Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite Hitchcock movie is at right angles to most of his later work: no elegant blonde heroine, no ritzy locales for the audience to “ooooooh” over, no patina of glamour buffing the suspense to a high gloss, just a bright screen of mundane comforts barely covering up a cesspool of human horrors.
In this B&W 1943 thriller, young Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Theresa Wright) is at loose ends, waiting around her doddering parents’ sprawling Victorian home, waiting waiting waiting for anything to lend some excitement to her life. Struck by inspiration, she decides to invite her dashing Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) to come liven up their dull lives. Through coincidence or telepathy, the very same day, Uncle Charlie telegraphs the Newtons to invite himself for a nice long stay.
Shadow of a Doubt pulls a tidy trick, passing itself off as a pleasant portrait of sunny small-town life, then shading every corner into darkness. Cotten masters his role with aplomb: Uncle Charlie is a mercurial fellow, at turns avuncular, charming, distant, smarmy, and glacial, and Cotten makes him devastatingly believable.
This seemingly innocuous film plumbs the depths of psychology and stirs up some hints of emotional connection between young Charlie and Uncle Charlie that may make you squirm. To give yourself goosebumps, watch the film all the way through, then review two scenes: Uncle Charlie’s monologue at the dinner table, and young Charlie’s introductory ramble. The parallels are harrowing.
Perhaps more unsettling, the supposed sanctuary of family life is itself called into question: even before Uncle Charlie brings his corruption into Santa Rose, two of the sweetest and most ineffectual characters incessantly spin hypothetical murderous plots, a harmless little hobby to pass the time. Shadow of a Doubt is a delicious, decadent tangle of contrasts: it’s emotional and cerebral, it’s cozy and comforting, it’s chilling and repugnant. It’s a masterpiece.