Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, Macdonald Carey

Shadow of a Doubt is almost certainly Hitchcock’s best picture of the 1940s. There are more macabre movies, like Lifeboat and Rope, and more tense ones, like Saboteur or Suspicion. But Shadow of a Doubt has an eye on the same kind of ugliness that the no-doubt-about-it classics from the ’50s indulge in. Rear Window and Vertigo both keep watch (quite literally) on domestic violence and the awkward lines in family settings between nastiness and outright wickedness of family dynamics. Shadow of a Doubt has much less to say about the relationships between husbands and wives, but it places that energy on brothers and sisters, uncles and nieces. In short, Shadow of a Doubt is concerned with the incestuous bonds of family: how they are made, how they are upheld, and what it takes to break them. The strongest passion in the movie is certainly not whatever Charlie (Wright) and Jack (Carey) hastily and unconvincingly put together, nor is it even the second strongest passion. Indeed, the movie certainly suffers from the prejudices of the time – a young woman just has to find a fella – and it feels like Hitchcock and company have little use for Detective Jack Graham. As a figure investigating Charles Oakley (lol), he’s more or less necessary to clue a kid in on her uncle’s misdeeds. As a romantic partner for Charlie Newton, he is sadly inadequate. Carey doesn’t have the screen presence to play on Wright’s level; even when she’s playing naive and a little too girlish, Wright has something of a corona about her that makes Carey look infirm. Only Cotten’s moody handsomeness is able to match her for drama at any point. (In terms of humor, Wright plays straight with Henry Travers and Edna May Wonacott; the former is goofy and the latter sassy.)

What Emma (Patricia Collinge) feels for her little brother, Charles (Cotten) is heartfelt and simple; once Charlie figures out what her uncle is, the most-cited reason for not turning him in to the police straightaway has to do with preserving Emma’s peace of mind. Charlie herself has a hard time getting to a point where she can recognize her villainous uncle for what he is, largely because their passion for one another is the film’s driving force in the way that Rhett and Scarlett’s romance is the driving force of Gone with the Wind. In the early going of the movie, she feels a telepathic connection with her uncle. She is most of the way through writing him a telegram when the lady behind the counter gives her one from Charles announcing his imminent arrival. She bubbles over around him, gazing at him with the total admiration that bobbysoxers typically save for pop stars. “I always come back to Uncle Charlie,” she tells Jack, and she’s not wrong. She frequently hypothesizes about her mysterious, charming uncle. For his part, Charles is warm with her, never shy about proclaiming her his favorite. Where he is curt with others, even when it makes him look bad, he is courtly and tender with Charlie. Upon her invitation, he’s taking her bed and her room while he’s visiting. He gives her a ring. It’s the ’40s, so the innuendo between Charles and Charlie is limited, essentially, to the subtext of the movie and the filthiness of our own imaginations. The relationship that Charlie talks up most is her vision of “twins.” According to Charlie (“Charlotte,” for her Uncle Charles, naturally), beyond the names themselves are a set of thinly defined traits. We simply are alike, she says, and she plays into the popular notion that twins have a supernatural connection by dropping telepathy on that poor woman at the telegraph office.

Similarly, she claims to be able to read him. I think you’re hiding something from me, she says presciently, but I also think that I’ll be able to figure it out. People as alike as us can’t hide from one another. She turns out to be right, more or less; Charles is not gifted with subtlety, even though his murders tend to be more or less quiet affairs. The reveal of Charles as the “Merry Widow Murderer,” a serial killer who kills old women with more jewelry than they can wear during the rest of their waning lives, is not awfully surprising. It’s more interesting that he is a strangler, which is a type of face-to-face killing that is as blunt as he is. Nor does he hide evidence well. The ring he gives to Charlie is easily traceable, down to the engraving on the inside of the band. He takes parts of the newspaper which might somehow incriminate him without realizing that the distinctly wiser course of action would be to take the whole newspaper. How much longer it might have taken Charlie to disillusion herself about her difficult uncle without police help is unknowable, but one is inclined to think it probably wouldn’t have taken very long. As sunny as she is about Charles’ arrival, she’s not stupid.

Shadow of a Doubt provides a backstory for Charles that gives us some reason – one part phrenology, two parts Phineas Gage – to understand his nature, which is capricious at best. As a boy, he took a bad spill and fractured his skull, which I take to mean he’s cracked. “What’s the use of looking backward,” Charles snaps as his sister finishes telling the story. All this time he’s been in the foreground, dominating the screen, with Emma and Charlie a little further behind. “What’s the use of looking ahead? Today’s the thing.” It would sound like a carpe diem statement, but Emma laughs off that furiously stated credo. It’s a time of day when the average teenager on summer break is waking up, the shades still drawn, and Charles is still abed. That’s because there’s a significantly more interesting backstory for Charles Oakley that no one says a word about and only the camera is willing to imply: the man is, in fact, a vampire.

This is not literally a vampire movie, and Charles is not literally a vampire. He’s seen in the sunlight on several occasions – although his curtains are often closed up during daylight hours – and he doesn’t do the whole “pointy teeth drink blood find virgins ugh Catholics” business that we typically associate with that sallow dental species. But in many ways he fits the bill. He really doesn’t come out in the sunlight much, he spends a lot of time in bed, and he is rarely seen eating. (He does bring a marvelous burgundy into the Newton home, and it’s a shame that this movie isn’t in color.) Joseph Cotten is capable of limp limbs, but he does not frequently have those in Shadow of a Doubt; his stiff posture and stiffer mien are the makings of any good bloodsucking Transylvanian aristocrat. Humanity, according to his philosophy, is good for only so much time before it grows old, flabby, worthless, and stale; once its use (to him, in particular) has gone, it may as well be tossed onto the flames. His income is based on an essentially parasitic business model: kill and steal. (His sister has no idea what her brother does for a living, and in the mold of a nice ’40s homemaker never even feigns curiosity. “He’s just in business. You know the way men are,” she says to Jack in one scene.) His mantra of living for today is fitting for a creature who is all but immortal; for the long-lived, looking into the past and looking into the future is little more than a vanity. He is pursued by men representing the most respected aspects of contemporary society who can only guess at what his evil deeds are. Van Helsing brought down the power of God on Dracula; Jack Graham intends to unleash the fullest extent of the law on Charles Oakley. Most importantly, a vampire needs a victim, particularly a pretty female one, to be his life force. In his namesake, Charles finds such a person who willingly holds her neck out to him and cheerfully asks him to tap her jugular. The pain for her, as it is for Mina Harker, is in the repudiation of her captor. Just as the communion wafer leaves a scar on Mina, so does the revelation of Charles’ sins burn Charlie more or less for good. One can imagine for her a more or less contented life as the wife of a (way older?) police detective, but it isn’t one that will allow to shake off three separate murder attempts in the space of days.

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