Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), allegedly the director's favorite of all his films, is a tense masterpiece, anchored by two tremendous lead performances.
Teresa Wright stars as Charlotte “Charlie” Newton, a teenage girl who has grown weary of the boredom and averageness of her nuclear family’s life. Her prayers for excitement are answered when she receives word that Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton), her mother’s brother and young Charlie’s namesake, is coming for an extended visit. The family is delighted to host him, and he charms their small town with his debonair ways. But young Charlie’s enthusiasm is quickly deflated when she notices some strange things about her beloved uncle: He hides pages of the newspaper and grows irate when she brings it up. He gives her an expensive ring engraved with someone else’s initials. And, in a memorable scene at the family’s dinner table, he delivers a misogynistic rant about elderly widows, whom he sees as “fat, wheezing animals,” taking up space and hoarding their deceased husbands’ money. When two detectives come looking for him and disclose to young Charlie that her uncle is potentially a serial killer known as the “Merry Widow Murderer,” she begins to navigate to the bottom of who Uncle Charlie really is, trying not to destroy her family in the process.
Hitchcock creates an unconventional noir setting, sacrificing a chiaroscuro city of angular alleyways and streetlights piercing the darkness for the sunny, Norman Rockwell–esque town of Santa Rosa, California. Hitchcock even enlisted Thornton Wilder (Our Town) and Sally Benson (author of the novel Meet Me in St. Louis), two writers known for crafting quintessential portraits of twentieth-century Americana. When Uncle Charlie arrives by train under a menacing cloud of black smoke, it’s as if a villain from a different movie is invading. While not pushed to salacious conclusions, the almost psychic connection between Charlie and her uncle—combined with Cotton’s looming, dominating physical presence in his scenes with Teresa Wright—implies a pseudo-incestuous rot at the heart of American life.
Shadow of a Doubt is now screening at Film Forum in a digital restoration.