Shadow of a Doubt – Hitchcock offers us a little Freud.
Shadow of a doubt is an early Hitchcock piece of masterful film making (1943) primarily around the theme of doubles, or twos, a theme Hitchcock would re visit many times over in future films. In this film no one is singular, everyone comes in a pair. Two detectives, sisters and brothers husbands and wives, uncles and nieces, two girls, two families, and so on. The plot centres around a duality and the horrifying time it takes for one party to see they are the reflection of another who is the very embodiment of evil.
The film is a thriller but we know from the start who the villain is. When we are first introduced to Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) he languishes in apartment number 13, sleeping in the day, surrounded by money and empty booze bottles. The house keeper comes in and naively treats him with maternal fussiness, till she reveals two men where in the house earlier asking after him. We know instantly that Charlie Oakley is guilty. His reaction and sudden departure are no surprise to us.
What is interesting is that in order to escape, he gets the idea of running to his sisters home, a woman who adores him but he hasn’t visited in years. He buys expensive gifts, sends a telegram and he is on his way.
Hitchcock then moves to the “all-American” family home to which he is headed and we see another figure laying on the bed. This is Charlie Oakley’s niece a radiant young woman (wonderfully … I mean WONDERFULLY played by Teresa Wright) who also lies on a bed at (we suspect) the same time her namesake uncle was laying on the bed. This is the daughter of Charlie’s sister, also named Charlie. Instead of being a picture of decadence and decay she is soul-searching, worrying about the health and well-being of her mother and trying to discuss issues that fly over her father’s head.
This is the first of many examples of doubling and reflection that goes on throughout the film. Charlie jr even claims to be exactly the same as her namesake – even going so far as to state she know’s he is filled with secrets but he will not be able to hide them from her. The film blatantly states there is a psychic link between the two Chrlies. This is brought about by the fact that each Charlie gets the idea to visit at the same time. Wrights innocence is beautifully off set against Cottons sinister darkness. The two on the screen together are perfect opposites, Wright glowing in her sweetness mistaking Cottons leering seductions as warm family gestures. Both Cotton and Hitchcock portray this Uncle as desiring connections of a physical nature while Wright blithely talks about their intimacy as if it is the most natural and sweet thing in the world. In a very creepy scene, the Father (a man whose name we never hear) guides Uncle Charlie to his room, which is actually young Charlies, but he is borrowing it. The father asks him not to throw his hat on the bed as it will bring bad luck. Uncle Charlie waits till the fathers back is turned and throws the hat on the bed in an act of defiance of the man of the house and with a predatory sleaziness that implies a kind of ownership of the young woman whose bed it is.
This isn’t Hitchcock’s first American film, but it is the first where the all American family / small town is the focus of his lens. People are sweet and innocent. Wright may appear the most innocent of all, but this is her purity not the naivety displayed by the rest of the town. The father of the house, mirrored in his socially awkward best friend who comes around to discuss ways of killing people as a hobby, is a dullard – a sweet man who although he means well is a complete milk-sop. Uncle Charlie is also posited against him often, always with Uncle Charlie taking advantage of his innocence, something no one but Charlie sees through. Another rather chilling scene shows Uncle Charlie visiting him at the bank to deposit a lot of money, pausing only to take the time to speak loudly to father about embezzling funds from the bank. People stare and it makes father look like a fool at best, or a thief at worst. These tussles of masculinity are always won by the seething Uncle Charlie, including the tussle for father wife, Uncle Charlies sister. IN a very Freudian twist, Uncle Charlies seductions are not reserved only for Charlie, but it is his own sister he seduces with memories, fondness and indulging her foolish trance like memories of their childhood. Uncle Charlie succeeds in alienating the woman from the rest of her household in a fascinating piece of Hitchcock-does-Freudery.
Because this is not a mystery it is never a question of who Uncle Charlie really is. He is the Merry Widow murderer, no two ways about it. In an interview I saw with Hitchcock, he said (and I paraphrase) if you have a bunch of people talking baseball at a table and it goes for five minutes, it’s a dull scene. If we all know there is a ticking bomb under the table, you have the beginnings of suspense and the baseball talk changes its meaning entirely. Then, he said, the bomb must never go off. You combine the suspense and the humanity to see someone tap the bomb with their foot, discover it, grab it and toss it out the window before it goes off and you have all the elements required for a suspenseful film. This describes the lay out for Shadow of a Doubt perfectly.
I will close this post with an excellent paragraph from Not Just The Movies review of this great film:
When the two detectives posing as reporters come to Santa Rosa, they con their way into the house by saying they want to do a story on a typical American family, to which the mother, Emma, ironically replies that she doesn’t think they’re typical. Yet the suggestion under Hitch’s use of broad types and unforgiving humanity is that the twisted, Freudian incest of this family and the seedy elements lurking under pre-fab suburban cleanliness and conformity is common to all such towns. Hitchcock would only delve further into such perverse, paranoid matters after the war ended, but Shadow of a Doubt is not only his first major consolidation of such issues but one of his best. It shows a director in complete control of his look and tone; no wonder, then, that his trademark cameo in this feature is a shot of him at a bridge table literally holding all of the cards.