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Shadow of a Doubt

Exploring Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder Film

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Summary

Shadow of a Doubt was Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite film to direct and produce. The film was based on the case of the real-life “Merry Widow Murderer,” a mass strangler in the 1920s. Hitchcock made Shadow of a Doubt even more frightening by intruding his craft homicidal maniac into the tranquility of a middle-class family in a small town. The film reveals a dark underside of the American heartland.

Setting Established

At the beginning of the film, Uncle Charles (Joseph Cotten) lies napping upon his bed. His landlady tells him he has visitors, but Charles shows little concern for them. However, the viewer learns that he has some relation to the two gentlemen, as they chase him through the back alleys of an eastern city. Charles boards a train, having wired his sister Emma in Santa Rosa, California, that he is coming for an extended stay.

He arrives in Santa Rosa to find that his niece, Charlotte (Teresa Wright), a spirited and warm-hearted young lady, had been feeling incredibly bored and was going to wire him to come. She is delighted that her urbane, witty, and adventurous uncle will be staying with the family. She, her father, sister Ann and brother Roger greet Charles at the train station, shocked to see him limping on a cane, being helped by porters. He claims to be ill, and the family swiftly takes him home, where Emma pampers him.

The Family

Santa Rosa is a peaceful little town. Ann is a voracious reader, Roger a mathematics geek, Emma a typical housewife, and Joseph a bank teller. The only oddity would be Joseph’s running dialogue with Herb Hawkins. Both men obsess over the idea of murder, an unusual preoccupation in their drab town. They constantly propose means of committing the “perfect murder” on each other, following each evil plot with an intricate plan to solve the crimes. Uncle Charlie’s awful past intrudes into this tranquil setting.

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Rising Action

Charlotte (Charlie) adores her suave uncle, convinced they share a kindred spirit. She accompanies him about the little town of Santa Rosa. Uncle Charles stops at a bank and makes a scene while depositing $40,000, but Charlie explains his strange behavior as an idiosyncrasy. Emma, who considers her brother the family intellectual, remarks that Charles was “such a quiet boy, always reading.” She relates the story of how her brother, after receiving a bicycle, accidentally hit a streetcar and nearly died. Afterward, he “had to get into mischief to blow off steam.”

Such nostalgic talk warms Charles’ heart, and he sadly recalls “the old world.” As Charlie learns later, Charles hates the present world and all the women in it, except for Emma.

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Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

Detectives Arrive

Posing as survey-takers, Jack Graham, a detective, and his partner arrive in Santa Rosa and begin questioning Charlie about Charles, arousing her suspicions. Battling the thought that her beloved uncle could be a mass killer, she tries to get closer to Charles, hoping to learn about his past and allay her fears. He tells her that they are family and must stick together, being himself suspicious that Jack is on his trail.

Suspicion Grows

Finding an article about himself—describing the nationwide manhunt to capture the “Merry Widow Murderer”—Charles tears it from the daily paper. Charlie sees that the paper is mutilated. She finds the clipping hidden in Uncle Charlie’s coat pocket and begins a personal investigation.

Charles discerns her suspicions, due to unnerving telepathy between them; undoubtedly, uncle and niece are in some ways very much alike. But while Charlie is good, her uncle is purely evil. This evil begins to break free from the facade Charles has built around it. One night, he explodes when the subject of wealthy widows is brought up, sneering, “You see these women everywhere—useless women, drinking the money, eating the money, smelling of money!” The outburst brings tears to Charlie’s eyes as her preconceived image of her noble uncle evaporates.

After Charlie decides that Uncle Charles is the mass killer the police are seeking everywhere, she agonizes over what to do. She fears for herself and her family, clinging to her lov for Charles and simultaneous fear. Nevertheless, she grows cold toward him and exchanges long, knowing glances with her uncle. Charles takes her to a smoke-filled bar. Sitting in a booth, he tries to convince her that the little lies she has caught him telling mean nothing.

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The Truth Comes Out

During the conversation, Charles betrays himself. Telling Charlie that she doesn’t know what the world is like, he cannot control his all-consuming hatred for that world, eyes narrowing and voice growing hoarse with fiery passion. Furthermore, he clenches Charlie’s wrist as she tries to leave, convincing her of her suspicions. Unable to bear this invective, she races home.

Uncle Charles decides that the only way to prevent the truth from escaping is to kill his niece. Later, when the family is preparing to go out, Charles inveigles Charlie into starting the family car in the garage. Making sure she cannot turn off the ignition and escape, he closes the finicky garage doors.

While Charlie succumbs to carbon monoxide poisoning, the family dawdles. Joseph goes back up the stairs to retrieve his overcoat so many times it becomes almost unbearably suspenseful. When neighbor Herb hears Charlie’s cries for help, he spoils all hopes of Charlie dying. Uncle Charles, to cover his devilish machinations, races to the garage and “saves” his niece.

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Catching the Murderer

Afterward, Charlie plots with Jack to expose her uncle, still concerned that she might hurt her family. Charles, behaving like a caged animal, realizes that the law is closing in on him. He tells the family that he must leave to on business, asking them to see him off at the train station. He entices Charlie onto the train to say a final farewell.

Between cars, as the train pulls out of the station and attains lethal speed, Charles confronts Charlie about her suspicions. He more or less admitting that he is the mass killer and that, because she knows it, Charlie must die. Clenching her about the throat, Charles prepares to throw her out the open door as another train approaches from the opposite direction.

Only the legs of the two are visible as they struggle and try to maintain balance. “Not yet, Charlie,” Charles mutters, gauging the diminishing distance from the oncoming train, “just a little longer—.” The train suddenly lurches, just as Charlie pushes her uncle away; Charles, rather than his intended victim, goes pitching off the train directly into the path of the oncoming engine.

Conclusion

The film ends as Charlie stands at the church door with Jack by her side. She determines not to expose her uncle’s horrid past, preferring to let the world believe that her once-cherished uncle died in an accident. Santa Rosa unwittingly pays tribute in an impressive funeral to one of the country’s worst mass killers.

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Theme

Shadow of a Doubt is a penetrating analysis of a subtle killer who cannot escape his dark passions, despite a superior intellect. The film’s construction is adroit and calculated, allowing the viewer to know early on just what kind of man Charles really is and providing tension through his devious charade as a gentle, kind man deserving of his family’s love—a tension that fuels the chilling cat-and-mouse game between Uncle Charles and niece Charlie that provides the film’s suspenseful center. What makes the film more unnerving is its down-to-earth nature; Hitchcock avoids the wild predicaments his characters would experience in such entertaining but fanciful films such as North by Northwest.

Truth & Falsehood

The main theme is the relationship between truth and falsehood. Sometimes the truth is not as easy to expose as we would like. In Shadow of a Doubt, there is no possibility of innocence. It’s clear from the outset that Charles is the notorious “Merry Widow Killer.” Hitchcock repeatedly cuts to nightmarish fantasies of (presumably) merry widows waltzing.

The evil contrasts sharply with the security and tranquility of Santa Rosa. Hitchcock’s emphasis on the comfy Newton home, a chatty neighborhood, a corner cop who knows everyone’s name, meals around a big dining table, all add to the joys of home and family. The town quickly embraces Charles even holding a ceremony in his honor. It appears that Uncle Charles wishes to spend the rest of his life in Santa Rosa.

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A Shadow of Doubt

However, a shadow of doubt enters the story. Finding a story about the “Merry Widow Killer” in the newspaper, Charles unwisely and unsuccessfully tries to conceal it. That triggers Charlie’s growing suspicion that there must be more to her uncle than it appears. To increase the drama, her uncle possesses a dark side, a way of narrowing his eyes and seeming threatening. The engine of the plot involves Charlie’s suspicion and her uncle’s paranoia and clumsy attempts to murder her. The film generates suspense by making the viewer ask, how close to the truth will the niece come before she’s killed or proven right?

Charles builds for himself a mostly convincing facade. The charisma he displays appears dashing and romantic to the entire family, except for Charlie. She grows suspicious of her uncle’s demeanor, habits, and words. His demeanor seems like a man who is smug, but not a man who is innocent. Notably, Charlie does not want to believe that the man she admires is capable of such evil acts.

Your Sin Will Find You Out

The truth eventually comes out. Charlie knows that her uncle is the murderer. The odd incident of the loose floorboard on the stairs that Charlie trips and falls on, and her near-smothering in the garage after the door shuts with the engine on, all point to Uncle Charles’ guilt. However, she does not tell the truth to her family, preferring instead that Uncle Charlie simply leave town. The result is her near-death experience on the train with Charles; although he is the one who dies, the consequences for not telling the truth earlier still remain.

As the funeral takes place,  Charlie stands with Jack Graham at the church door. Awkwardly joined by tragedy and death, the couple is the only one who shares a secret bond—the knowledge of the true, diabolical story of a pathological killer, Charles Oakley. Charlie’s refusal to expose the truth almost killed her three times and isolates her from the rest of her family and friends.

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Hitchcock & G. K. Chesterton

The Flag of the World

G. K. Chesterton, in “The Flag of the World,” discusses the ideas of cosmic patriotism, optimism, and pessimism. He defines the optimist as a man who thinks everything good except the pessimist. And the pessimist is a man who thinks everything bad except himself. In Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock explores pessimism and optimism in the characters of Uncle Charles and Charlotte.

According to Chesterton, pessimism is a deep mistake. A pessimist is one who views the world as if house-hunting. In reality, “a man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it.” Loyalty comes before admiration. The pessimist, though, is the cosmic anti-patriot and the un-candid candid friend.

“He has the secret desire to hurt, not merely to help.”

Pessimism worships the god within and lacks the primary loyalty to things necessary for a fulfilling life and reform. It naturally leads to suicide, the annihilation of the world by annihilating oneself. As a result, the suicide is ignoble, for he has no link with being. He is a mere destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe.

Uncle Charlie as the Pessimist

In Shadow of a Doubt, Uncle Charlie represents the pessimist. He is full of dark passions and disillusions and lacks the primary loyalty to things. At dinner one night, his dark side takes over, and he finds himself revealing his extraordinary philosophy about modern women:

“The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands dead, husbands who’ve spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. And then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands. Drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge. Playing all day and all night. Smelling of money. Proud of their jewelry but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women… Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?”

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Destroy Others, Mind & Body

Later, Charles sullies Charlie’s idealistic, pure and innocent perspective. He destroys her purity as he destroyed the lives of many widows. Charles brings her into the smoke-filled, noisy and dark atmosphere of the ’Til Two cocktail club. When Charlie attempts to leave, he orders her to sit down and begins theatrically lecturing her on her disgraceful lack of knowledge and his hatred for the world.

“You think you know something, don’t you? … There’s so much you don’t know. So much… You’re just an ordinary little girl living in an ordinary little town… you know perfectly well that there’s nothing in the world to trouble you… at night you sleep your untroubled, ordinary little sleep filled with peaceful, stupid dreams.”

Charlotte, he declares, lives in a dream. “You’re a sleepwalker, blind.” In contrast, Charles has supposedly experienced the reality behind the facade of tradition and civilization. The world is “a foul sty” and “a hell.” If one could rip off the fronts of houses, one would find “swine.” What then does it matter what happens in it?”

That is precisely the problem. Uncle Charlie is such a pessimist—he sees mankind in all his sinful despicableness—that he fails to recognize the story. Namely, that “Man had pre-eminence over all the brutes; man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god” (249). Undeniably, the world is full of evil now, but there is Good behind the distortion and a greater vision of redemption.

Charlie as the Optimist

On the other hand, Charlotte Newton is the epitome of the rational optimist. She is bored of an ordinary life, but her definition of adventure negates the possibility of a devious (and devilish) uncle. Even when confronted with the reality that Uncle Charles is not her vivacious, clever relative whom she can rightly adore and be “twins” with, Charlie hesitates and wishes to paint the black truths white. As a rational optimist, she defends the indefensible and whitewashes the world. She is the “jingo of the universe” who declares “My cosmos, right or wrong” (226).

Since she either cannot see evil, or cannot at first acknowledge its presence, Charlie is less inclined to reform things—she refuses to reveal the true nature of Uncle Charles to her family or publicly. In some sense, then, Charlie is a rational optimist because she has a reason for loving her uncle: she thinks of him as her twin. When this belief is shattered, due in large part to her uncle’s treatment of her, Charlie buries the truth inside. The end would naturally be stagnation, an unreasonable descent into apathy and forgetfulness. Uncle Charles, vindicated in the eyes of the law as a result of the arrest of another man as the “Merry Widow Murderer,” would merely leave town, never to return, and Charlie could resume her ordinary life.

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Consequences

However, given Uncle Charles’ fear of the truth coming out despite his leaving, rational optimism cannot end in apathy. Instead, Charlie almost dies and her uncle does. Her inability to speak the truth with boldness, to reform the situation, has grave consequences. Nevertheless, even at the funeral, Charlie would prefer to whitewash the problems. She and Jack Graham, two of the four people (Jack’s partner and Charles being the other two) who knew the truth, stand together at the church door, isolated from the entire population of Santa Rosa and, most importantly, the Newton family. Charlie admits,

“I’m glad you were able to come, Jack. I couldn’t have faced it without someone who knew… He [Charles] thought the world was a horrible place. He couldn’t have been very happy ever. He didn’t trust people. He seemed to hate them. Hated the whole world. You know, he said that people like us had no idea what the world was really like.”

Charlies resolves to let the past stay in the past, and never to speak of her uncle’s crimes again.

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Application

Every Story Has a Moral

There are several points of application we can draw from Shadow of a Doubt:

  1. We must always tell the truth, no matter how difficult it can get.
  2. We must love others enough to love them as they are but not so little that we let them remain as they are.
  3. Love requires courage.
  4. Your sins will find you out.
  5. People can deceive you; you must have a healthy dose of watchfulness. As Jack puts it, “Well, it’s [the world] not quite as bad as that, but sometimes it needs a lot of watching. It seems to go crazy every now and then, like your Uncle Charlie.”
  6. Your view of the world (whether it is hell or whether it is all sunshine and roses) has a significant impact on your thoughts and actions. Worldview matters.
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Evaluation

Spectacular Suspense

I truly enjoyed this film. Aside from the fact that Alfred Hitchcock was a master storyteller, director, producer, and screenwriter, and knew the best camera sweeps, the thematic elements of Shadow of a Doubt intrigued me. The furtive glances, the narrowed eyes, the strangling grips, the secretive actions—the fact that the film was black and white all highlighted the tension between evil and good, death and life, optimism and pessimism. Hitchcock is rightfully termed the “Master of Suspense.” This thriller kept me on the edge of my seat, my heart pounding, just as Rear Window made my skin crawl and a horrified scream escape my mouth.

A Primary Loyalty

In the end, the film brought me back to Chesterton’s “The Flag of the World.” Chesterton writes, “the point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its sadness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more” (224). The primary loyalty and devotion to a place or thing is the source of creative energy. Government, order, ethics, virtue, etc., are all outgrowths of such reverence.

Ultimately, the cosmic patriot loves without a transcendental tie and without earthly reason. This detachment from the physical or logical realm is essential to a love that makes the world great and beautiful. Since I cannot say it better, I’ll just quote Chesterton: “Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind” (228).

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