There’s a 2006 DVD edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt whose cover art better expresses the film’s mood and menace than any poster I’ve seen for the movie. This cover, like the film, derives its power from its stark simplicity. The dark profile of the amiable but vicious “Uncle” Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) threatens to block out the face of his niece and namesake, “Young Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright). It’s impossible to tell what he might be thinking, since only his right ear is really visible, but she seems both frightened and compelled. Young Charlie looks up to Uncle Charlie, might even have a bit of a thing for him. He represents what she might grow (or wither) into. For a good deal of the film’s running time, we worry more about Uncle Charlie’s influence on Young Charlie than about any physical threat he might pose.
Shadow of a Doubt, made and released during wartime, might also be called The Murderer Is Among Us, the working title of Fritz Lang’s M. It’s what happens when you take credited co-writers Thornton Wilder (whose gravestone work was Our Town) and Sally Hanson (Meet Me in St. Louis) and subject them to the astringent sensibility of Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, whose name is also on the script. The small-town community of Santa Rosa, California, where everyone knows each other, is built to be blown apart by an unknowable monster like Uncle Charlie. A childhood head injury is supposed to explain him, but we can almost hear Hitchcock chortling icily during that particular exposition. Uncle Charlie is simply the X factor, the unquantifiable evil.
The true chill of the scenario is that Young Charlie isn’t much different. We first see her lying in bed in the same position Uncle Charlie assumes when we first meet him. She is helplessly negative about her family and her life, a mood she only shakes when she learns that her beloved uncle is coming to town. Her bitterness sounds like a junior version of Uncle Charlie’s later rant about the world being “a foul sty.” Among other things, Shadow of a Doubt draws a connection between pessimism and murder: “The world’s a hell — what does it matter what happens in it?” (Oddly, a similar question is asked and answered in Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War; it goes unanswered here except by the mechanics of the plot.)
Some commentators have noted Uncle Charlie’s resemblance to a vampire (he shuns photographs, etc.), but to me he reads more like a wolfman, with that fuzzy widow’s peak of his, the sort of hairdo I think Steve Ditko was trying for when he drew Spider-Man’s arch-enemy Norman Osborn. Uncle Charlie’s hair — not to dwell on it too much — is coiffed in one of those ’40s styles that look distinguished head-on but weird and random when seen from the sides or back. Joseph Cotten is the very soul of suavity, practically never even raising his voice; he makes Uncle Charlie a cobra with a constant quiet hiss that most people might not hear. Teresa Wright’s Young Charlie is ultimately too vital to fall into her uncle’s nihilism; earlier, she’d said her mother worked like a dog, but when Uncle Charlie equates widows with animals, she bristles. It’s almost as if Uncle Charlie is summoned — with the telepathy Young Charlie references — for the purpose of demonstrating what she risks becoming. Not a murderer, maybe, but someone anti-life.
This is reportedly Hitchcock’s favorite among his films, and it contains no cheerfully large-scale “Hitchcock moments”; with its recurring and unusual shots, apparently spliced in outside the mainstream of the action, of couples waltzing, it’s even artsy in a somewhat avant-garde way. Here Hitchcock was — not far past the start of his American career — and he was already poking fun at the Hollywood-pulp ideal of murder, in the scenes of Young Charlie’s dad (Henry Travers) and his neighbor friend Herbie (Hume Cronyn in a slyly recessive performance that reminds me of Bob Balaban) geeking out over how they’d murder each other. It’s a fun academic exercise for them, not so much for Uncle Charlie or his merry widows.
The filmmaking here is subtle, organic, telling the story with no frills or flourishes. The perversity here emerges from the contradistinct leads, the rough worldly man and the naive teen girl, and how one triumphs over the other, but just barely. It feels like an elemental battle, but again it’s scaled to the dimensions of a Wilderesque small town. The emotional peak, I think, comes after Uncle Charlie has said his bitter piece to Young Charlie and brought her home, whereupon her little sister jumps on his back for an innocent piggyback ride. Young Charlie can no longer look at her uncle so innocently, and she weeps. At least she can still do that.