Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Shadow of a Doubt was Alfred Hitchcock's favorite among his own films and was based on the case of the real-life "Merry Widow Murderer," Earle Leonard Nelson, a mass strangler of the 1920s. Hitchcock made this chiller all the more frightening by having his crafty homicidal maniac intrude into the tranquility of a warm, middle-class family living in a small town, revealing the dark underside of the American heartland. His characters are deeply developed, and he drew from Joseph Cotten one of the actor's most remarkable and fascinating performances.

At the beginning of the film, Uncle Charlie (Cotten) is shown wooing and then murdering a woman for her riches. He barely escapes the police detectives who chase him through the back alleys of an eastern city, then boards a train, having wired his sister Emma (Patricia Collinge) in Santa Rosa, California, that he is coming for an extended stay with the only family he has. (On board the train, as a passenger in his cameo appearance, is director Hitchcock.) Uncle's arrival In Santa Rosa, Uncle Charlie's niece, young Charlie (Teresa Wright), a vivacious and warm-hearted young lady, is delighted to hear that her urbane, witty, and adventurous uncle will be visiting her family. She, her father Joseph (Henry Travers), and her young sister and brother Ann (Edna May Wonacott) and Roger (Charles Bates) greet Uncle Charlie at the train station, and they are shocked to see him limping on a cane, being helped by porters. He claims to be ill, and the family quickly takes him home, where Emma pampers him. Charms and idiosyncracies

Young Charlie is totally charmed by the suave Uncle Charlie, who compliments her on her wit and attractiveness, and accompanies him about the little town of Santa Rosa. Uncle Charlie stops at a bank and makes a scene while depositing $40,000, but his strange behavior is explained as an idiosyncracy by the adoring young Charlie.

Back home, Emma, who looks up to her younger brother as the family intellectual, tells her middle-class brood that the young Uncle Charlie was "such a quiet boy, always reading." She also relates an anecdote about her brother, who, after being given a bicycle, accidentally hit a streetcar and nearly died. Afterwards, while he was getting well, "There was no holding him. It was just as though all the rest he had was too much and he had to get into mischief to blow off steam." (Hitchcock himself wrote this passage, and it is reportedly based on an incident of his own life, but it faithfully recalls an accident that befell Earle Leonard Nelson, whose head was opened when he was struck by a streetcar as a child. It was later thought that he suffered brain damage, the accident making him a lunatic from childhood.) This nostalgic talk warms Uncle Charlie's heart, and he fondly and sadly recalls "the old world." In fact, as young Charlie is to learn later, Uncle Charlie hates the world of today and all the women in it (except his sister, a surrogate mother).

Meanwhile, Joseph carries on a running dialogue with oddball next-door neighbor Herbie Hawkins (Hume Cronyn). Both of them are obsessed with murder, a typical preoccupation in their drab small town, and are constantly proposing means of committing the "perfect murder" to each other, then figuring out ways to solve the crimes. Here Hitchcock parades a number of ingenious killings before the viewer, mostly the crimes of nineteenth-century British killers who fascinated him. The director also inserts a humorous, off-beat autobiographical detail when the younger daughter, Ann, complains to Joseph about her mother's misuse of the telephone—like Hitchcock's own mother, after whom he named Emma's character—saying, "Really, Papa, 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!" In fact, both of the smaller children are absorbed by science, Emma being a voracious reader and the small boy, Roger, totally obsessed with mathematics.

Into this tranquil backwater setting the world and Uncle Charlie's awful past begin to intrude. Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), a detective, comes upon the scene and begins asking young Charlie about Uncle Charlie, arousing her suspicions. Battling the thought that her beloved uncle could be the mass killer Jack has suggested he is, she tries to get closer to Uncle Charlie, hoping to learn about his past and allay her fears. He tells her that they are family and must stick together, being himself suspicious that Jack (who pretends to be just another of young Charlie's admirers) is really a cop on his trail. Seeing an article about himself—describing the nationwide manhunt to capture the "Merry Widow Murderer"—Uncle Charlie tears it from the daily paper. young Charlie sees that the paper is mutilated and, after finding the clipping hidden in Uncle Charlie's room, begins to investigate on her own. Uncle Charlie quickly discerns her suspicions, for there is almost a weird telepathy between them, and in some ways they are very much alike. But while young Charlie is good, her uncle is simply evil.

This evil, which Uncle Charlie has worked to conceal, begins to burst from him. At dinner one night, he suddenly explodes when the subject of rich widows is brought up, sneering, "You see these women everywhere—useless women, drinking the money, eating the money, smelling of money!" The outburst brings tears to young Charlie's eyes, her preconceived image of her noble uncle evaporating.

Later, after young Charlie has definitely decided that Uncle Charlie is the mass killer Jack and the police are seeking everywhere, she agonizes over what to do. She is afraid for herself and her family and clings to the love she had for Uncle Charlie while at the same time fearing him. Nevertheless, she grows cold toward him and exchanges long, knowing glances with her uncle, who decides that he must kill young Charlie to keep her silent. Before that, he takes her to a smoke-filled bar and, sitting in a booth, tries to convince her that the little lies she has caught him telling mean nothing. But in his talk Uncle Charlie does nothing more than reveal his own hideous nature, convincing young Charlie that her suspicions are correct. Telling young Charlie that she doesn't know what the world is really like, Uncle Charlie is unable to control his all-consuming hatred for that world, his eyes narrowing and his voice growing hoarse with angry passion. Unable to bear this invective, young Charlie runs home.

Later, when the family is preparing to go out, Uncle Charlie inveigles young Charlie into starting the family car in the garage. Making sure that she cannot turn off the ignition and escape, he closes the garage doors, which the family has had difficulty opening lately. While young Charlie begins to succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning, the family dawdles about, Joseph going back up the stairs to get his overcoat so many times that Hitchcock was later accused of playing sadistic games with the audience. Uncle Charlie, to cover his own devilish machinations, races to the garage and "saves" young Charlie, his (second) attempt to kill her a failure.

After this incident, young Charlie plots with Jack to expose her uncle, but she is still having difficulty bringing herself to hurt her family. Uncle Charlie, by now behaving like a caged animal, realizes that the law is closing in on him. It's time to flee. He tells the family that he must leave to attend to business and asks them to see him off at the train station. He entices young Charlie on board the train to say a final farewell, and, between cars, as the train begins to pull out of the station and get up lethal speed, he confronts her with her own suspicions about him, more or less admitting that he is the mass killer and that, because she knows it, she must die—though he will make her death appear accidental.

He grabs her and is about to throw her through the open door, waiting for another train approaching in the opposite direction to come abreast of the one on which they are riding, so that his niece will be crushed by the oncoming engine. Hitchcock shows only the legs of Uncle Charlie and young Charlie as they struggle and attempt to maintain balance and position on the little platform of the moving car. "Not yet, Charlie," Uncle Charlie says, gauging the diminishing distance from the oncoming train, "just a little longer—." The train suddenly lurches, just as young Charlie pushes Uncle Charlie away, and he, rather than his intended victim, goes pitching off the train directly into the path of the oncoming engine, to be killed instantly.

Young Charlie winds up with Jack at her side but does not expose Uncle Charlie's horrid past, preferring for her family's sake to let the world believe that her once-cherished uncle died in an accident. He is buried after an impressive funeral, the little town of Santa Rosa unwittingly paying tribute to one of the country's worst mass killers. Critique Masterful profile Though some film critics have viewed Shadow of a Doubt as a kind of partial self-portrait in which Hitchcock explored his own darkness and then brought it to bear upon the audience, it seems more likely that the director is merely telling a good story, based not on his own experiences but on the character of a real-life killer who intrigued him.

This is Hitchcock's most penetrating analysis of a murderer—a masterful profile, aided by Joseph Cotten's superb performance, of a subtle killer who cannot escape his dark passions, despite a superior intellect. Calculated film construction The film's construction is adroit and very calculated, letting the viewer know early on just what kind of man Cotten really is, but providing tension through Cotten's devious charade as a gentle, kind man deserving of his family's love—a tension that fuels the chilling cat-and-mouse game between Cotten and Teresa Wright that provides the film's suspenseful center. Hitchcock the storyteller is at his best here, creating a down-to-earth thriller, avoiding the wild predicaments his characters would experience in such entertaining but fanciful films such as North by Northwest (1959).

Hitchcock took his time in making Shadow of a Doubt. The director got Thornton Wilder to write the screenplay, assuming that the playwright who created Our Town would be the perfect scenarist to provide the right kind of ambiance and characterization to the film's small, close-knit Santa Rosa. Hitchcock made the right choice in Wilder, although he also wrote some scenes himself, independently of Wilder. This was his method of constructing a film, first doing his storyboards, depicting with his own stick drawings exactly how he envisioned each scene, and then working closely with the writer to develop the script. He was to say later: "I work on it [the script] from the beginning with the writer. It's not so much that I'm doing the writing, like dialogue and character, it's the fact that I'm bringing the writer into the direction of the picture. I'm making him aware of how we ought to do certain things, how it should be shot. It's not a question of my taking his script and interpreting it. If the writer goes to see the picture, he will see exactly on the screen what we have decided on ahead of time. Many writers turn in a script and when they look at the picture, it's all different from what they wrote." Finishing the script After consulting briefly with Hitchcock, Wilder wandered about Hollywood with a notebook, writing bits and pieces of the screenplay when he could. He and the director took their time developing the intricate story, and Wilder had not finished the screenplay when he enlisted to serve in the Psychological Warfare Division of the Army. To finish the script, Hitchcock boarded a cross-country train to Florida (where Wilder was to begin his training) with the writer and patiently sat in the next compartment while Wilder emerged to give him another few pages of copy.

Hitchcock, who was never one to let a good idea slip past him and who had admired Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941), adapted Welles's technique of having characters talk across one another and interrupt dialogue in this film, filling in the sound with background conversation and small talk by passersby that lend further authenticity to the proceedings.

Except for the interiors, Hitchcock shot all of the film in Santa Rosa, using the townspeople as extras and recruiting one of them, Edna May Wonacott, for the supporting cast. (She was the child of the local grocer whose store Hitchcock patronized when on location.) The funeral procession through Santa Rosa's main square at the end of the film was so realistic that hundreds of locals, not knowing Hitchcock's cameras were runnings, stopped and removed their hats as the hearse crept past them.


Performer, Character

Teresa Wright, Young Charlie

Joseph Cotten, Uncle Charlie

Macdonald Carey, Jack Graham

Henry Travers, Joseph Newton

Patricia Collinge, Emma Newton

Hume Cronyn, Herbie Hawkins

Edna May Wonacott, Ann Newton

Wallace Ford, Fred Saunders

Production Credits:

Producer, Jack H. Skirball

Director, Alfred Hitchcock

Screenwriter, Thornton Wilder (based on a story by Gordon McDonnell)

Editor, Milton Carruth

Cinematographer, Joseph Valentine

Music director, Charles Previn

Composer Dimitri Tiomkin