There are people who will tell you that Hitchcock never made a true film noir, and they cite the presence of countless personal motifs littering his work as evidence that what we’re watching is a “Hitchcock movie” as opposed to noir. That’s a point of view I can understand, even sympathize with to some extent, but I still feel that there are a number of Hitch’s movies that do fit snugly into that category. Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is a prime candidate for inclusion due to the dark heart that beats beneath the deceptively bright surface, and the ambiguous attitude it displays towards the villain.
The opening is typical Hitchcock, starting with a cityscape and then zeroing in shot by shot to the window of a grotty tenement. Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) is reclining on his bed, but is interrupted when his landlady comes to inform him that two strangers have been asking for him. It’s made clear that Charlie is being sought in connection with criminal activities. The exact nature of these crimes are only alluded to at first, but the viewers suspicions are allowed to build gradually until it’s finally revealed that Charlie is the killer of a series of wealthy widows – The Merry Widow Murderer. Of course, this isn’t just a standard did-he-or-didn’t-he, hunt-for-a-killer picture; the doubt of the title refers not so much to the viewers as to the villain’s family, and to his niece in particular. In order to find some respite from the relentless manhunt underway, Charlie goes to stay with his sister’s family in Santa Rosa, California. This unexpected arrival is a source of celebration for the sister and especially the niece, also called Charlie (Teresa Wright) in his honour. Young Charlie is on the cusp of adulthood, and bemoaning the fact that her family’s life has descended into a monotonous series of drab non-events. The appearance of the Uncle whom she idolises promises to inject some energy and excitement into her sleepy, small town existence. This certainly seems to be the case at first, as she parades her uncle around town like a trophy or a returning hero. Gradually though, this innocent adulation begins to be eroded by the seemingly insignificant occurrences that begin to pile up. When two detectives masquerading as reporters (Macdonald Carey and Wallace Ford) turn up Young Charlie has her suspicions confirmed. In a marvellously filmed sequence in a deserted public library, the full extent of Uncle Charlie’s crimes is revealed as his niece reads the truth in a newspaper, the camera standing in for her eyes as she has the ground yanked out from under her – the camera pulling back and away to leave her small, isolated and burdened with knowledge in this shrine to learning. The dilemma facing Young Charlie is that she cannot act upon this information without destroying her family, and especially her emotionally fragile mother (Patricia Collinge). The situation is complicated even further when she realizes that her outwardly affectionate uncle can’t afford to let her walk around knowing what she does.
Shadow of a Doubt is commonly referred to as Hitchcock’s favourite film, and it’s easy to see why that would be the case. It’s a dark ode to Americana that’s reminiscent of Capra, an outsider’s view of an idealized world. Hitchcock’s Santa Rosa is not, as I’ve heard it suggested, the home to dark secrets but a wholesome community into which darkness steals (from it’s true origin, the urban center) before being duly expelled. Most of Hitchcock’s trademark visual style is on view, from high tracking shots to zooms and unnerving close-ups. The whole movie is chock full of memorable scenes and shots so it’s hard to pick out favourites. However, two sequences stand out for me: the first is Uncle Charlie’s arrival in Santa Rosa, the train rolling into the spotless station and pumping out a huge cloud of noxious black smoke to represent the evil it carries within; the other (less frequently mentioned) scene takes place when Uncle Charlie has just heard that the authorities have effectively cleared him. As the relieved man struts into the house and bounds up the stairs with a renewed vigour, he pauses halfway up, turns slowly, and sees the slight figure of his niece framed in the doorway below. It’s at this point that we know he’s going to kill her, he has no other alternative – it’s a subtle yet chilling moment that never fails to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, even after countless viewings.
Joseph Cotten had that kind of easy charm that meant he wasn’t chosen to play the heavy in too many films. He uses his natural affability to good effect here and is entirely believable as a man who seems to make friends everywhere he goes. It also makes our knowledge of his true nature all the more shocking and adds some real punch to those moments when he lets his mask slide a little. All in all, you can’t help but have a sneaking admiration for him – sure he’s evil, but his evil has such an urbane and attractive sheen that it almost wins you over. Playing against that and holding onto viewer sympathy is a big ask, but Teresa Wright pulls it off. She matures perfectly as the story progresses and the threats to her safety escalate. By the end the viewers are faced with their own dilemma, not really wanting to see harm come to either uncle or niece. The main support comes from Patricia Collinge as the vulnerable and trusting mother. It’s her trust in and deep adoration for her rotten brother that gives real substance to the film, and it’s to her credit that the part retains the requisite emotional pull without becoming cloying. Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn are cast mainly as a kind of macabre comic relief, needling each other of an evening about the best way to bump the other off. If I have any real criticism to make it relates to Macdonald Carey’s detective. It just feels like padding in a film that doesn’t require any; if his budding romance with Teresa Wright was included to strengthen the notion of her growing up then it’s unnecessary, that aspect being more than adequately covered by the meatier sections of the picture.
Universal’s UK release of Shadow of a Doubt on DVD is a very satisfactory one, showing little damage and staying sharp and clear for the most part. There’s a nice selection of extras including the trailer and galleries. Best of all is a half hour documentary on the making of the film that has contributions from Teresa Wright, Hume Cronyn and others. I won’t try and argue that this is Hitchcock’s best film, but it is a very accomplished work. It serves as a study on the loss of innocence and the darkness that lurks behind a polished facade – and it’s a highly entertaining movie.