Shadow of a Doubt (1943) / Thriller

MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG for some violence and mature themes
Running time: 108 min

Cast: Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, Macdonald Carey, Henry Travers, Patricia Collenge, Hume Cronyn, Wallace Ford, Edna May Wonacott, Charles Bates
Cameo: Alfred Hitchcock
Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Screenplay: Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, Alma Reville
Review published May 28, 2008

Director Alfred Hitchcock (Suspicion, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) may have wanted the then unavailable Joan Fontaine for the role, but Teresa Wright (Somewhere in Time, The Rainmaker) does just fine as young Charlie Newton, a dreamy young woman from the tight-knit rural town of Santa Rosa, California (where the film is actually shot).  She's all aflutter now that her favorite person in the world, her uncle, also named Charlie (Cotten, Citizen Kane), is coming to visit from Philly, and hopefully, stay a while.  However, older Charlie isn't always congenial, as he seems to have something to hide, especially when some men keep coming around asking for him.  We know that the men are detectives and that old Charlie is a criminal, but the family is oblivious, at least until young Charlie is approached by the detectives and asked to help them get their man.  Young Charlie is stuck in a conflict between loyalty to her family and a sense of doing what's right, as she begins to realize that the uncle she adored for as long as she can remember might actually be the Merry Widow murderer, who marries and strangles rich women who've inherited their fortunes.  What's worse, he knows she knows and aims to keep it a secret.

Impressive credentials cover this classic Hitchcock crime story, including the great Thornton Wilder (whose "Our Town" seems the basis for his view of Santa Rosa) to his own wife, Alma Reville (Rich and Strange), as screenwriters, working off of a story by Gordon McDonell.  Perfect casting bolsters the rich characterizations, one of the film's most enduring strengths, as we come to grow and like these characters so much, we almost wish Hitchcock could have continued to feature them in future films.  Hitchcock often cited Shadow of a Doubt as his personal pick for favorite film that he's directed, and while he's made a number of films that could be considered more prominent as classics or masterpieces, it is almost perfect in its less-ambitious way, balancing the goodness of small-town Americana with the fox-in-the-hen-house infiltration of a a big city villain. 

Although elements of the film can be found thematically before and since in Hitchcock's filmography, the usual Hitchcock staples are mostly absent -- there is an innocent man accused but he's never shown, the police are primarily benevolent, and the mystery of the antagonist's guilt is given up from scene one (unlike his earlier, similarly-themed Suspicion).  It's about as close to a coming-of-age film as Hitch would ever make, as we find a young girl becoming a woman, finding that the world isn't the idyllic place she's been sheltered in all her life, learning that she can't rely on her family to help her when she really needs someone to believe her, and new feelings of love that awaits just around the corner.

Beautifully shot by Joseph Valentine, the camera lingers menacingly at times to clue us in as to what's going on.  Dark smoke billows from the locomotive bringing the elder Charlie into town.  He stares menacingly at younger Charlie when discussing his disdain for the ignorant women spending the fruits of their deceased husbands' hard-earned labor.  Long-shots frame young Charlie increasingly, showing the claustrophobic feelings she must have when there is a killer in the house, and his sights might be set on her.  There is an intensity that runs throughout the film that escalates, even during the ample comic relief brought about by the curious family and their odd neighbor, Herb (the film debut of Hume Cronyn, Lifeboat), who spends much of his time playing a game with the Newton father, Joseph (Travers, It's a Wonderful Life), about ways he could murder him and get away with it. There's really two movies going on at once, a dark thriller and a family comedy, but balanced so well, many scenes late in the film are both hilarious and menacing, as the evil bubbles just underneath the surface of the frivolity and only those looking for it can detect it.

With a very strong performance by Cotten as the heavy, and an appealing turn by Wright, who also claimed it her personal favorite of her films, Shadow of a Doubt stands out as one of Hitchcock's finest -- one of his darkest films that still has a family film appeal. 

-- Remade as Step Down to Terror (1958) and a TV film of the same name in 1991.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2008 Vince Leo