Shadow of a Doubt is said to be Hitchcock’s favorite film of his, but I honestly can’t figure out why. Besides the fact that he has so many other more famous, better conceived and executed, and more compelling films, there’s also the fact that this one is just kind of meh. For some reason, I seem to be having a lot of trouble coming to any sort of definitive conclusion about it other than that. I keep thinking about various aspects of the film, but am having trouble putting them all together.
First there’s the story. Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) feels that her life, especially at home with her family, is horribly dull. She is basically at the point where she’ll do anything for some more excitement, always dangerous. Her solution to this problem is to ask her uncle, Charlie (she was named Charlotte after him, but they call her Charlie just like him as well) to come and stay with the family for a while. Apparently, he is much more worldly and exciting than the rest of them. Funnily enough, Uncle Charlie has the same idea at the same time; as Charlie is going to send him a telegram, one arrives from him.
Once he arrives, she starts noticing strange things about him. He hides the newspaper, and stops all of her of obvious attempts to figure out why. He gives her a ring with mysterious initials on it, insists on not being photographed, distracts everybody when they are all trying to guess the name of the tune she is humming, and is sometimes harsh and callous towards people which seems unlike him. Charlie is eventually able to figure out why, with the help of a visiting detective Graham (Macdonald Carey). He suspects that Uncle Charlie could be the “Merry Widow Murderer,” a serial killer who has strangled three rich widows. Charlie doesn’t believe him at first, but then starts to see the truth. Once Uncle Charlie knows that Charlie suspects him, things get real ugly real fast.
This is when it starts to get pretty unbelievable. The detective I mentioned earlier, Graham, along with his cohort who’s name I can’t remember, has to be the worst cop ever. First of all, the plan they use to try to get in the house to get a picture of Uncle Charlie is ridiculous. They pretend to be conducting some sort of survey on the average American family, giving basically no details. Maybe it’s a sign of the times, but anybody nowdays would at least hesitate. They are chasing Uncle Charlie on the west coast, and some other cops are chasing some other guy on the east coast. Both are suspected to be the “Merry Widow Murderer.” That just rubbed me the wrong way, having two specific suspects. The east coast guy gets killed, and suddenly they just leave Uncle Charlie alone. How does the other guy dying prove that he was actually the murderer? It doesn’t, not at all. Another reason he’s a terrible cop is that he falls in love with Charlie and therefore starts making all of these allowances for Uncle Charlie. They come with this crazy plan that he’s only going to arrest Uncle Charlie as he’s leaving town, because he doesn’t want to embarrass Charlie and her family (this is before he decides that he’s no longer a suspect). There was a better reason for this, but still.
So there are some unrealistic story elements, okay. It’s a movie, right? It’s bound to happen. It doesn’t necessarily kill the film, but it really stuck out at me on my second viewing. I just think it would have been better if the cops hadn’t showed up at all. Charlie could have figured it out on her own, which she was about to anyway before Graham showed up, and we would have lost some of the ridiculousness. The thing about unexpectedly finding out that your favorite uncle is a serial killer is a perfectly great story; there’s a lot of disillusionment and then horror once he knows that she knows.
Anyway, now to the characters and the actors, whom I have an equally divided opinion of. Uncle Charlie as a villain was great. He had a crazy fixation that made him a good serial killer, but he actions towards Charlie did not really fit what he had been doing before. I can only assume that this is because he was panicking and also that he didn’t have the same motive to murder Charlie as all of his previous kills. Joseph Cotten played him well I think. He went into this creepy trance when he was talking about widows that is probably the most famous scene from the movie and also my favorite. He used a deeper voice here compared to his other films, which is appropriate since he was the villain in this one.
I’ve already talked about my problems with the cops, but Graham also did that snappy proposal thing that happens a lot in old movies. That always bugs me, but it was just another thing added to how bad of a cop he was in this case. I was also not too happy with Charlie. She wasn’t an idiot, she was able to figure out Uncle Charlie’s secret, but they way Wright was delivering her lines and also some of the other stuff she was saying really lowered my opinion of her. Like how Uncle Charlie and her were like twins, and how they practically shared the same thoughts etc etc… She was overdoing the innocent schoolgirl act in my opinion.
The characters I really liked though, were the comic relief characters. Charlie’s father Joe (Henry Travers) and his neighbor Herb (Hume Cronyn) are giant fans of detective fiction. They sort of compete against each other to see who can come up with the better plan for killing the other person. It’s pretty funny, but it’s also disturbing, especially once we know that there is a real live murderer right there in the house. It’s not all fun and games though, we get some pertinent information from them as well, because they follow all of the cases on the news.
Hitchcock also had some cool tilty camera shots in here, but other than that I can’t really tell what he was doing. There was also a cool chase viewed from the roof in the beginning, so we could see the whole thing. That kind of really sums up the trouble I have with reaching a definitive conclusion on this movie or not. The elements that are on the ridiculous side kind of hold it back, as well as some of the characters I didn’t like. I can’t really say the film wasn’t interesting or was completely unbelievable because of all of those things, but I can’t really say I was totally on board either.
“For all you know, you might just as well be dead now.”
Long story short: 3/4 stars