CMBA’s Fab Films of the 40’s Blogathon: Shadow of a Doubt

The following post is an entry to the CMBA Blogathon, “Fabulous films of the 1940’s.” As a new member to the Classic Movie Blog Association, I am happy to participate in this event taking place Feb. 17-22. With so many gems available in films from this decade, it was tough to narrow down to just one. But here we go with my choice… Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller, SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943).

Like countless classic film fans, I have spent a lifetime in love with the mystique of Hitch films. The man was no doubt a master in suspense and thrill. While many of the films in his library of work are better known, SHADOW OF A DOUBT should not be over-looked as a definitive classic and a 1940’s treasure. (Be forewarned that spoilers may come out in the paragraphs to follow as I plan to discuss details of the plot…)  

 Our story begins with a restless teenager, Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (portrayed by Teresa Wright), who is bored by the hum-drum routine of her hometown of Santa Rosa, California.  The void she feels is about to be filled by the arrival of her uncle and namesake, Charles “Charlie” Oakley (portrayed by Joseph Cotten). The entire delightful Newton family, their charming home and little hometown are soon to be forever changed.  

We are introduced to the warm and affable cast of characters of the Newton family, just as the surprising news breaks that Uncle Charles is soon to arrive. Young Charlie, her 2 younger siblings and father rush down to the train station to greet her mother’s younger brother. Though they barely know each other as the elder Charlie has been absent from the Newton’s family’s life minus the occasional parcels of gifts from afar, younger Charlie feels a strange connection to her mysterious uncle that goes beyond a shared name.  She adores her uncle because of the pedestal that her mother has built up of him over the years, but the mysteries begin from the moment he steps off the train. At the family dinner that evening, young Charlie tells her visiting uncle that she can see something in him no one else can. She knows he has “wonderful secrets.” During dinner when Charlie starts humming a tune she complains she can’t get out of her head, she starts to blurt out the song’s title, “The Merry Widow Waltz…” but then her uncle tips over his wine glass as a distraction before she finishes saying it. Clear only to the audience, she’s somehow hit a nerve.

Shortly after uncle Charlie settles into the Newton family home, two men, Mr. Graham and Mr. Saunders, arrive disguised as survey-takers to interview the Newtons to journal the typical American lifestyle. Uncle Charlie is less than pleased to hear of this and what he believes is a privacy intrusion and makes it apparent he will do everything in his power to avoid having his photo taken. The truth is soon revealed when one of the men (Mr. Jack Graham) takes young Charlie out on the town and explains that they are actually federal agents looking for the “Merry Widow Murderer” serial killer. They are tracking down 2 different men, one on each coast, as their top suspects and her uncle is one of them. He desperately needs her cooperation as an insider to narrow their list to just one. Young Charlie is infuriated initially of the deception and accusations against her beloved uncle. She reluctantly complies but feels conflicted; torn in the obligation as a good citizen and obligation to her family.  She decides to research more on the Merry Widow killer story with a mad dash to the local library. She discovers this story is the very same that her uncle tore from her father’s paper earlier which also caused such an unexpectedly strong reaction. She recalls the expensive emerald ring her uncle gave her as gift upon his arrival and the engraving “to T.S. from B.M.” – clearly not intended for her. And his odd behavior while at her father’s bank with unusual attentive charm to a local widow has popped questions in her head, too. The seed of doubt has been firmly planted now.

 After dinner one evening, Charlie confronts her uncle privately, unveiling her discovery that she believes in his guilt and describes her disgust in what he’s done. He then shows the dark shadows of his true self through his negative ramblings of a cold world view, as he slowly twists paper in his hand in a strangling motion. He’s now completely removed his charming mask of compliments. Instead he insults her life as naive and thoroughly ordinary; confirming her suspicions. 

The agents inform young Charlie that they believe they’ve caught their serial killer on the East coast and that her uncle is no longer under watch. In the family garage, Agent Graham steals a private moment to say goodbye to pretty young Charlie while confessing his true feelings for her are much more romantic than an investigation, planning to return again. The garage door gets stuck as they attempt to leave and agent Graham bids goodbye to uncle Charlie as he is just steps away in the yard. But it’s too late for the Charlies- they both know he’s guilty. Young Charlie nearly escapes death twice- one evening with a bad fall from a ‘loose’ board in the backstairs and again in the garage when she’s trapped inside with the car running and the key missing from the ignition (both were traps set by her uncle, she is certain). She demands that he leave but her villainous uncle insists that it would be too hard on her mother and he felt confident with no proof (he lets her know he’s taken back the ring), no one would believe her anyway. Feeling arrogantly assured that his cover is secure and that he can literally get away with murder, he toasts members of local society in the parlor just as Charlie slowly cascades down the stairs wearing the emerald ring. She found the proof to expose his guilt- and he immediately changes his toast to announce his departure the next day. His sister is visibly heart-broken and young Charlie feels torn again. On the train to say goodbye, young Charlie is physically held captive by uncle Charlie. He makes his third and final attempt to kill her- this time by throwing her off the moving train. But in the struggle, she is the one who survives and her evil uncle does not. 

The details of uncle Charlie’s darkness and callous ethics are revealed in bits and pieces throughout the film. It slowly builds the tension as each occurrence tests Charlie’s and the Newton family’s loyalties. When Charles first settles into his new dwellings (young Charlie’s room), he goes to throw his hat on the bed but is stopped by Joe Newton due to superstition: “I just don’t want bad things to come.” As soon Mr. Newton leaves, Charles casually tosses his hat on the bed; sealing the fate of what evil lurks in his heart. Another example is when uncle Charles mocks Joe Newton’s bank job upon opening an account at his bank, coldly displaying disrespect. And yet another is when all are seated at the dinner table and he refers to widows and “silly wives” as fat, wheezing animals with no purpose… his face grows cold; his head turning a transparent icy gaze at young Charlie.   

What this film and it’s talented cast do so well is cast shadows of doubt on Charlie Oakley’s character in the subtlety of building moments. Because of the family’s, and especially young Charlie’s, devotion and assumption of good, Charles Oakley has the perfect set-up for his sociopathic plot to mask his true self. And because the Newtons are essentially good people, the clues about uncle Charlie are everywhere before young Charlie adds it up. It begs the question as to whether his true identity would have ever surfaced if certain factors had not intervened and how many real-life Charles Oakleys have gotten away with murder? As an enormous fan of the psychological thriller, especially of Alfred Hitchcock’s, I loved this film and delighted in the constant internal conflicts of character relationships. And as a Hitch fan, I also found joy in the dark humor detail of Hume Cronyn’s character as the quirky neighbor next door who has an ongoing game with Joe Newton of discussing the best methods to deceptively murder. A true signature Hitch touch, I’d say.

If you found it difficult to follow from time to time with the duality of Charlies, keep in mind that the name “Charlie” is said a whopping 170 times in this film. On a personal note, we have an ongoing little joke in our family about this film. My 12 year-old son starting watching this with me one day and ever since then, in quiet moments, we utter “Charlie” out loud to each other as our inside joke to mock how many times that name’s repeated. Sorry Charlie…

CAST OF CHARACTERS:
Teresa Wright … Young Charlie
Joseph Cotten … Uncle Charlie
Macdonald Carey … Jack Graham
Henry Travers … Joseph Newton
Patricia Collinge … Emma Newton
Hume Cronyn … Herbie Hawkins
Wallace Ford … Fred Saunders
Edna May Wonacott … Ann Newton
Charles Bates … Roger Newton

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Comments

  1. Nice job, one of my favorite films, and certainly among my very favorite of Hitchcock. Nothing so eerie as the normal gone slightly askew.

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  2. Thanks so much, Jacqueline! Happy to discover another Shadow of a Doubt fan!

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  3. I enjoyed your review, Kellee – great choice! Shadow of a Doubt is one of those films that has grown on me over time. When I first saw it, I didn't really appreciate it, but I love it more every time I see it. I appreciate you singling out Hume Cronyn, who doesn't seem to get much attention, but certainly deserves it, and I like your family's inside joke, too! (Charlie!)

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  4. Ha! "Sorry Charlie!" Great choice, great film! Hitchcock's favorite Hitchcock film for a reason – the innocence of the small town and the black cloud cast over it. Just too much is what he was! Fun read, Kellee!Aurora

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  5. Joseph Cotten wears me out watching his brilliant performance as Charlie.Thanks for sharing your private family joke. It's the sort of thing that makes these films so important in our lives.

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  6. Some critics believe this is one of Hitchcock's lesser films. The duality theme is a central plot element and there is obvious suspense, but I've read some reviews that they felt somewhat cheated by Uncle Charlie's true character being revealed from the get-go. That said, it is not one of my favorite Hitch films, but like you, I am attracted by its dark humor. Interesting article.

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  7. Great choice for a topic for the event. Like many others, this remains one of my most favorite Hitchcock films. It is beautifully done on all fronts and I, too, especially love the Hume Cronyn character and his endless discussions with Mr. Newton about methods of murder while a cunning example of one is right under their noses. Excellent post.

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  8. As Aurora said, Hitchcock enjoyed making this film–in large part because he wanted to work with Thornton Wilder. The theme of deception and the early "reveal" of the killer foreshadow VERTIGO to some extent. Additionally, the presence of a killer under the blanket of Americana influenced later films such as BLUE VELVET. All in all, I think it's one of Hitch's best and a pivotal work in his filmography. Great choice for the blogathon.

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  9. The forties were a good decade for Hitckcock, and while for me this film isn't quite at the top of the list of his films of the forties, it's still as you say "a 1940's treasure." The concept of a charming psychopath ingratiating himself into such an apple-pie American family–the snake in the Garden of Eden–intrigues us as much as it must have tickled Hitchcock's macabre sense of humor. And for a director who professed to view actors as cattle to be herded into doing what he needed, this film has some very ingratiating performances, from the good vs evil of Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten to the colorful support from Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn.

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  10. This is one of my all-time fave Hitchcock films. I love Joseph Cotten in this role – he is perfectly chilling. Great performances from the other actors too. One of my fave scenes in this movie is that small scene with Cotten and Teresa Wright in the bar and her friend, the waitress, admires the ring and says she knew it was "real" jewelry and didn't have to ask. I love how this actress steals the scene with such ordinary dialogue.

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  11. "Shadow of a Doubt" is one of my Hitchcock favorites. The audience is tipped off from beginning that Uncle Charlie isn't on the up and up but when the scene changes to bucolic Santa Rosa and the Norman Rockwell-like Newton family, we're almost lulled. Almost. Joseph Cotten is brilliant as Uncle Charlie, all velvet charm and murderous intent. The repartee between Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn is also a clever and touch I enjoy much. My only complaint is the same one I have for nearly every film Hitchcock made before he began working with Bernard Herrmann – and that is that Herrmann did not provide the score.

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  12. I totally agree- it grew on me with each viewing too. And I'm happy you enjoyed my lil family inside joke. It started as an impression of Joseph Cotten's voice saying "Charlie" but has grown into an oddly exaggerated stereotype at this point. Much less accurate but much more fun!

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  13. Gracias, mi amiga!

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  14. Cotten was indeed a masterful performer in this. Glad you enjoyed my family inside joke, too. Thanks for sharing & reading along!

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  15. Thanks so much for reading my piece and sharing, Kim! That dark humor is indeed so awesome. 🙂

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  16. I truly appreciate it! So happy you enjoyed it. It was both Alfred Hitchcock and Teresa Wright's fave film- and we can see why!

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  17. THANKS! As you pointed out, it clearly had a strong influence on other works and is a truly fine Hitch film, despite being not showcased as much as Hitch's other works. Thanks again for the feedback!

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  18. The striking contrast in a garden of good and evil- yes! And that sprinkling of colorfully dark humor is delightful. Thanks for reading!

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  19. I'm so glad you brought up that waitress scene. I almost included it because I found it thoroughly charming in such an oddball way. It didn't seem to fit in with the flow of my writing but I'm always humored by her performance and stands out as it's oddly out of place in the rhythm of the rest of the film- but in a good way. When she says she could "just die for a ring like that"- it's SO Hitch to insert that dark humor. Her character is so funny!

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  20. I love that while there is no mystery from the very beginning as to Uncle Charlie being the monster that he is, the beauty is that Hitch is able to pull off a building tension and suspenseful thriller despite that. Now THAT is a master at work. Thanks for sharing~Love all the insight!

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  21. Kellee,So glad to see another Hitchcock film in the Blogathon. You know, the first film I saw Joseph Cotton in was Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and I just couldn't stand him. If I had seen this film right after that I would have found him the same. Lucky for me that didn't happen. ha ha (Love the one closeup you have of him. Hitch sure could find any actor's creepy side)You managed to hit on everything that makes this film great. I had no idea that Charlie was spoken so many times. A truly, entertaining review of Shadow of a Doubt. (The perfect title since half way through I was doubting my own sanity.) Thanks for including your own personal experience of watching it with your son. Sharing these classic films with someone else really does make them even more enjoyable.A great review for your first CMBA Blogathon. Again, Welcome to the family, Kellee!Page

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  22. One of my favorite Hitchcock films. I really love this one, and you do it justice. Thank you for selecting it!

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  23. This is up there as one of my 5 favorite Hitch films. Great review!My favorite Joseph Cotten movie is "I'll Be Seeing You," which is a touching romantic drama. One night a couple years ago, I watched both that film and "Shadow of a Doubt." He went from kind-hearted good guy to evil killer in the space of 15 minutes!

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  24. Thanks SO much, Page! Your comments were so kind & as my 1st blog entry as part ofCMBA, I'm especially delighted you enjoyed it. Cotten certainly had range didn't he? Thanks again for the warm welcome!

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  25. Kellee,Never leave comments when so tired. I meant to say the first film I saw Cotton in was Hush, Hush..Sweet Charlotte. Grrr I did a snarky photo review of it and everything. That Bette, gets me all confused when she's creepy. ha haThanks,Page

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  26. This is one of my all-time favorite films so I'm very glad you decided to write it up for the blogathon. The moment when Cotten stares into the camera is certainly one of the most chilling Hitchcock moments ever. And Wright's slow loss of innocence is mesmerizing.

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  27. And never READ comments when you're tired. My first thought was, "DAMN, I haven't seen that version!" OY!Aurora

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