Shadow of a Doubt: The Christian Hipster’s Summer Guide to Hitchcock

It has neither the greyscale heavy contrast gore-non-gore of Psycho nor the iconic camera trickery of Vertigo. Bernard Herrmann did not compose the score, and Edith Head did not design the costumes. So why was it Hitch’s favorite film?


Shadow of a Doubt (1943). With Theresa Wright and Joseph Cotton. Screenplay by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson and Alma Reville. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Ways for Hipsters to Remember this Movie:

  • It’s the one with Uncle Charlie.

Another man who murders women and also gives them identity issues. Joseph Cotton is spot on charming, disarming, and deadly scary as the out of town uncle with a past that nobody really wants to know, least of all his angsty teenage namesake niece, Young Charlie, played to perfection by Theresa Wright.

  • It’s the one with the screenplay by Thorton Wilder.

Story credit is given to Gordon McDonnell, a Hollywood staple. But the script felt the influence of Wilder (you know, the guy who wrote Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth), Sally Benson (who wrote Meet Me In St. Louis, which was based on her childhood), and Alma Reville.  Wait, who is Alma Reville?  If you don’t know, you just lost tons of hipster Hitch street cred. Keep reading.

  • It’s the one with an attempted murder on a train–wait, that happens in other Hitch movies (actually, trains are kind of a theme with him…).

Ok, it’s the one that takes places in rural California–nope, Psycho.  Ok, it’s the one with a girl who thinks someone she loves is going to murder her–nope, that’s pretty themey too. Well, maybe this movie is classic Hitch after all!

Three Reasons for this Movie to be Hitch’s Favorite:

  • Typical small town America gets infused with psychosis, murder, and mayhem.

To quote Pat Hitchcock, “This was my father’s favorite movie because he loved the idea of bringing menace into a small town.”

A "typical American family," you know, with murderers and such.

A “typical American family,” you know, with murderers and such.

  • It’s still a master class in building suspense.

Watch the number of times there are tight close ups on Uncle Charlie and Young Charlie, especially as they watch each other. What does she know? What did he do? Where did that ring come from? And was her fall on the back stairs really an accident? The reaction shots build the case for suspicion, and the quick cutting during action throws our attention to lots of detailed information we need to put together to figure out what’s going on.

It all adds psychosis and murder!

It all adds up…to psychosis and murder!

In fact, the film opens with no dialog, typical of Hitch using the camera work to open the plot. We see money laying on the floor and the nightstand. Lots of money. We see Joe Cotton laid out like a corpse, sleeping in his rented room. He looks uneasy. Why would someone in a rented room–someone who already looks suspicious–have tons of money just lying around? Maybe Uncle Charlie does have something to hide.

  • The script was written by two tour-de-force Americana writers, and has Alma’s hands all over it.

Wilder’s influence is seen in the dialog and character work. The family dynamics feel like Benson had something to do with them (she wrote children very well). But the psychosis and suspense? They were at least influenced by Hitch’s secret weapon and best collaborator, his wife.

Other people Hitch worked with report that the greatest compliment Hitch could give was “Alma loved it.” The 2012 film Hitchcock with Anthony Hopkins in the title role and Helen Mirren as Alma helps shed light on their collaboration, as many critics have reported. So her credited story collaboration might be another reason Hitch loved this particular film so much. It’s an Alma classic, too. Their creative energies worked so well together that critic Charles Champlin said, “The Hitchcock touch has four hands, and two of them are Alma’s.” In Shadow, it’s a palpable four hand touch.

"Honey, how about if we put in more Freudian symbolism?"

“Honey, how about if we put in more Freudian symbolism?”

Other Things For Hipsters to Notice:

  • Clever use of shadows.

It’s in the title. Did you think Hitch wouldn’t eat that up?

Is he even really a man? Just a shadow of the Uncle Charlie you knew?

Is he even really a man? Just a shadow of the Uncle Charlie you knew?

Two specific uses to look for: Uncle Charlie at the top of the steps with light behind him, casting long shadows on the ceiling, and Young Charlie, after her revelation in the library that Uncle Charlie is probably the Merry Widow Murderer. An extreme high angle shot shows her walking away from the newspaper on the table, the lamp casting a long shadow in front of her. Oh, the symbolism!

  • References to Dracula.
Held back by a shadow cross?

Held back by a shadow cross?

Bloggers and critics alike have noted that Uncle Charlie makes several references to the undead (“Those women [the old widows], they aren’t alive, are they?”), the previously mentioned opening scene where he is laid out like a corpse, his aversion to photographs and high key lighting, and Detective Graham’s (Macdonald Carey) conspicuous non sequitur, “Come on Ann, tell Catharine the story of Dracula.”

  • Delightful performances.

The cast is chock full of people who know how to work a good script, including Cotton and Wright, and Hume Cronyn in his film debut. He’s fantastic opposite Henry Travers (you know, Clarence the Angel in It’s A Wonderful Life?).  Also of note are Patricia Collinge as Emily. Collinge was a highly successful stage actress and also a playwright.  The family players create a beautiful “typical American family” (Wright had previously done films like Mrs. Miniver, and was a staple of the “family picture”), and this adds to the creepiness when the typical American family becomes what every typical American family really is: a family full of secrets and weirdos. 

  • Joe Cotton’s Uncle Charlie monologue in the bar:

“You think you know something don’t you. You think you’re the clever little girl who knows something. There’s so much you don’t know. So much. What do you know, really? You’re just an ordinary little girl living in an ordinary little town. You wake up every morning of your life and you know perfectly well there’s nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day. And at night you sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep filled with peaceful stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares. Or did I? Or was it a silly inexpert little lie? You live in a dream, you’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you ripped the fronts of houses you’d find swine? The world is a hell, what does it matter what happens in it? Wake up Charlie, use your wits, learn something.”

Memorize it and use it well, with emphasis, at ironic times, to impress your friends.

  • The “Merry Widow Waltz” and the dissolve to the dancing girls.

Or is that just a MacGuffin?shadow-of-a-doubt-1

We see the cutaway to the turn of the century dancing couples four times, all conspicuous places in the plot. Textbook editing. Good job, Alma.

  • WWII commentary.

There’s no escaping the mid-war mindset of the film. It’s nearly-noir with long shadows and low key lighting. An allusion is made that a childhood accident (physical trauma, like many experienced during the war) is the reason Charlie was “never quite the same.” It’s also got script indication that it’s a mid-war commentary on American society:

Young Charlie: “He thought the world was a horrible place. Couldn’t have been very happy ever. He didn’t trust people. Seemed to hate them, hated the whole world. He said people like us didn’t know what the world was really like.”

Jack Graham: “It’s not quite as bad as all that, but sometimes it needs a lot of watching. Seems to go crazy every now and then. Like your Uncle Charlie.”

  • Freudian Symbolism.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…but probably not in a Hitchcock film.

Also, slightly incestuous undertones with favorite uncles, hats on beds, keys, and smoke billowing from trains. It may not be as well known as other films, nor was it as popular at the box office, but all the more reason for hipsters to love it just as much as the Master of Suspense.





About jenletherer

BA, Theater and Speech Communication; English:Creative Writing. Siena Heights University, 2002. MFA, Film Production. Boston University, 2005
This entry was posted in Hipster's Guide and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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