Sunday, January 16, 2011


When I first saw the classic SHADOW OF A DOUBT when I was younger, I did not realize it was an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The movie, made in 1943, was unlike any movie Hitchcock had done before or for that matter after. It was Hitchcock's only "purely American" movie, and the movie was years ahead of itself in suspense, intrigue, and dialogue. While many films of the day were musicals about how the boy gets the girl, SHADOW OF A DOUBT truly is a film that has not aged much. Some 67 years after its release the film is still quite watchable and the suspense is more riveting than any 3D or special effects movie.

Starring Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright, and MacDonald Carey, SHADOW OF A DOUBT was one of Joseph Cotten's finest roles. Alfred Hitchcock appears about 15 minutes into the film, on the train to Santa Rosa, playing bridge with a man and a woman (Dr and Mrs. Harry). Charlie Oakley is traveling on the train under the assumed name of Otis. Mrs. Harry is eager to help Otis, who is feigning illness in order to avoid meeting fellow passengers, but Dr. Harry is not interested and keeps playing bridge. Hitchcock on his part seems surprised to see that he has somehow been dealt a full suite of spades, a Grand Slam bridge hand.

The plot centers around a bored teenager living in Santa Rosa, California, Charlotte "Charlie" Newton (Wright). She is frustrated because nothing seems to be happening in her life and that of her family. Then, she receives wonderful news: her uncle (for whom she was named), Charlie Oakley (Cotten), her mother's brother, is arriving for a visit.

Two men show up pretending to be photographers and journalists working on a national survey of the average American family. One of them speaks to Charlie privately, identifying himself as Detective Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) and telling her that her uncle is one of two men who are suspected of being a serial killer known as the "Merry Widow Murderer". This murderer has a modus operandi of seducing, murdering and robbing wealthy widows.

Young Charlie at first refuses to even consider that her uncle could be a murderer, but she cannot help noticing him acting strangely on several occasions. She confirms her suspicions after seeing the initials on the engraving on the ring Uncle Charlie gave her match one of the recent victims of the killer. Particularly chilling is a family dinner conversation during which Uncle Charlie reveals his hatred of rich widows, comparing them to fat animals deserving of slaughter.

Young Charlie's growing suspicion soon becomes apparent to her uncle. He confronts her and admits that he is indeed the man the police are after. He begs her for help; she reluctantly agrees not to say anything, as long as he leaves soon, to avoid a horrible scandal in the town that would destroy her family, especially her mother, who idolizes her younger brother.

Then news breaks that the second suspect was killed fleeing from the police in Portland, Maine, and is assumed to have been the guilty one. The detective Graham leaves after telling Young Charlie that he loves her and would like to marry her someday. Uncle Charlie is delighted at first, until he remembers that Young Charlie fully knows his secret. Soon, the young woman has a couple of near fatal "accidents", falling down some very steep stairs at her home, and being trapped in a closed garage with a car spewing exhaust fumes.

Uncle Charlie soon announces that he is leaving by train for San Francisco, following what is presumably his next victim. As he departs, he contrives for young Charlie to stay on board, planning to kill her by pushing her off as soon as the train gets up to speed. Instead, in the ensuing struggle between them, he falls into the path of an oncoming train. At his funeral Uncle Charlie is highly honored by the townspeople of Santa Rosa, who know nothing of his crimes. Jack has come back to comfort Charlie; she tells him she had withheld from him information about her uncle which would have confirmed him as the murderer, but Jack already knows and accepts that, realizing her difficult situation. They become a couple, and resolve to keep Uncle Charlie's crimes a secret.

If you are looking for one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest masterpieces, do yourself a favor and watch SHADOW OF A DOUBT. It was by far one of the best movies of 1943, and one of the best movies of all time...



  1. I haven't seen this movie in quite some time but I thought the plot was outstanding and Joseph Cotton in a Hitchcock film was a nice surprise. A very nice review!

  2. What a delightful choice for the Hitchcock Blogathon! I agree that SHADOW OF A DOUBT is Hitchcock's only "purely American movie." Hitch sought out Thornton Wilder as his collaborator because he wanted to make a film that captured small-town Americana...and SHADOW OF A DOUBT certainly does that. The idea that a murderer could lurk among a normal family in a typical small town is chilling.

  3. I feel it was especially chilling to 1943's audiences. Audiences in 1943 were more used to seeing Bing Crosby singing and dancing or Jimmy Cagney as a gangster...kind of fantasy type movies. SHADOW OF A DOUBT was such a "real" movie that captured almost any town in America at the time.

  4. Great review! I've always wanted to see this one but haven't gotten around to it yet. It amuses me that Hitch went the extra mile to provide something that would be extra-chilling to us Americans.


  5. I love Shadow of a Doubt with the intensity of a thousand white-hot suns; Charlie Oakley is my favorite Hitchcock villain and his speech at the dinner table still raises the hairs on the back on my neck. Well-deserved applause for a well-written review.

  6. "Shadow of a Doubt" is one of my top five Hitchcocks. Was just watching the documentary about it included on the DVD last night. A very special film that laid some groundwork for other Hitchcock masterworks. Thanks for an insightful blog on one of the best of the best...

  7. I love this film. I've given several presentations on it, so I'm glad you provided this overview. I can watch it again and again and find something new that I missed before. I agree that Joseph Cotton was excellent as Uncle Charlie, but Teresa Wright -- one of my favorite actresses of the 1940s -- was just as good, perfectly embodying the small-town girl who suspects what is happening and fights to protect her family.

  8. This is my absolute favorite film that Hitchcock ever made. Everything about it is perfect--the casting, the setting, the script--everything. It's so insidiously evil--I still maintain that it's one of the scariest Hitchcock films, because it's such a realistic portrait of the madness and danger that can lurk in even the most inane-seeming person.

    Enjoyed your review--I'm glad someone chose this movie to focus on for the blogathon!

  9. I've always loved the shot of the train carrying Uncle Charlie coming into the station, belching enormous clouds of dense, black smoke. It's like a death train coming into town. One of my all time favorites.

  10. The chemistry between Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright is striking in this movie. Joseph Cotton couldn't have been better in this plum role. This is one of my top 5 favorite Hitchcocks. Excellent review!

  11. Joseph Cotton's Uncle Charlie is one of Hitchcock's classic villians, and there are so many, but Charlie is pure evil. Congrats on a great review.

  12. I know a lot of people for whom this is their favorite Hitchcock film, or at least close to favorite (as the previous comments show). I've always had my reservations about it, though. It's very good without quite achieving the masterful status of "Rebecca," "Foreign Correspondent," or "Notorious," for me Hitchcock's best films of the 40s. I'd put it about on a par with "Suspicion" and "Lifeboat" but better than his other work of the 40s. I've never found the relationship between Teresa Wright's Charlie and Cotten's Uncle Charlie as gripping as the film's true admirers--her naivete is a bit overstated, as is his creepiness. I do like the small-town atmosphere, that memorably grotesque dinner scene you singled out, and especially the comic interplay between Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn. And I do agree that it is possibly Joseph Cotten's best performance--interestingly, one of the few unsympathetic characters he played at this stage of his career, and you can sense how he relished it. To my mind, the most interesting thing about it is that it was written by Thornton Wilder and shows "Our Town" invaded by a charming psycho.