Hitchcock left behind a rather eclectic and large body of work. Among those films he often said Shadow of a Doubt was his personal favorite. In this film Hitchcock ramps up the tension and puts every single technique for which he is known to the test. The film mainly concerns a young girl, Charlie (Teresa Wright), who is infatuated with her uncle but dissatisfied with her home life. Her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton), after whom she is named, suddenly arrives in town at what seems to be just the perfect time. Issues arise however as the family discovers that Uncle Charlie might not be what he seems. He abhors anything related to his past, is annoyed very much by anything which resembles prying or snooping, and very much likes to play himself up as a well-to-do gentleman. Then a pair of men, possibly detectives, show up in town and seem very interested in Uncle Charlie and the family.
From the very first scene Hitchcock ramps up the tension and makes it clear to the audience that not all is well with Uncle Charlie. At first he seems detached, cold, and villainous, but as soon as he sees his dear niece, he seems to change and he becomes a charming man who only wishes to visit his family. Suddenly, however, an air of manipulation begins to to stir and we feel that Uncle Charlie is hiding something from his family. All are oblivious to this, especially Uncle Charlie’s sister, Emma Newton (Patricia Collinge).
In my opinion, Hitchcock’s playfulness comes across best in this film. Whether it be the playful banter of Uncle Charlie teasing his brother in law Joseph Newton (Henry Travers) while at the bank, or Joseph’s horrific discussions of murder with his friend Herbie (Hume Cronyn). Aside from that there is Hitchcock’s effort to let us know that, if one doesn’t know what we know about Uncle Charlie, that he is actually a very charming man; after all, every woman he meets seems to melt into butter at only the slightest glance from him, and the men he meets consider him some sort of hero: an icon of what it means to be an “American Man.”
Every performance is wonderful. Joseph Cotton is especially sinister and charming: he switches between the two seemingly at the drop of a hat. Meanwhile Hitchcock layers the film with incredible performances from bit-parts, largely played by non-professional actors from the actual town of Santa Rose where the film was photographed. The location photography is gorgeous and Hitchcock’s ever prying, ever peering camera is haunting. The way it moves through the locations, focuses on the faces and eyes of characters, and captures the distorted light patterns thrown across the sets is marvelous. I am uncertain whether or not the interiors were on-location or were on a soundstage, but it matters not as they are effortlessly incorporated into the photography and story. The movie reeks of a small-town, which is marvelous and adds so much visual depth to an already complicated film. Hitchcock’s ability to tell a story through very small gestures of the actors as well as with his camera is very much on display in this movie.
The film weaves in and out of tense and light-hearted moments. The tension skyrockets only to fall down and relax, but then a character will give a look, very subtle and small, and make us question everything. Surly Uncle Charlie is a classic Hitchcock “wrong man” and in the end everything will turn out okay. Uncle Charlie will take little Charlie in his arms: they will laugh, and everything will be okay.
No one will get hurt. Everything will be made clear. Everything will be okay.