1943. Starring Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Choosing a favorite Hitchcock movie is a hopeless challenge. Rear Window has Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart, and the unbearably suspenseful scene when Raymond Burr comes home early. North By Northwest has Cary Grant dealing with a worst-ever case of mistaken identity. Strangers on a Train has that amazing plot, plus the carnival scene. Psycho has Norman Bates, the shower scene and its overall weirdness. Vertigo, its own weirdness and Jimmy Stewart. Finally, the scene in The Birds in which the birds attack the townsfolk caused me, as a child, to piss my pants. Literally.
Shadow of a Doubt, despite its lack of any diuretic shocks, has all its own charms and, according to Hitchcock’s daughter, was the great director’s favorite movie of his own.
Teresa Wright, looking as pretty and wholesome as a Rockwell painting, stars as Charlie, daughter of the wholesome Joseph and Emma Newton (Henry Travers and Patricia Collinge) and the pride of bucolic Santa Rosa, CA. Her mother named her after her uncle Charlie who, when we meet him, is in Massachusetts, lying next to a pile of money and about to evade a pair of trailing detectives. Meanwhile, on the West Coast, his namesake is lying on her bed, thinking of telegraphing him when a telegraph arrives. The announcement that he’s coming to visit proves to her that they are connected — “like twins,” she reminds her family.
Uncle Charlie (the great Joseph Cotten) arrives at the train station and immediately settles in. In time, he surprises his niece by tearing up the evening paper, roughly grabbing her arm and giving a truly disturbing speech at the dinner table. She stills wants to believe in Uncle Charlie, in part because of how much he means to her mother. But when two reporters show up to write about the family in a magazine feature but only seem interested in learning about the recent visitor, the beans get spilled. And young Charlie, filled with doubt, begins her own investigation.
The image of twirling dancers is being telegraphed between the two Charlies, as well as the melody of a waltz. When the young Charlie learns that police are searching for the “Merry Widow Murderer,” clues begin to fall into place. The relationship between niece and uncle change, and not for the better.
A highlight of the film for me is the peculiar friendship of father Joseph and Herbie Hawkins (Hume Cronyn) who are as hooked on true-crime stories and their own theories on how to perform the perfect murder, they are unaware of how much they creep out those around them. And the precocious, glasses-wearing young daughter — a standard role in films during these years — adds to the quiet screwball nature of the Newton household.
Shadow of a Doubt is much more serene than Psycho, much more bucolic than Vertigo, much, much less incontinence-invoking than The Birds. But its conflict — that young Charlie will destroy her family by telling them what she suspects about Uncle Charlie — is a clever-enough hook to make it memorable among all the other Hitchcockian classics.