Monday, June 13, 2011


1943, Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, Macdonald Carey, Henry Travers, Patricia Collinge

Known as Hitchcock's best American film and his personal favorite, Shadow of a Doubt is a must see for fans of horror, Hitchcock, and classic cinema in general. It relates the strange story of an all American family who receive a visit from their beloved Uncle Charlie. He may or may not be the Merry Widow Killer, a dangerous serial murderer who preys upon wealthy widows. His niece, Young Charlie, adores him without question, but begins to suspect the truth. 

While it does not have the complex plot, emotional turbulence, or visual style of some the master of suspense's more celebrated films, Shadow of a Doubt should not be overlooked. Instead of a film where characters spin out of control with their secrets, plans, or emotionally fraught personal lives, Hitchcock tells us a story about evil in a normal town with a normal family. Normal and perhaps even ideal. Shadow of a Doubt is a portrait of evil infiltrating slowly, consciously, purposely, and seductively. And it is certainly no less rewarding than his flashier efforts.

I love everything about this film and could probably write a book about it, given the time and funding. The writing, done by a small team headed by the playwright Thorton Wilder, is meticulous, the sets and camera angles are well-rehearsed and premeditated in the usual Hitchcock manner, and the acting is superb. Joseph Cotten is wonderful in everything and he does a great job with Uncle Charlie. His character is not necessarily portrayed as evil and he seems to really love Young Charlie and the rest of the family, but he is corrupted by perversion and mental illness. One of my favorite scenes positions Joseph Cotten's face in the foreground -- Hitchcock makes excellent use of that technique in this film -- and behind him, his sister tells Young Charlie about a childhood accident that left Uncle Charlie forever changed. His face gets a strange tick that gives the sense of insanity boiling just under the surface of well-polished charm.

Teresa Wright is also amazing as Young Charlie. She was given a strange character to work with, because while Young Charlie is a normal girl from a normal family, she also has hints of Uncle Charlie embedded in her personality. Her occasionally irrational anger gives this away and her face takes on the same tick as Joseph Cotten. Young Charlie also has a wide independent and self-sufficient streak, which sometimes makes her seem cold. She is a bizarre protagonist in the sense that she is not helping Uncle Charlie, but also not hindering him. Her complicity ties them closer together, particularly when you look at the dizzying amount of doubling that goes on in Shadow of a Doubt.

While they are presented as a loving uncle and neice, there are several quotes about them having a closer relationship, being exactly like each other and even being twins. There is a disturbing romantic subtext, where Uncle Charlie does a mock courtship. He buys her a ring, embraces her frequently, parades her around town, and even takes her out to a bar. Keep your eyes peeled for other doubling in the film: there are twos of almost everything, including mirrored scenes.

The disc I'm reviewing is from the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection DVD boxset, which is a must-have for any cinephile. Go buy it. Now. There are extras galore, new prints of all the films and many classic Hitchcock greats. I can't say enough good things about Shadow of a Doubt, so all that is left at this point is for you to rent or buy it. The single disc is the same.

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