Alfred Hitchcock Retrospective: Shadow of a Doubt
By Adam James Cuthbert
“What’s the use of looking backward? What’s the use of looking ahead? Today’s the thing. That’s my philosophy. Today.” – Charles Oakley
Shadow of a Doubt was regarded by Hitchcock himself as his favourite film – one of his best. According to his daughter, Pat Hitchcock O’Connell (on the documentary Beyond Doubt), Hitchcock held the film in such esteem because it enabled him to introduce menace into a small town; “into a family that had never known any bad things to happen to them”. At its heart, the film is an astute reminder to the audience that no-one and nowhere is as safe as first thought. There is darkness, potentially, around every corner – even in the people we love and have grown to trust, unconditionally, as the film’s heroine, Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) discovers, to her horror. By the end, humanity is (broadly speaking) divided into three distinct categories. Each category can be represented by a particular type of character. Some people remain perpetually blind, either ignorant to or deceived by the darkness, their lives relatively untroubled (the townspeople). Others are haunted by, yet pity, the world’s evils, their lives irrevocably altered by personal hardships and newfound insights (Charlie). Finally, there are those who commit atrocities, motivated variously by avarice, resentment; an underlying perversity and dissoluteness of demeanour, disillusioned in humanity (the villain).
Heart of Darkness
With the authorities in pursuit, Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten), sociopathic serial killer of affluent widows (his sobriquet in the press is “the Merry Widow Murderer”), heads to Santa Rosa, California, seeking protection and escape with his sister’s family, the family unaware of Oakley’s true nature. Oakley is characterised by the Hitchcockean signature of an “empathy with the Devil” (to quote director Peter Bogdanovich from the aforementioned documentary). Oakley embodies Hitchcock’s desire to avoid clichés, and imbue his villains with a genuine and compelling sense of depth and complexity. This is an effect achieved in part by adroit characterisation, complemented by Joseph Cotten’s beguiling and charismatic performance.
Although the character should be outright abhorred, his viewpoint, his misanthropy and nihilism (“The whole world’s a joke to me”; “The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?”), is, in alignment with Hitchcock’s principle, to an extent understandable, reflecting universal frustrations, experienced at some time – although his actions should not be condoned. The widows he has murdered spent their wealth extravagantly. Oakley says of them: “drinking the money, eating the money […] smelling of money. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women.” His victims are defined by a toxic materialism that corrupted and degraded them. They are less than human. As the voice of innocence and goodwill, Charlie retorts: “But they’re alive! They’re human beings!” – only for Oakley to bitterly counteract: “Are they? […] Or are they fat, wheezing animals?”
Ironically, Oakley himself has been dehumanised by the type of materialist mentality he despises in his victims. He leaves money lying around his temporary abode, in the beginning, and lavishes his sister and her family with expensive gifts, purchasing his sister a mink coat, and her husband a wristwatch. Whilst part of his manipulative charm, it’s symptomatic of his own decadence.
Hitchcock, nevertheless, reinforces the audience’s moral contempt for the character, when, in a later scene, Oakley belittles his niece: “You’re just an ordinary little girl, living in an ordinary little town. […] You go through your ordinary little day, and at night you sleep your untroubled, ordinary little sleep, filled with peaceful, stupid dreams.” The use of repetition in his dialogue is significant, emphasising Oakley’s disdain of the ‘herd’, and his sense of self-importance: that he’s extraordinary in some capacity. He stresses Charlie has “no idea” what the world is truly like. His monologue conveys the film’s theme of blindness. To Oakley, Charlie lives “in a dream […] a sleepwalker, blind.”
Conversely, Charlie is one of several characters ‘awake’ to the world’s underbelly of insidious evil. Her mother, Emmy, in contrast, is oblivious to the subtext of her brother’s speech about wives and widows. Emmy is an overtly sentimental romantic, deeply fond of her brother (a familial love Oakley uses to his advantage). Whilst Emmy lives in the past, Oakley embodies a carpe diem purview. For Oakley, only the present matters. His dislike of being photographed underscores this perspective. Photographs are symbolic of ‘immortalised/unchanging time’; of crystallising, preserving, the past for future reference, or sentimental recollection of a bygone time. When Emmy shows Charlie the sole photograph anyone has of him, from when he was a child, Oakley is visibly discomfited, as Emmy proceeds to reminisce, expressively desiring to forget.
Light and Love
Shadow of a Doubt centres upon the developmental journey of its heroine, and the ensuing conflict between Charlie and Oakley. This culminates in a life-or-death struggle on a speeding train.
In the beginning, Charlie is portrayed as a typical young adult: bored of her humdrum small-town life, yearning for excitement and change, considerate of her mother’s wellbeing. Charlie is written as enamoured of her uncle, to the extent she perceives them as akin to “twins”, even telepathically attuned. Charlie is overjoyed when Oakley comes to stay, knowing her uncle will brighten things up. Hitchcock seeps noirish undertones into the plot to accentuate the impact of Charlie’s psychological maturation: her once-bright world is gradually enveloped by sinister shadows.
This is partly achieved by the introduction of Detective Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), who’s followed Oakley to Santa Rosa. Graham is first discerned with his partner observing Charlie and Oakley from his car, as they disembark a bus, revealing, before his character is established, that he’s been waiting for Oakley. We are initially informed that Graham and his partner are an interviewer and photographer respectively for the “National Public Survey”. They have chosen to interview the Newtons as a “representative American family” – pretence to get closer to Oakley, who is suspected of the murders. Graham later asks Charlie out on the equivalent of a date. The following sequence is one of a light-hearted, romantic atmosphere. This softens the impact of the dark, dramatic twist, as Charlie deduces Graham’s true identity. She is repulsed by his chicanery, unwilling to trust him on account of his deceit. She is confident that Graham’s suspicions are erroneous. She resolves to prove her uncle’s innocence. After racing to the public library, Charlie scans the newspaper. She is aghast by the truth her uncle had been withholding from her. Hitchcock opts to convey Charlie’s shock, not through close-ups on her facial expression, but rather a long shot, Charlie’s back to the camera, the camera pulling back to capture the solitary figure in the spacious library, walking away. Charlie, symbolically, feels small in a suddenly vaster, alienating world.
Hitchcock elucidated that the film paraphrased Oscar Wilde: “‘You destroy the thing you love’” – specifically with regards to Charlie’s characterisation. Ultimately, Charlie can only mature, as an individual, by relinquishing ties with her childhood object of love. Her love is transfigured into hate (“Go away, or I’ll kill you myself”).
In conclusion, Shadow of a Doubt is an exemplary film; one of Hitchcock’s finest works. Believable characters, emotive and engrossing storytelling, and superlative performances from Cotten and Wright, combine to make Shadow of a Doubt an unforgettable experience.