Shadow of a Doubt: Hitchcock’s favourite?

Lots of shadows, lots of doubt
Lots of shadows, lots of doubt

We now think of the golden age for cinema’s great thriller director as 1954 to ’63 (Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds), but the hitch is that a Second World War-era film, he declared a few times, was his personal pick. The only flicker of uncertainty flashed in François Truffaut’s book Hitchcock, a series of conversations between the French director and the Master of Suspense, who there remarked, “I wouldn’t say that Shadow of a Doubt is my favorite picture.” Truffaut, meanwhile, noted the film’s “systemically built around the figure ‘two'” and told Hitchcock that Uncle Charlie was one of “your three best villains.”

The split selves of Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) and the eerie twinning of him and niece Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright, superb) darkly energize Shadow of a Doubt, to be sure. But so does the disturbing love triangle of sister Emma (Patricia Collinge), Charlie and Charlotte. In cozy yet shadowy Santa Rosa, mother and daughter look up to this avuncular brother, suddenly on their doorstep (staircases are particularly ominous) after years back East; the thriller’s horrible fascination lies in watching the strong-willed young lady’s admiration of, fondness for and idealization of a supposed gentleman clot and curdle. And observe the director’s sly cameo—as a stranger on a train, his deceptive pose in a game of bridge allies him with his film’s villain; other delicious meta-moments involve a neighbour (Hume Cronyn) discussing the perfect murder plot. The film’s plot is marred only by a slightly rushed and convenient ending.

The earnest speeches of ’40s pictures are discomfiting here, especially when Charlie gives his female counterpart an emerald, as if courting Charlotte. The trees and homes lining the neighbourhood of an America still insulated from the war (Thornton Wilder, famous for Our Town, wrote the initial screenplay) creep and close in on Charlie. This urban uncle’s cocky uncaring-ness (“The whole world’s a joke to me”) and old-fashioned sexism (“Women are fools; they’d fall for anything”) throw him suspiciously out-of-waltz-step with the town and this “typical American family,” where even pre-teen Ann is bookish and forward. But it’s “Young Charlie” who’ll be so darkly educated about doubt, learning her uncle’s far from the “person who will come and shake us all up” that she so childishly and certainly desired.

Sat, Mar 7 – Wed, Mar 11
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Metro Cinema at the Garneau
Originally released: 1943

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