In Shadow of a Doubt Hitchcock takes a more subtle approach to his oft used ‘man on the run’ theme, telling the story of a fugitive hiding in plain sight. Joseph Cotton’s character Uncle Charlie doesn’t race across Britain on foot like Robert Donat or the US like Robert Cummings, opting instead to lay low at his sister’s family’s home in California. Set and shot mostly in Santa Rosa, Shadow of a Doubt brings Hitchcock’s patented brand of suspense to America’s small town safe haven. According to his daughter Patricia, this aspect was precisely what made Shadow of a Doubt Hitchcock’s personal favorite.
Uncle Charlie is a black widower. Seeking fortune in marrying, and killing widows for their inheritance. On the run from the authorities he takes shelter with his sister and her family. Here we are exposed to the very strange relationship between Uncle Charlie and his niece, Teresa Wright’s character Charlie named after her uncle. It seems the two Charlies are supposed to be much closer in age than an average uncle and niece. Charlie hint’s at a twin like bond and psychic connection between the two making them, in a sense, soul mates. There’s an uncomfortable amount of affection between these two considering their familial relations. Often casting charmed gazes each others way, Uncle Charlie even lovingly slips an emerald ring on his niece’s finger early in the film. Eventually Charlie learns the truth about her uncle and is forced to choose between cooperating with the authorities or protecting the murderer while he struggles with an almost sexual urge to strangle his niece to death.
The film succeeds in undermining the quaint sense of security implicit in the ideal small town America by exposing its wholesome vulnerabilities. Patricia Collinge, playing Uncle Charlie’s sister Emma, opens her home to two strangers claiming to be government survey men. She believes allowing them anything less than unfettered access to her family and home would mean letting down her country. Later, she insists these two strangers take her elementary school age daughter as a guide around Santa Rosa, illustrating a blissful ignorance of modern day stranger-danger. It could be said that even allowing her murderous brother into the house shows a poor judge of character, but who among us would turn away family in need? Suckers, that’s who!
Ever the shameless self promoter, Hitchcock may have over emphasized his significance in popularizing terrorizing small town America. The lens of history is fogged with age making it difficult to see clearly how impactful Shadow of a Doubt was in this regard without doing extensive research. I imagine films like Scream and even my much derided Eye for an Eye may owe themselves entirely to the ground Hitchcock takes credit for breaking in 1943. But what of our collective psyche? Do you feel safe hunkered down during the COVID shutdown? Are you confident in the comfort and safety your home provides? How much can you really trust the people you let into your life? Even your family? If you’re even slightly compelled to answer ‘no’ to those questions then do not see this movie. Call a psychiatrist.