Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
A young woman thinks her uncle may be a serial killer.
Nominated for 1 OSCAR:
Best Writing, Original Story: Gordon McDonell
Alfred Hitchcock made over 50 films. One of the more popular questions to ask the director, actually any director, was which one was his favorite? Hitchcock would always answer Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
The movie has elements of Alfred Hitchcock that you would expect. There is a wrong-man accused character. The mother plays a large role. Jokes are made about murder. But all these typical Hitchcock devices are tweaked just a bit. The wrong-man accused might actually be the real criminal, the police might have captured the wrong person. The mother is also a sister. And the jokes about murder are made by two men who believe every word they say.
Shadow of a Doubt is Hitchcock’s first real American masterpiece. This could be why it stood out to him. He also developed a love for the Bay Area while making this picture. Santa Rose, CA is a major location for the movie. Hitchcock always loved the area and would come back to it for many other movies like Vertigo and The Birds.
The story begins in Philadelphia though. And it is not the best part of the city. The camera begins with a shot of the city. We cut to a dingy street and then up to an apartment building. The camera tracks right into an open window and we find a man lying on the bed, looking at the ceiling, thinking things over. This is Charlie Oakley, played by Joseph Cotton. A knock comes at the door and the landlord comes in to tell Charlie that some men are outside waiting for him. This scene always reminds me of a similar one in Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers.
Anyway, it appears that Charlie is wanted for murdering rich widows and taking all their money. The people outside are from the police department. The best thing to do in one of these situations is to give them the slip and then get out of town. Charlie does this. He decides to visit his sister Emma Newton in Santa Rosa.
We find Santa Rosa to be a nice peaceful little town. We find the residence of Charlie’s relatives to be nice too. The camera tracks right into an open window and we find a woman lying on the bed, looking at the ceiling, thinking her life in Santa Rosa over. This is Charlotte, also called Charlie, because she adores her uncle. Her mother opens the door and tells her to come downstairs.
Of course Hitchcock decided to introduce the audience to each character in this way to tie them together – as if having the same name wasn’t enough.
Uncle Charlie arrives in Santa Rosa on the train, which comes complete with brooding black smoke. His sister, her husband and the three kids are all there to greet him. The Charlies are happy to see each other. In fact, everyone is happy to see Uncle Charlie.
Things seem to be going well for Uncle Charlie. He is able to lay low with family and even thinks about opening a bank account and moving to Santa Rosa. He queries Joe, Emma’s husband, who works at the bank about the idea and of course Joe is happy for the business.
It begins to turn south for Uncle Charlie when two men show up saying they want to take a picture of the typical American family for the magazine they work for. The Newton household could not be happier. Uncle Charlie is far from happy as he suspects these reporters to be something different. One of them happens to have an eye for Charlie and the two go out one night. She discovers the fact that the two are detectives and they are investigating her uncle for murders committed back East. He tries to reassure her by saying that they are also tracking another man in the East. The other man could be the possible murderer. But Charlie understands that her uncle has been acting strange and is probably the one.
From here there is a cat and mouse game between Charlie and her uncle. Uncle Charlie made the mistake of giving Charlie a nice ring as a present. The only bad part was the ring belonged to a rich widow who had been murdered. When Charlie finds this out she becomes more aloof. This does not sit well with her uncle. He finds out that she knows and plots to get rid of her.
He tries his best, while still keeping up the act of model citizen to the rest of the family and people of Santa Rosa. But Charlie and her detective friend won’t give up. They finally get Uncle Charlie to leave town. This devastates his sister, but it saves her from knowing that her baby brother is actually a murderer.
Uncle Charlie tries one last time to kill his niece on the train leaving from Santa Rosa. He tries to push her out of the moving train as it leaves the station. He fails, losses his balance, and falls to his death instead. He is eulogized as a great man to the residents of Santa Rosa. To Charlie and her detective boyfriend, he was a murderer.
Special mention has to be made to the characters of Joe Newton, played by Henry Travers, and next door neighbor Herb. The two constantly talk about how they would murder the other. It is supposed to provide comic relief, but as Charlie begins to learn more about her Uncle, she and the audience become uneasy with the constant back and forth of the two men.
Those little Hitchcock touches are what make Shadow of a Doubt so great to watch. The movie was Hitchcock’s favorite and if that is not reason enough to watch then maybe knowing that it is the best one he made during the 1940s is.