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Review: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)



When we were young we resented being treated as children, being considered naïve, immature, unformed, being always the negligible inferiors tagging along their elders like lapdogs. This sense of inferiority dogged us, throughout the unendurable years of childhood, limited our freedom and, most exasperatingly of all, barred us from the fascinating world of adults. From time to time we would gaze with our burning eyes at the stars and wish for miracles- is it possible that we’d be grownups within a few blinks of an eye? Or perhaps a mysterious someone would suddenly materialise to save us from our protracted misery?

Flannery O’Connor says it best: “Anyone who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” In truth, whoever suggests that his childhood was as idyllic as the ones cloyingly depicted in those edifying children’s books is, more often than not, holding in his hand the broken glasses of his shattered dream. Our first awareness of joy is accompanied by, coincided with, or even preceded by our first awareness of sadness, of pain, of danger. What we’ve experienced when we’re old we had a foretaste of it when we were young.

The O’Connor quote can serve both as a foreword and an afterword of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Young Charlie, the heroine, is a precocious teenage girl wishing for a change of her humdrum life in Santa Rosa, a sleepy town of North California. Her wish is soon granted as her uncle Charlie, to whom she harbours an unbridled idolatry, pays a visit. Unbeknownst to the family Uncle Charlie is a criminal at large, the notorious “Merry Widow Murderer” the whole nation is warned of. This secret is soon uncovered by Young Charlie, after various incidents including a tip-off from a detective she unwittingly dates, and yet she agrees to stay silent for fear of the tragic consequences if her uncle is captured.

Joseph Cotten was exceptional as Uncle Charlie, bringing just enough depth and complexity to a role that remains somewhat a mystical figure towards the end. He can be charming and avuncular but not for long. When piqued he delivers nihilist speeches with a glaring lack of emotion, in a barely inflected monotone, like a sober-minded Nietzsche. In one of these moments the whole family is seated at the dinner table. Uncle Charlie starts talking about the “faded, fat, greedy” middle-aged widows that sponge off their rich husbands and squander their wealth away at luxurious hotels and bridge. The camera blends into the perspective of Young Charlie as it closes in on her uncle’s face, which is now growing more menacing. Young Charlie’s angsty voice is heard: “But they’re alive, they’re human beings.” “Are they?” Says Uncle Charlie as he directs a cold, sinister look at the lens, and at us audience.

Shadow of a Doubt belongs to Hitchcock’s more disturbing work. There are hints of how plausibly unnatural the relationship may be between Young Charlie and Uncle Charlie, though this remains essentially speculative. At any rate, both the niece and the uncle claim at separate occasions that they’re more than just niece and uncle. “We’re like twins,” declares Uncle Charlie. But at one point, after the discovery of her uncle’s crime and the suspicion that he may want to murder her, Young Charlie threatens back: “Go away or I’ll kill you myself. See that’s the way I feel about you.” One may want to parallel this sort of love-hate relationship to that between Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

This theme of a fallen idol has always been a favorite not only amongst coming-of-age stories. Some of the more notable examples in cinematic history: The Third Man (1949), also starred Joseph Cotten but this time as an honest pulp writer deceived by his cunning friend, a penicillin racketeer played by Orson Welles. A year previous to that Carole Reed directed another picture adapted from Graham Greene’s novelette, The Fallen Idol (1948), which is much more grim and unrelenting.

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