When Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) returns to Santa Rosa, he is welcomed into the heart of the community: brother-in-law Joe works at the bank, and sister Emma is a doyenne of the town’s many ‘clubs’. Emma worships her big brother, going as far as naming their eldest daughter Charlotte (Teresa Wright), known as ‘Young Charlie’. Will this hero worship end in tears?
When the film begins, Oakley is laying on his bed, staring into space, piles of cash spilling from his dressing table onto the floor. His landlady informs him two men have been asking after him. Charlie listens impassively, before making for the post office to wire his sister that he’s coming to stay. The journey is spent in glassy-eyed silence. Charlie is not the warm-hearted family type. He may even be the ‘Merry Widow Murderer’, hunted by the police.
We’re in classic Hitchcock territory here. The initially joyful homecoming unravels with alarming speed: Charlie reacts strangely to Emma humming ‘The Merry Widow’ and becomes aggressive when Young Charlie finds an inscription on the ring he’s given her. A refusal to have his photo taken and defensiveness over the newspapers only add to Young Charlie’s confusion about her uncle’s actions.
A suspicious Young Charlie literally goes to town to uncover the truth, forcing her way into the library after hours to go through the newspapers undisturbed. Viewed by an outsider like Hitchcock, folksy small-town America is cloying and oppressive: the scene where the bank customers listen, appalled, to Charlie’s semi-playful rant about financial corruption shows a hive-mind mentality that’s fodder for the director’s dark world-view. Later, when Charlie launches into a diatribe about money and its perceived effect on women, the film pours scorn on a society the character rejects and the director himself viewed at a remove.
The net, however, is tightening. Policemen Graham and Saunders arrive, on the pretext of conducting a survey. Graham (Macdonald Carey) falls for Young Charlie and eventually convinces her of the danger posed by her uncle. Then the ‘Merry Widow Murderer’ is apparently found dead…
So is Oakley the real killer? That would be telling. Shadow of a Doubt is a taut film with some stunning cinematography (the shots of Charlie and Young Charlie at opposing ends of the staircase are particularly effective). Joseph Cotten is superb as Charlie, by turns cold and charming. Teresa Wright acquits herself well as his namesake, though oddly there’s more chemistry between her and Cotten than with love interest Carey. The humour comes from Young Charlie’s siblings, especially bookish Anne. This being Hitchcock, there’s a macabre comedy subplot involving Joe and his friend Herb (Hume Cronyn), murder mystery fans who spend their days musing on how they would off one another. Yes, there are a few points that don’t quite add up (the scene where Young Charlie surmises Graham is a policeman defies logic), but the fact that Shadow of a Doubt is a film deserving of anyone’s time is beyond a…
Couldn’t resist it.