Shadow of a Doubt – Alfred Hitchcock
Regarded by many critics as Alfred Hitchcock’s best American film, Shadow of a Doubt certainly displays the master of suspense thrillers in top form. Mixing doubt and fear with ordinary small-town life, Hitchcock keeps his audience off balance throughout the film. The story is set in the town of Santa Rosa, California, and the film was largely shot there. Such use of location shooting was not a usual practice in the 1940’s, but in Shadow of a Doubt the contrast between the placid, conventional life in the town and the twisted mind of Uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) is definitely aided by the real setting.
The film portrays throughout the theme of the affinity between Uncle Charlie and his niece Charlie (Teresa Wright), who is named after him. The niece feels that the presence of her uncle is what the family needs to get it out of its rut, and she decides to telegraph him, only to find that he has just telegraphed the family himself. Young Charlie is delighted with this example of what she sees as telepathy and keeps stressing to her uncle that they are closer than uncle and niece. As the plot progresses, however, she begins to fear their closeness. At first she gleefully tells him that he cannot hide anything from her, but by the middle of the film she wishes he could. Instead of being kindred spirits, the two Charlies turn out to be opposites—the good and evil parts of the same personality.
There is, of course, suspense and mystery in Shadow of a Doubt. The mystery is not, however, who committed the crime but rather what crime was committed. As the first half of the film progresses, we grow more and more certain that Uncle Charlie is a criminal, but we have no idea what his crime is. It is. not until a suspenseful scene in which the niece rushes to the library to find a newspaper article that she learns that her uncle is the so-called Merry Widow murderer, a man who has been murdering rich widows for their money. Before this is discovered, however, we have reason to become increasingly suspicious of him. The first time he appears he is in a furnished room with a great deal of money lying about, and when his landlady tells him two men want to see him, he decides to escape from them by visiting his sister and her family in Santa Rosa.
In Santa Rosa, Uncle Charlie at first seems to be a personable, successful individual, but he becomes unreasonably upset when he thinks people are trying to find out about him. After the library scene, the mystery and suspense change. Now the questions center on what Uncle Charlie will do (he has already met a rich widow in Santa Rosa), whether the detectives will find him out, and what young Charlie will do with her information. Young Charlie does not feel she can turn in her own uncle, especially since she believes that it would kill her mother to find out that her younger brother is a murderer. Once Uncle Charlie realizes that she knows of his guilt and even has a ring which connects him with the murders, young Charlie’s life is in danger.
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