Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)

22Apr11

Teresa Wright (Charlie Newton), Joseph Cotten (Uncle Charlie). Screenplay by Thornton Wilder, Alma Reville and Sally Benson. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Rating: PG. Running time: 108 minutes.

If I said Dial M was an exercise in suspense, us as viewers anxiously waiting for the film’s characters to discover what we already know, then it seems that Shadow of a Doubt sits firmly in the field of noir mystery. Hitch reveals nothing here for so long that it takes an hour for anything to even start to cohere. Uncle Charlie is an enigma, inexplicably suspicious in his behaviour, seemingly laying low for reasons we are oblivious to. He opens the film on the run from two men, but before long is settling down at his sister’s house in Californian suburbia, looking horrified at news articles we don’t get to see, attempting to discreetly snip them out but failing to because of the presence of his observant and besotted young niece that is named after him.

Her role as the film’s protagonist is a great one. She carries out all of the work we need unravelling this riddle. Young girls of the 40s must have fought to the death for the opportunity to play a character that wasn’t plagued by femme fatale cliché and instead actually possessed an inquisitive and independent mind of her own. She must move from emotions of love to feelings of disgust for this hero in her remarkably simple life, and it’s a tricky transition not only for her. Cotten as Uncle Charlie is annoyingly likeable, the aura he gives off feeling significantly detached from his moments of venom whenever niece Charlie verges on exposing his secrets. The speeches he gives, however, reveal his attitude towards the world, and they’re unavoidably disturbing in a way reminiscent of that other Hitchcock film, Rope, and Harry Lime’s monologue on the ferris wheel in The Third Man. The Nietzschean disregard for the average man’s life is evident and it’s harrowing, and it confirms what niece Charlie grows to suspect: her Uncle is a notorious serial strangler of rich old widowed women. Cue the inevitable mental battle as a result of mixed feelings, all wrapped up in the tension stemming from the fact that we know our antagonist is going to have to somehow come to a miserable end.

Hitch regarded this as his best, I am told. I certainly can’t go that far and agree with him, but only because of the incredibly high standards of his other work rather than anything being wrong with Shadow of a Doubt per se. It’s fantastic, and it’s near enough flawless.

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