POSTED May 16 2012

Shadow of a Doubt: My favorite Hitchcock

Joseph Cotten, as Uncle Charley, threatens Teresa Wright, his namesake niece, in Hitchock's "Shadow of a Doubt," his personal favorite among his films.

A post in For the Love of Film blogathon, raising money for the National Film Preservation Federation’s efforts to stream online three reels of the once lost, now recovered 1923 silent, The White Shadow. Young Alfred Hitchcock wrote the title cards and designed the sets. Please donate to this good cause.

Alfred Hitchcock’s best movie, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), is not among his best-known, but is my favorite for the way  Hitchcock invisibly weaves innocence and guilt.

During the 1950s French critics Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol perceptively observed that in all of Hitchcock’s films they discerned the recurring theme of transference of guilt, the curious affinity between heroes and villains. Hitchcock expressed this cinematically, implicating you, inno cent viewer, by filming from the killer’s vantage point, by using dynamically charged forward tracking shots that drew you forward into the frame and the story.

As English film historian Raymond Durgnat noted, perhaps because Rohmer and Chabrol shared Hitchcock’s Roman Catholicism, they were sensitive to the director’s notion of original sin, that the apparently innocent are also guilty.

Think of Farley Granger’s tennis pro in Strangers on a Train, whose secret wish to rid himself of an inconvenient wife is actually acted upon by the homicidal Robert Walker. Think of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, whose secret wish to rid himself of girlfriend Grace Kelly is mirrored in Raymond Burr’s murder of his wife.

In Hitchcock films, as Durgnat astutely observed, the villains embody temptations to which, on some secret or unconscious level, the heroes have yielded and for which they must be punished or from which they must be purified. Thus Hitchcock movies are suspenseful parables of sin, expiation and redemption. (You might argue that in his later movies, such as Psycho and The Birds, Hitchcock characterized the sin and expiation, but denied his audience cathartic redemption.)

Hard though they try, professional Hitchcock tribute-payers such as Francois Truffaut in The Bride Wore Black, Brian De Palma in Body Double and Curtis Hanson in Bedroom Window  in their hommages do not achieve the psychological subtlety of the master. This is because while the imitators are visual stylists who know how to elicit shock from a camera move or angle, Hitchcock was also a visual thinker.

What Cold War image is more eloquent than the penultimate scene in North by Northwest, in which Cary Grant, capitalist adman, quashes a Communist on the face of Mount Rushmore? (To be more exact, on Lincoln’s nostril.) What attempt at moral cleansing is more potent than the sight of embezzler Janet Leigh in Psycho, having decided to give the money back, stepping into her ”purifying” – and deadly – shower?

Shadow of a Doubt is more resonant than Hitchcock’s later, slicker efforts because it doesn’t trade in absolutes such as capitalism vs. communism, but rather confronts ambiguities.

In Shadow, a frustrated small-town California girl, Charlie (Teresa Wright), welcomes her big-city uncle and namesake (Joseph Cotten) into the household in hopes that he will bring some color to drab Santa Rosa. Unnervingly, the film explores niece Charlie’s confusion of sexual and family love for her uncle, a mysterious figure from such sophisticated cities as Philadelphia, Boston and London. Suave Uncle Charlie is as worldly as his family in Santa Rosa is provincial. He covets the good life; they covet a good name.

Nevertheless, the two Charlies share a telepathic bond. They even share a symbolic troth when Uncle slips an emerald on his niece’s ring finger.

Of course, Uncle Charlie is not who he pretends to be. In order to prevent him from killing, his niece may have to kill her namesake – becoming, like him, a killer. Which Charlie is the hypocrite? Which the hero? The answer to the former is ”both.” To the latter, ”neither.” Shadow of a Doubt is a gripping story of the dangers of moral relativism, of sins that cannot be expiated.

It’s one of Hitchcock’s best and most chilling films, and the first in which he denies his audience the cleansing catharsis of his heroine’s redemption. For Hitchcock, the loss of innocence – sexual or moral – necessarily required the assumption of guilt.

Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto quotes G.K. Chesterton’s observation of Robert Louis Stevenson and applies it to Hitchcock: ”It can be said of him that he knew the worst too young; not necessarily in his own act or by his own fault, but by the nature of a system which saw no difference between the worst and the moderately bad.”

This could be Hitchcock’s epitaph. Wherever his soul rests, it is probably not at peace.


  1. I love Shadow Of A Doubt and many other Hitchcocks. Probably my favorite will always be The 39 Steps because of Robert Donat’s and Madeleine Carroll’s terrific performance, its several classic scenes (e.g., the chase on the moors, the Forth Bridge, the apartment scene with “Annabella Smith”, and its originality as an adaptation. It’s extremely different than John Buchan’s novella, but is also basically faithful and ennobles it in a way that a more literal version would not. There’s a real genius in knowing how to adapt material from another medium and make it live.

  2. Oh — and I imagine Hitchcock is at peace. Reading the anecdote you published from Eva Marie Saint about the Danish bacon that Universal had delivered regularly to him in Hollywood convinces me of that. A great artistic and showbusiness life.

  3. Carrie Rickey says:

    @Curtis: Shadow of a Doubt was Hitchcock’s favorite too. It really implicates the viewer. When Hitchcock adapted, he was like a bebop musician taking the motifs of a source and making them his own.

  4. You make a perceptive point about the transference of guilt in Hitchcock’s films and how they serve to ‘purify’ the protagonist of sin. I’m thinking of the families in both versions of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, in which interfamilial tensions result in the loss of a child (to kidnapping). There’s also that chilling moment in The Birds, when, after a bird attack, a townswoman confronts Tippi Hedren and demands “Who are you?”, making the connection that the attacks didn’t begin until Hedrin arrived. It’s as if Hedrin’s ‘sin’ (of being a spoiled playgirl) infects the innocent around her (as Uncle Charlie seems to affect the innocent family in Shadow of a Doubt). The Birds ends with Hedrin the victim of a vicious attack as her ‘punishment’; although since no explanation is ever given of what the birds are doing or who’s ‘responsible,’ the audience, as you note, is ultimately denied catharsis in that film.

  5. Tinky says:

    Nicely put. What works about Hitchcock is that he knows we’re not really looking for heroes … just people to whom we can relate. And as young Charlie discovers it’s very easy sometimes to relate to people who do bad things.

  6. Nancy Colman says:

    Shadow is indeed a fine film, for its intrigue and intellectual challenge–but in my personal pantheon nothing can nudge Notorious off its throne. In terms of pure film perfection, Notorious is sublime. It’s got gorgeous scenery and cinematography skewed and made menacing by Hitchcock’s trademark lighting and camera angles; it’s got the classic plot of the innocent woman ensnared in a web she cannot escape; it’s got sinister ex-Nazi villains; it’s got the suitably scary score; it’s got a scarier mother-in-law poisoning the tea; it’s got fabulous sets and costumes and all the trappings of glamour concealing lurking dangers in every closet and corner; it’s got suspense and sexual tension, and above all, it’s got Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. What could be gorgeouser? (And, fun factoid: Joseph Cotten ironically is her savior in Cukor’s Gaslight two years prior.)

  7. David Cohen says:

    My favorite is REAR WINDOW.
    Beyond that, in some order, would be NORTH BY NORTHWEST, VERTIGO, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (56), REBECCA and THE 39 STEPS.

  8. mark s. says:

    I think what I like most about Hitchcock, even in the later films I don’t really much care for, is the recurrence of horror in the most unlikely places (sunny, homespun Santa Rosa; a fluorescent motel shower; a sunlit birthday party for children). No one, nowhere is ever really safe in a Hitchcock film, and probably no director has produced more gooseflesh than Hitch. As for a favorite Hitchcock, ‘Shadow of a Doubt’-‘Notorious’, ‘Notorious’-‘Shadow of a Doubt’; depends on the one I’ve seen most recently. Without fancy, outre S-M or body dismemberment ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ beats ‘Blue Velvet’ by a long mile when it comes to exposing the crud beneath small-town America.

  9. […] critic Carrie Rickey writes about her all-time favorite Alfred Hitchcock film SHADOW OF A DOUBT […]

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