Sunday, January 22, 2017

Shadow of a Doubt

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

I suppose I’ll run out of Alfred Hitchcock films I want to write about some time. Not yet, though. This 1943 work was one of the director’s favorites. Its primary theme is the evil or darkness that lurks beneath benign surface appearances. This duality exists within places and people. This double nature appears in all Gothic or horror stories in one form or another. They explore the subterranean nature of humanity, or as the current TV show Stranger Things calls it, “The Upside Down.”
The opening credits appear over men and women dancing in turn-of-the-20th-century clothes to The Merry Widow Waltz by Franz Lehar. The image is one of a civilized society surrounded by lively music. It appears other times in the film, as does the melody, and it becomes an ironic contrast as the news about the killer known as The Merry Widow Murderer becomes known. Within the killer’s nickname we have an ironic contrast embodied in one entity, emphasized by the music, of happiness and death. The first scene has the camera expose the seediness of an urban environment. We see derelict men on the ground next to an illegal dump site. The story presents an East versus West theme, which American literature uses as a motif in many works, most notably in The Great Gatsby, which emphasizes the two sides of American life. In this movie, there is the outward corruption of the East compared with the pretty California town of Santa Rosa. From a religious viewpoint, the movie contrasts the fallen nature of the urban with the Edenic life of a small town.

The first glimpse of Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton), a deceptively sweet name, shows him stretched out on a bed in a cramped rented room. There is money on a piece of furniture and on the floor. The landlady comes in saying that two men are asking for the reclining man. When she goes to the window and closes the blind, bathing the man in darkness, he bolts upright and into action. The effect makes one think of a vampire who was sleeping in a coffin, waking up when the light cannot expose his dangerous nature. Later, Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) asks the young Ann (Edna May Wanacott) to tell the story of Dracula. And Uncle Charlie says to his niece, his namesake, Charlie (Teresa Wright) that “the same blood runs through our veins,” highlighting the food on which the vampire feeds. The vampire appears like a non-threatening human, but is really a creature that drains life out of its victim, and then turns its prey into one of its own kind, in a way subverting the nature of the person it attacks.
When we first see young Charlie, she is in bed, just like her Uncle. The images suggest the contrast between his depravity and her innocence. But, it is more complex than that. She is bored with her life and wants some excitement, and comes up with the idea that a visit from Uncle Charlie is just what she needs. At the same time, Uncle Charlie has given the two men, who are police officers, the slip, and decides to visit his sister’s family out west. These two are, thus, linked by genetics and name, and possibly psychologically. Charlie even says at one point that they are like twins. The double is often used in horror stories to show the good and bad sides of the same person. So, the dark side of Charlie yearns for the danger embodied in her uncle.
 Santa Rosa contrasts with the East. Here, the houses are pretty, the streets are clean, and there are trees growing. But, its exaggerated “typical” American small town nature appears forced, as if it is trying hard to clamp down on anything nasty happening. Charlie’s mother, Emma (Patricia Collinge) is very fussy to a point of paranoia, trying not to expose furniture that needs reupholstering, and complaining how the house always needs painting. These are all symbols of the attempt to maintain that benign surface. Of course, you can’t fight evil by pretending that it doesn’t exist. Its presence comes in the form of Uncle Charlie, who arrives on a train. Hitchcock loves to use trains, and employs them as phallic symbols (see the post on North by Northwest, for example). Here, it may also imply the serpent entering the western paradise. His sister called him “the Baby” of the family, an ironic reference, as she sees him as innocent. Hitchcock said that the black smoke spewing out of the train at the station was a type of omen implying the arrival of evil into the town in the form of Uncle Charlie. When he is traveling on the train, Uncle Charlie is withdrawn and sickly. When he arrives in Santa Rosa, he appears energized, as he did when he rose from the bed in the boardinghouse, like an animal smelling fresh blood to feed upon.
In a way, Uncle Charlie shows a cynical viewpoint that sees corruption in everything. But, by doing so, he exposes the latent decay in even supposedly good-natured small town existence. When at the bank where Charlie’s father, Mr. Newton (Henry Travers), works, Uncle Charlie makes jokes about embezzlement, which causes Mr. Newton and other employees to become nervous. Uncle Charlie says, “We all know what banks are. Look alright to an outsider, but no one knows what goes on when the doors are locked. Can’t fool me, though.” He, being evil, can see where evil lurks. He points out that the head of the bank, the appropriately named Mr. Green (Edwin Stanley), will probably lose his job to his brother-in-law, revealing that the affable Mr. Newton may have a ruthless, ambitious side. Later, Uncle Charlie questions the effectiveness of religion, and implies derision toward followers, when he shows surprise that a church service was fully attended, saying, “That show’s been running such a long time. I thought attendance may be falling off.” That there is a darkness underneath the happy surface here can be seen in the conversations between Mr. Newton and friend Herbie (Hume Cronyn, in his film debut). They play at a game of presenting various ways murderers carry out their deeds. Herbie says he put soda in their coffee, which could have been poison, for instance. Mr. Newton seems to favor the more direct approach, using blunt instruments. But, Herbie says that a crafty killer will be subtler. He could be talking about Uncle Charlie. In any event, it is a disturbing back-and-forth between the two in a supposedly non-threatening world.

We learn that Charlie is very bright, so it is no surprise she learns about her uncle’s secret. She is at first enthusiastic about his visit. However, she senses that he is hiding something. It is only later that she has a “shadow of a doubt” about his true nature. He gives her an emerald ring (something he took from one of the widows he killed), but she notices it contains an inscription to someone else. Uncle Charlie covers up this discovery by saying the jeweler fooled him. He hides a newspaper clipping which Charlie pulls out of his pocket, thinking that it will point to his secret, but not suspecting anything threatening. Uncle Charlie turns from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde, telling her the news article is none of her business, and hurting her arm while grabbing it. Two men arrive stating that they are making a photographic study of a typical American family, and they want to include the Newtons as part of their project. There is an attraction between Charlie and one of the men, Jack Graham. When he questions how quickly she turned from being depressed and bored to feeling excited after her uncle arrived, she becomes defensive, asking if he is implying that Uncle Charlie isn’t as wonderful as she described. She actually is voicing her own doubts about her uncle.
Graham reveals that he is a detective, and that her uncle is one of their suspects in The Merry Widow Murderer case. He concedes that there is another man they are following in the eastern states. They took pictures as part of their charade so as to have witnesses back east identify Uncle Charlie. He tried to take the film, saying he didn’t like being photographed, but the men switched the film. Graham convinces Charlie to work undercover for him. So, she must now employ a sham façade, and break rules, as she did when going to the library after hours to learn about the newspaper story her uncle hid. It appears that the situation requires that she fight fire with fire.

Uncle Charlie makes a disturbing misogynistic speech at the dinner table about widows. He says that there are many dead husbands who slaved their lives away making money that their widows now enjoy. These “silly” wives go to the best hotels, “drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge.” He calls them “horrible, faded, fat, greedy women.” Charlie rushes out of the house, and her uncle pursues her. (There is an ironic statement from Uncle Charlie to the local policeman who tells Uncle Charlie that his niece should watch how she ruses into traffic, and must obey the laws. He says we “wouldn’t want to break the law”). He forces her into a bar to talk. The sleaziness of the place is another example of underlying decay even in an upstanding community. The waitress, a former fellow student of Charlie’s, appears world-weary, having been around the block, so to speak, several times, and she is surprised someone like Charlie would show up there. Uncle Charlie is symbolic of how the darker “twin” part of Charlie can steer her into the wrong side of life. She knows from the news story that the inscription of the ring matches the name of one of The Merry Widow Murderer victims. He reveals his ugly view of the world, saying she is basically naïve. He tells her, “You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, that if you rip off the fronts of the houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?” Admitting that he is the culprit, he asks her to let him leave, so as not to destroy her mother emotionally once the news gets out.
It turns out that the other suspect was killed while trying to escape police, and Graham says that Uncle Charlie, thus, is not the killer. Her uncle now feels as if he is in the clear, so he decides to stay. But, he feels that Charlie is a threat to him while she lives. He weakens a step outside so she will fall, but Charlie grabs hold of a railing, escaping serious injury. He also prevents Charlie from escaping the carbon monoxide-filled garage caused by a running car; she survives because Herbie heard her screams as he approached the house. When Uncle Charlie tells Graham how precious his niece is, he holds her face in an almost suffocating manner, undermining the expressed sentiment.

Uncle Charlie does decide to leave after Charlie’s survival. On the departing train, we see Mrs. Potter, who he met at the bank. She is another rich widow, who would probably be his next victim. Charlie is on the train, but her uncle prevents her from leaving as the train starts to move away from the station. He tries to push her off, but she reverses their positions, and it is Uncle Charlie who topples out, into the path of an oncoming train. In a way, this scene symbolizes Charlie conquering the darker side of herself, and, ironically, the evil that arrived on a serpent-like train, now is destroyed leaving on one.
At the end, Graham and Charlie decide not to expose Uncle Charlie’s demonic deeds, believing it would be too difficult for the family and the community to be exposed to such horror. They plan to be together, which is optimistic, but the ugly hatred of the world that Uncle Charlie embraced haunts her.

The next film is Up in the Air.


  1. Nice review. Lots of telling details. Loved this film. Like the aspects of human nature it exposes, it is timeless.


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