There’s no doubt: Shadow of a Doubt (1943) was director Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite of his own films. I was surprised to learn this; I would have assumed it was North by Northwest (1959) because Cary Grant was his favorite actor to work with. But Hitchcock confirmed that Shadow of a Doubt was his favorite in an interview with talk show host Dick Cavett in 1972. But why was this film Hitchcock’s favorite? Hitchcock’s daughter, Pat, said, “this was my father’s favorite movie because he loved the thought of bringing menace into a small town” in the documentary Beyond Doubt: The Making of Hitchcock’s Favorite Film (2000). The film also held sentimental value for Hitchcock, as he injected many personal touches and also enlisted the help of his wife to write the screenplay.
Set in Santa Rosa, California, Shadow of a Doubt presented a multitude of opportunities for Hitchcock to explore filmmaking in America. Typically, Hitchcock worked with British screenwriters and actors on stories set in England. For Shadow of a Doubt, he worked with American author, Thornton Wilder of Our Town fame on the screenplay. Pulling in a talented and revered author was quite a thrill for Hitchcock because he finally had the collaborative support to create an authentic American story. In Beyond Doubt Peter Bogdanovich noted that despite his fame, Wilder showed respect and kept a humble profile while working with Hitchcock. Hitchcock had often encountered egoistical American authors who showed no interest in working in the suspense genre. Hitchcock was even able to find an authentic middle class home to form the backdrop of his storyline involving the disruption of a small town family by a murderous member uncle.
Young Charlie (short for Charlotte) is living a quiet life with parents in a small California town when her namesake uncle arrives unexpectedly. Charlie gradually unravels her uncle’s true persona: he is the “Merry Widow Killer” responsible for a string of murders of wealthy widows. Despite the intensity of the mutual affection between the two, their relationship is purely platonic. Charlie struggles with the unconditional love she has for her uncle, differing from the archetype of the woman’s role in these thriller films. The scorned lover can always walk away, but Charlie is bound by blood. The dichotomy of the uncle-niece relationship frees this film from the stereotypical romantic thriller storyline.
Even after Charlie finds out her uncle’s dark secret she’s conflicted because he is a member of her family. Charlie’s mother Emma has a genuine connection to her brother, often blinded by the nostalgia of his presence. This further complicates Charlie’s relationship with her uncle because it involves her mother’s delicate feelings as well as her own.
Consider young Charlie in contrast to another Hitchcock heroine. In Suspicion (1941), released two years before Shadow of a Doubt, Joan Fontaine’s character never really rivaled Cary Grant’s. Joan Fontaine was the overly hysterical and frightened stereotype. As young Charlie, Teresa Wright crafted a balance of naiveté and tenacity. She was portrayed as an equal to her male counterpart, not only because she outlived him, but because she also outsmarted him. Teresa Wright was able to touch upon moments of hysteria but balanced them with deliberate confidence.
Joseph Cotten (Uncle Charlie) was a brilliant casting move by Hitchcock because he could effectively teeter between good and evil. Hitchcock struggled in later films with breaking the audience’s perception of top actors such as Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. But Joseph Cotten never really developed a typecast role. He is incredibly believable because his love of his niece and even more so his sister seems so genuine. This is evident through Cotten’s passionate yet menacing delivery of his dialogue.
Hitchcock’s personal touch is evident throughout this film. He named several characters after his own family members and used his personal experiences to influence certain intimate moments of dialogue. His beloved wife, Alma Reville, contributed to the script and was even credited. Her opinion was paramount to Hitchcock, so her approval of the script meant everything to him. Even Hitchcock himself worked on the script, which was quite unusual. The film became a creative outlet for Hitchcock when his mother became gravely ill during production and passed away before the film was completed.
The dialogue of the film is far richer than any other Hitchcock film I’ve watched. One moment in particular is the speech from Charlie’s mother about her fondness for her brother Charlie, which added to the sympathetic undertones of his character. Villains are much more fascinating if they have some redeeming qualities and this is evident in Shadow of a Doubt.
The collaborative process of this film and the life it took on in production satisfied Hitchcock’s artistic sensibilities. As Hitchcock said, “it was one of those rare occasions where you could combine character with suspense. Usually in a story there isn’t time to develop character.” Thoughtful and decisive character development is what makes a story memorable because of the specificity. Hats off to Hitch and his creative team for achieving this.