Filmsite Movie Review
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
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Shadow of a Doubt (1943) has often been seen as director/producer Alfred Hitchcock's best American film (and second film with Universal Studios) - and it was purportedly his own personal favorite. The cynical, film-noirish, war-time film was shot on location in the small, story-book town of Santa Rosa, California - a representative place of sacred, wholesome, middle-American values where dark corruption is hidden within a family. [Note: The film mixes elements of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946) with David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) and the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood.]

Dimitri Tiomkin's original musical score, including the haunting Merry Widow waltz, adds a degree of mystery to the tale about Uncle Charlie, a psychotic killer whose namesake niece, an adoring teenager-heroine named Charlie, is emotionally excited by the arrival of her worldly uncle, but her opinion of him slowly changes as she probes into his evil, murderous secrets - and her life becomes endangered. [Note: A real-life mass murderer in the mid-1920s named Earle Leonard Nelson, dubbed with the macabre nickname "Merry Widow," strangled middle-aged women until he was hanged in 1928.]

Incredibly, the disturbing, complex film that was devoid of Oscars was nominated for only one Academy Award - for Gordon McDonell's Original Story. The screenplay was co-authored by Alma Reville (Hitchcock's own wife), Sally Benson (the writer of New Yorker stories that were made into one of Hollywood's best musicals, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)), and eminent Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Thornton Wilder. Wilder had written Our Town (put on film in 1940), a story about Grover's Corners - another small town in New England.

The dualities of good and evil in the film are exemplified by numerous pairs or doubles: some obvious (e.g., the two Charlies, the two detectives and government survey-takers, the two murder suspects, etc.), and some not so obvious (e.g., the two train scenes at Charlie's arrival and departure, the two conversations about perfect murder techniques between actors Travers and Cronyn, the 'Til Two bar where Charlie orders a double brandy, the two unsuccessful attempts on Charlie's life, Charlie's two parents, schoolfriends and siblings, the two garage scenes, the two dinner-table scenes, etc.).

Plot Synopsis

Under the opening credits of the murder mystery/thriller, an enigmatic, nostalgic background image (that recurs throughout the film) is displayed kaleidoscopically. Gay Nineties bourgeois couples dressed in elegant ballroom gowns and suits waltz dizzingly together as the "Merry Widow Waltz" plays. The dreamy, old-time scene of the splendid, bygone era has nothing to do, it only seems, with the drama to follow, until Charlie Oakley's crimes are later revealed.

The titles dissolve to a panoramic view of a river bridge (a symbolic indicator of connection or linkage). Another dissolve takes a closer look at the riverside wreckage of an auto junkyard (with a "NO DUMPING ALLOWED" sign) and the decaying, urbanized eastern city [of Philadelphia, literally the City of Brotherly Love] on the horizon. A third dissolve displays a street scene where youthful children are playing ball in a working-class city block, and a nearby apartment house (No. 13 - inauspiciously an unlucky number) is marked by a "Rooms to Let" sign. After a close-up of one window in the row house, a dissolve transports the camera into a small room.

A fully-dressed, vacantly lost in thought, dormant Charles (or "Uncle Charlie") Oakley (Joseph Cotten) stiffly reclines on the bed (dead and coffin-like) during the day in his cell-like room in the seedy Philadelphia rooming house. He plays with the phallic cigar that he is smoking, seemingly bitter and cynical. On the bedside table next to the indifferent, apathetic, world-weary, paralytic man are objects he holds dear - a shot glass of whiskey, another glass of water for a chaser, and an open billfold with a carelessly-strewn pile of bills on top (some of the bills have toppled to the floor and lie srewn around). The overweight, middle-aged landlady Mrs. Martin (Constance Purdy) knocks on the door and intrusively enters, identifying him as Mr. Spencer (an alias based upon his mother's maiden middle name!), and informing him that two men have been asking for him, "a young man and a kinda older man. They was sorry you wasn't in. I said you wasn't." As per his instructions to not disturb him, she didn't let them in, but they have retreated to the street corner to wait and watch - "and I'm sure they'll be back."

Noticing that he looks exhausted and tired (he passively remains on his bed during their entire conversation), and "maybe you need a real rest, that's what I think," she notices his money in disarray and bustles forward to straighten it up - like an indulgent mother would straighten up her son's sloppy room. Although all indications reveal her boarder's underworld connections, she naively ignores them. He mentions oddly that if they return, she should let them in. And he notes the odd circumstance that his "friends" couldn't recognize him:

Landlady: You oughtn't to leave all that money lying around like that. Oh, it makes me nervous to see money lying around. Everybody in the world ain't honest, you know. Though I must say I haven't had much trouble that way. Those friends of yours told me not to mention they'd called. Wanted to surprise you, but I thought you'd like to know somehow.
Charles: Yes, yes, of course. If they come back, you must show them in...You know Mrs. Martin, it's very funny. They aren't exactly friends of mine. They've never seen me. That's odd, isn't it?..Now that I'm here, I'll have to meet them. I may even go out and meet them - and then again, I may not. Not yet.

To allow him to continue his nap, the busy-body landlady solicitously lowers the blind before leaving - its shadow is drawn down over his morbid face. Rather than inducing sleep, the darkness causes him to sit up alertly, like a vampire-creature rising from his coffin. [Other 'Dracula' similarities and allusions to the horror film character appear later in the film.] He snuffs out his cigar, finishes the shot of whiskey, rises and angrily hurls his glass against the sink on the far wall. He raises the blind and observes the two visitors waiting outside for him - rhetorically (in voice-over), he dares them to locate his evil guilt: "What do you know? You're bluffing. You've nothing on me." The dapper gigolo picks up a few of his things, leaves the room, and deliberately and audaciously walks toward and past the two men (in a brilliant Hitchcockian tracking point-of-view shot) to call their bluff. They ignore him, but pursue after their prey (filmed from high above) in a barren, abandoned lot, quickly losing his track and appearing bewildered by his sudden and elusive disappearance. The camera pans and twists to the left, locating the cigar-smoking character in profile on a rooftop - a short clarinet riff emphasizes his amusement at the scene.

After a dissolve and a close-up of a dial-telephone on a wall in a dingy pool room, Charles calls the Postal Union to send a telegram to his sister Mrs. Joseph Newton in Santa Rosa, California. He invites himself for an extended stay (as a place to take sanctuary), and ironically challenges them to "try and stop me":


Santa Rosa, California is introduced as Charlie repeats the words "Santa Rosa, California" to the operator - establishing shots show a beautiful, sunny and clean, law-abiding, traditional and conventional town with tree-lined streets within view of the Sierra Nevada foothills. A smiling, avuncular traffic policeman directs downtown traffic in an orderly fashion. [There are many other rules or constants by which everyone lives in the town.]

A series of dissolves lead from outside the clapboard Newton family home (with a large bay window and wrap-around front porch) into the upstairs bedroom of "Little Charlie," paralleling her introduction with the one of her Uncle in the rooming house - to deliberately emphasize their close affinity and psychic link to each other.

Young "Charlie" (Charlotte) Newton (Teresa Wright) is lying fully dressed in the same supine position on her bed as her Uncle Charlie in the first scene, meditating or deep in thought - her arms cradling her head on a pillow. The ringing of the downstairs telephone introduces Charlie's 9 year-old bookwormish, precocious, bespectacled sister Ann (Edna May Wonacott) with her nose buried in the dreamy romantic novel Ivanhoe. She answers the phone call from Mrs. Henderson (Minerva Urecal) at the Postal Union office, but doesn't write down the message for lack of a pencil, explaining: "I'm trying to keep my mind free of things that don't matter because I have so much to keep on my mind - innumerable things." She promises to tell her mother to call back. Her father, Joseph Newton (Henry Travers) arrives home from work and gives his young daughter a tentative kiss. He learns about the telegram and expects the worst - possibly a car "accident" caused by his newly-licensed sister: "I knew there'd be trouble if your Aunt Sarah got her driver's license." [Later, he pessimistically wonders: "Somebody might be sick or something."]

Ann teasingly compares her own dignified and sophisticated literature choices with the pulp mysteries that her elderly father reads (Unsolved Crimes is conspicuously under his arm):

Ann: Here I am, practically a child, and I wouldn't read the things you read.
Father: Well, I guess they'd give ya bad dreams.
Ann: Bad dreams? You don't understand, Papa.

Upstairs, Charlie lies "thinking for hours," psychologically restless and despairing to her calm, bank-teller father of her family's entrapment in a passion-less, middle-class life where "nothing happens". Rather than wishing to discuss "money" (like her Uncle), Charlie wishes to speak about "souls." In particular, she laments the fate of her unfulfilled, hard-working mother [literally, a part-widow without a manly husband] and wishes "to do something for her." Disaffected, she feels the family needs a life-style-shaking "miracle" because it has "gone to pieces." [Her assessment may be correct - her family is dysfunctional]:

Charlie: I've come to the conclusion that I give up. I simply give up.
Father: What are you going to give up?
Charlie: Have you ever stopped to think that a family should be the most wonderful thing in the world and that this family's just gone to pieces?
Father: We have?
Charlie: Of course we have. We just sort of go along and nothing happens. We're in a terrible rut. It's been on my mind for months. What's gonna be our future?
Father: (consoling) Oh, come now, Charlie, things aren't as bad as that. The bank gave me a raise last January.
Charlie: Money. How can you talk about money when I'm talking about souls? We eat and sleep and that's about all. We don't even have any real conversations. We just talk...
Father: ...and work.
Charlie: Yes, poor mother, she works like a dog, just like a dog...When she comes back, it will be the same thing. Dinner, then dishes, then bed. I don't see how she stands it. You know, she's really a wonderful woman. I mean, she's not just a mother. And I think we ought to do something for her. Don't you think we should?
Father: Yeah. What were you thinking of doing for her?
Charlie: Oh, nothing I supppose. I guess we'll just have to wait for a miracle - or something...I don't believe in good intentions anymore. All I'm waiting for now is a miracle.

Suddenly, Charlie's spinsterish, talkative and oblivious mother Emma Newton (Patricia Collinge) [Emma was the name of Hitchcock's mother - she died in England during filming] makes a dramatic appearance at the bedroom door, speaking her first words [and foreshadowing an "accident" that will occur later in the film]: "Those back stairs are steep." Fearful of becoming like her mother, Charlie describes what she has literally become - a frustrated, unfulfilled and irritable spinster in old age without a husband: "Oh, I've become a nagging old maid." Her next complaint, after sitting up, is about her mother's unstylish, "awful old hat you'd promised me you'd throw away" - the one that her mother had just worn downtown.

Charlie conjures up a means of salvation - for both her own innocent, teenage romantic dreams and for the health of her family - another more potent, enlivening male figure. Identifying with her mother's lack of a dashing husband in her marriage, she longs to provide a romantic substitute (or a religious savior): "Mother, I'm going downtown and send a telegram...I know a wonderful person who will come and shake us all up, just the one who will save us....All this time, there's been one right person to save us. Mother - what's Uncle Charlie's address?" Her mother's first reaction is one of resistance and a reluctance to ask her brother for money: "Now you're not going to ask him for money, are you?" The money is not the means of salvation, according to Charlie: "That wouldn't help." She believes that their name-sake connection spans the distance and will miraculously bring him from Philadelphia to the West Coast:

He'll come for me. I'm named after him. Besides, we're the only relatives he has in the world.

Meanwhile, Charlie's younger brother Roger (Charles Bates) has burst through the front door, sharing his mathematical obsession with measuring distances by his footsteps: "Do you know how many steps I have to take to get from here to the drugstore and back? Six hundred and forty-nine...Coming by the way of Fourth Street, it's eight hundred and two...Tomorrow, beginning when I get up in the morning, I'm gonna count every step I take all day..." His dissatisfaction with his own imprecise home life has prompted him to take accurate measurements for his own map of the world. Ann criticizes her mother's mis-use of the telephone (and doubting of advanced technology) when she calls for the telegram's message: "You'd think Mama had never seen a phone. She makes no allowance for science. She thinks she has to cover the distance by sheer lung power."

When Emma is finally told - after a long, calculated delay in the narrative - that her younger "spoiled" brother Charles ("the baby") is coming into town on Thursday, she ecstatically calls it "the most wonderful surprise" - it is the miraculous salvation that her daughter desired: "It's just simply wonderful." However, she realizes something uncanny about the way her daughter had coincidentally anticipated his arrival: "Now what made her think to do that at the same time?" In the Postal Union Office, Charlie is told about her mother's wire from her Uncle Charlie - she also reacts with delighted ecstasy to the positive effect of her "mental telepathy" that put her "in tune" with him and lured him to their home:

Charlie: Mrs. Henderson, do you believe in telepathy?
Mrs. Henderson: Well I ought to, that's my business.
Charlie: Oh, not telegraphy, mental telepathy. Like, well, suppose you have a thought, and suppose the thought's about someone you're in tune with. And then across thousands of miles, that person knows what you're thinking about and answers you - and it's all mental.
Mrs. Henderson: (skeptically) I don't know what you're talkin' about. I only send telegrams the normal way.

On the street as she walks toward the camera, her beaming, smiling face thrills at the joyful knowledge that her wishes have been reciprocated with another synchronized, mirror-image telegram. Her telepathic prayer (something beyond the ordinary and mundane to get her family out of its "terrible rut" - whether murder or romance!) was magically answered by divine intervention and a God-like miracle: "He heard me! He heard me!" In a slow dissolve to the next scene, Charlie's trusting, excited, expectant face is superimposed on the fast-approaching, horn-blowing advance of a dark locomotive with thrusting wheels - bringing her uncle closer.

[Thursday] In the interior of the train to Santa Rosa, the black railroad porter (Clarence Muse) speaks to Charles (now known as Mr. Otis) in a compartment - veiled and unseen behind a black curtain. He is supposedly "very sick" and "a little weak." In another compartment nearby, an elderly couple are playing cards with a man whose back is to the camera [Hitchcock in his customary cameo appearance] - the wife (Sarah Edwards) suggests that her doctor husband (Vaughan Glaser) could help the "poor soul" behind the curtain who is concealed and "won't see anyone." [Appropriately, the half-hidden director of the film is shown holding all the cards - the full suit of spades, and he is similarly regarded as being sick by the doctor: "You don't look very well either."]

After a dissolve, the Newton's car (with the entire family inside except for Emma) pulls into the Santa Rosa train station as Charles' train arrives. Black funereal smoke belches into the sky and a dark, tarnishing shadow is cast over everything to symbolize the arrival of evil in the clean and bright California town. The porter and the couple aid the ailing man to dismount from the train and limp onto the platform. As the train departs, Charles stands up straighter, miraculously recovers his health, and smiles while walking toward Charlie - they both approach each other in similar fashions with jaunty, almost-erotic strides and meet to embrace in a profiled camera angle as mirror-images (he wraps his walking cane around her). Immediately, she intuitively senses that he isn't a sick man: "At first I didn't know you. I thought you were sick...You aren't sick, are you?...Why, Uncle Charlie, you're not sick. That was the funniest thing." The rest of the family greets Uncle Charlie and march toward the car with his heavy luggage - the self-satisfied uncle follows behind and takes out one of his phallic cigars.

In front of the house, Emma bounds down the front porch steps to greet him - from a distant camera position with leafy trees filling the shot. To prevent an emotionally-close embrace like the one with Charlie, Uncle Charlie points at her to stop - insisting that she looks more like the Emma of her maiden name [his images of the world are stuck in the past]:

Emma, don't move. Standing there, you don't look like Emma Newton. You look like Emma Spencer Oakley of 46 Birnam Street, St. Paul, Minnesota, the prettiest girl on the block.

Then, they hug each other while the rest of the family crowd around and he nostalgically remarks: "I keep remembering those things, all the old things." [Throughout the film, Uncle Charles keeps thinking back to happier times in his past.] By herself, Charlie has been silently standing back on the walkway and enjoying the sight of the reunion.

Because Charlie insistently desired it, Joe offers Charlie's room at the head of the stairs to Uncle Charlie: "Emmie wanted to move Ann but Charlie thought you'd be more comfortable here." [This is the first of many displacements Uncle Charlie makes upon the family, as young Charlie had hoped.] His cane and coat are thrown on the bed, but Joe cautions him about tossing his hat there - another instance of superstition in the film:

Joe: Ah, ah, ah, don't put the hat on the bed.
Uncle Charles: Supersititious, Joe?
Joe: No, but I don't believe in inviting trouble.

A few moments later when alone, Charles looks at a wall photograph of Charlie's high school graduation, plucks a rose and places it in his lapel, looks out of the window on the idyllic, sunshiny street, and deliberately violates the head of the household's warning and tosses his hat onto Charlie's bed to proclaim his troublesome arrival and stake out his territory - his incestuous interest in the young teenager.

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