won by niece Charlie, and her uncle agrees to leave Santa Rosa.  On the train that will take him away, he tries to silence his niece’s suspicions and is himself killed, with only his niece and the detective knowing the truth, as Santa Rosa mourns the death of Charles Oakley as if he was one of their own.

Performance:  Most of the cast is outstanding.  Joseph Cotten is perfect as Uncle Charlie, creating one of Hitchcock’s greatest villains.  Teresa Wright as niece Charlie has the most difficult part in the movie, as her character undergoes a dramatic transformation as she learns several truths about her uncle, and the world.   Henry Travers, who will forever be known to movie lovers as Clarence the angel in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, is pleasant and likeable as the Newton family patriarch.  His primary job is to provide occasional comic relief.  But the most memorable, and most moving performance in the film belongs to Patricia Collinge as Uncle Charlie’s sister Emma.  Emma’s fondness for her younger brother is palpable, as is her fondness for childhood recollections.  If there is one performance that just doesn’t work it is that of MacDonald Carey as Detective Graham.  He seems out-of-place in all of his onscreen interplay.

Writing:  Thornton Wilder, who wrote the quintessential American idyll “Our Town”, was the principle screenwriter.  Hitchcock charged Wilder with creating another slice of small-town American life, and introducing menace into it.  And Wilder’s writing is pitch perfect. His tone ranges from the charming and occasionally comic portrait of the Newton family, to Uncle Charlie’s almost shockingly dark monologues about modern big-city life.  Hitchcock was so impressed that he gave Wilder a special acknowledgment in the opening credits, in addition to his screenwriting credit.

The doppelgänger effect:  The central relationship in this movie is that of the two Charlies, uncle and niece.  The idea of the characters as doubles appears frequently.  First as they both appear sprawled on a bed in their respective opening scenes.  Later in several lines of dialogue.  Teresa Wright as Charlie tells her uncle “We’re sort of like twins, don’t you see?”Later Uncle Charlie accosts his niece outside a bar called “Til Two”, finally taking her inside.  There are no overt incestuous signals in this relationship, but it is a very odd relationship for an uncle and niece.  She gazes at him longingly in their opening scenes together, and when she walks through town with him, arm in arm, she is delighted when her friends look at him in awe, almost as if she wants them to think he is her beau.  What Uncle Charlie doesn’t foresee is that his niece has an inner mettle that has remained hidden, and it only comes to the forefront as she is forced to confront him.  They are indeed very much alike, and it is this that allows her to best him in their game of wits.

“Shadow of a Doubt” house as it appears today, Santa Rosa, CA, photo by author.

The precocious girl:  Women in Hitchcock movies are often the dominant partner in a relationship.  They are often more intelligent and resourceful than their male counterpart.  This also applies to young girls.  In this film, the younger daughter Ann Newton, (played delightfully by Edna May Wonacott) is wise beyond her years.  She is constantly reading and repeating things she has learned in her books.  She is also the only member of the Newton family that is never taken in by Uncle Charlie.  She is suspicious of him from the first moment she lays eyes on him, and although she never learns the nature of his crimes, she is not fooled.  Wonacott gives the best performance by a child in the entire Hitchcock canon, in my opinion.  Meanwhile the young boy Roger (played by Charles Bates) is a typical boy child, who does have one great reaction shot, played for comic effect, when Patricia Collinge says the youngest child is always spoiled.

Merry widow waltz:  This waltz plays over the opening credits, along with footage of waltzing couples, which looks like stock footage but Hitchcock said he filmed specifically.  The waltz features prominently in a dinner table scene, and Hitchcock uses the dancing couples footage as a transitional shot at a couple of key moments in the film.  This is a very interesting stylistic touch, not to be found in any other Hitchcock movie.

Dark humor:  Hume Cronyn provides some dark humor as Herbie Hawkins, friend to Joe Newton.  Hawkins and Newton read whodunits, and discuss the best way to kill somebody, not realizing that they are only a few feet away from someone with practical experience!  There is also perhaps a subtle indication that Herbie would like to do away with his mother, yet another charming mother/son relationship.

Emma Newton as Emma Hitchcock:  Alfred Hitchcock’s mother Emma passed away during production of this film.  There is much speculation that the character of Emma Newton (the name can be no coincidence) was inspired in part by the director’s own mother.  Certainly Emma Newton, as played so wonderfully by Patricia Collinge, is allowed a sentimentality that is seldom if ever seen in Hitchcock films.   Her emotional response to the news that her brother will be leaving is so genuine, that it almost moves the viewer to tears, particularly because of the things we know about her brother Charlie that she does not.

What Joe said:  Joseph Cotten, in his 1987 autobiography Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, said of this film that “it is certainly mentioned to me as often as Citizen Kane and The Third Man.”  He also complimented Thornton Wilder’s screenplay, saying “I cannot remember any shooting script that suffered so few alterations during production.  All the actors agreed that the author’s words were not only easy to learn, but a pleasure to speak.”

Academy awards:  Gordon McDonell received a nomination in the now defunct “Best Writing, Original Story” category.

Recurring players:  Joseph Cotten would star later in Under Capricorn.  Hume Cronyn would appear in Hitchcock’s next film, Lifeboat.  Wallace Ford would turn up in Spellbound.  Irving Bacon (the station master) played a similar non-speaking role in Spellbound.  Frances Carson appeared in Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur.  Edward Fielding was also in Rebecca, Suspicion and Spellbound.  Constance Purdy also appeared in Spellbound.   Byron Shores was in Saboteur.   And Eily Malyon, the perfect spinsterish librarian, had earlier played the perfect spinsterish hotel desk clerk in Foreign Correspondent. 

Where’s Hitch?  Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appears at about 16:26, he is seen from a right rear profile as a passenger on the train.  He is playing cards with a doctor and his wife, and the camera shows that his hand is the entire suit of spades!

Legacy:  Universal remade this movie in 1958, as a noirish B-movie called Step Down to Terror.  It was also remade for TV in 1991, with Mark Harmon in the Uncle Charlie role.

Hitchcock moment:   For the most part this movie was shot in a very straightforward manner, with Hitchcock’s usual economy of shots.  The shot in the library where the camera pulls back from a close-up looking over Teresa Wright’s shoulder, high up to the ceiling, is impressive.  Production designer Bob Boyle said that Hitchcock wanted the camera movement to be almost like a gasp, or sudden intake of breath.  There is also the shot of Teresa Wright coming downstairs with her hand on the bannister, as the camera slowly zooms in on her hand, and the emerald ring plainly visible on it.

What Hitch said:  Numerous critics say that this was Hitchcock’s favorite among his own films.  His daughter Patricia states it unequivocally:  “It was my father’s favorite picture.”  One would think she would know.  Yet there is no public interview in which Hitchcock stated so.  When pressured on this point by Truffaut, Hitchcock answered:  “I wouldn’t say that Shadow of a Doubt is my favorite picture; if I’ve given that impression, it’s probably because I feel that here is something that our friends, the plausibles and logicians, cannot complain about (In referring to the “plausibles” Hitchcock was talking about people who dismissed the plots of his films because they were not plausible)..But that impression is also due to my very pleasant memories of working on it with Thornton Wilder.”

Definitive edition:   The best edition of this movie available for purcahse today is Universal’s 2012 blu-ray release, (also available as part of the Masterpiece Collection box set).  The picture quality is not quite as sharp as the blu-ray remaster of Saboteur, being a little grainy at times, but it still looks spectacular for a movie that is 70 years old.   The audio track (2-channel mono) also sounds quite good.  Extra features include a 35-minute making-of documentary, which has interview footage with Hume Cronyn, Teresa Wright, Patricia Hitchcock, Robert Boyle, and Peter Bogdanovich.  Also included are production drawings, production photographs, and the original theatrical trailer.

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wemisse

Avid movie lover, reader, and writer.

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