“He brought nightmares to Hollywood.”

Although Shadow of a Doubt (1943) precedes what is typically considered “Hitchcock’s Golden Age” it was a personal favorite for the director. Teresa Wright puts in an exceptional performance as Charlotte Newton, aka: “Young Charlie” – affectionately named after her uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten). While the younger Charlie is clearly an innocent, the elder Uncle Charlie is not. When Uncle Charlie returns to his hometown to lay low for a while the two Charlies begin a dance that is the epitome of all Hitchcock films, for it’s a dance between evil and innocence that swirls around in a waltz that has Ying-Yang-like precision. The ground it covers goes far beyond the duality of human nature and hints at darker things. I screened Shadow of a Doubt last Saturday in my backyard cinema and invited one of my weekly poker buddies to introduce the film. Paul Gordon’s card-playing skills are beside the point; he is teaching a course on Hitchcock and Freud this summer and is thus perfectly poised to tease out a little psychoanalytic fun from the master of suspense.

Before I let Paul have the floor, I gave some brief background to the film and mentioned how it had been based on a real-life Merry Widow murderer by the name of Earle Leonard Nelson (preferred method of disposal: strangulation). As to the script, I also thought it interesting that several women reworked Thornton Wilder’s screenplay; Sally Benson, Alma Reville (Ms. Hitchcock), and Patricia Collinge (aka: Emma Spencer Oakley Newton, aka: Young Charlie’s mom, aka: Uncle Charlie’s sister). Now it was Paul’s turn:

“Hitchcock made a point of never using great writers, because he didn’t want to compete with great writers. He basically made movies from pulp fiction. But Thornton Wilder was the exception. He was the most distinguished writer/collaborator that Hitchcock worked with in his entire career.” After a few observations on the tight script and top-notch acting, Paul then focused on the legal connotations behind the title. “You’re supposed to convict someone ‘beyond a shadow of a doubt.’ Well, Hitchcock hated the legal system, he hated authority, he hated detectives, and every one of his movies is – more or less – about the unconscious or diabolical or evil part of us that fights against the legal, righteous, moral, upright sense of things.”

The opening scene is in a dingy city apartment and it quickly establishes that Uncle Charlie is troubled and prone to explosive fits of temper (giving credence to the tagline: “A blast of DRAMATIC Dynamite exploded right before your eyes!)… but from there we cut to Santa Rosa. It’s a model of quiet suburbia, sort of Anywhere USA where there are normal families. But all is not as it seems, even for this “normal family.” It’s a similar trope to what David Lynch would revist 40 years later in Blue Velvet that suggests we live with an idyllic notion of a perfect suburban life – but behind every white picket fence there are secrets that can disturb the best of dreams with sudden and violent nightmares.

“That’s what Hitchock did in Hollywood,” Paul reminds us. “Hitchock brought nightmares. That’s why the greatest director in the history of Hollywood cinema, according to most, never won an Academy Award as Best Director. Why? Because he brought nightmares to Hollywood.”  He went on to note that Hithcock’s “ruthless, righteous adherence to the darkness of humanity” is also what fascinates us, the spectators, and provides us something “that we can’t live without, which is why we ultimately pay money to go see movies.”

Shadow of a Doubt has plenty of creepy things on the surface what with the Merry Widow Murderer being out there on the loose and Uncle Charlie being one of two prime suspects, but this being Hitchcock there’s also plenty of creepy things happening under the surface. Paul, being a good Freudian, went on to point out how the matriarch in Shadow of a Doubt is named Emma – which phonetically sounds out the letters “m” and “a” (for “ma”). When it comes to mother issues, it’s hard to beat Hitchcock. But the scene that Paul really wanted us to focus on occurs when Uncle Charlie is giving everyone presents upon his arrival. He tries to give Young Charlie a ring, and she refuses and runs out of the room. He chases her and tries again, and what follows has more than just a tinge of a suitor proposing marriage. Paul’s suggestion is that Hitchcock is suffusing the scene with one of humanities ultimate taboos: incest.

There are a myriad of reasons why Shadow of a Doubt still gets under the skin and the discussions as to why continued long into the night. My favorite goose-bump moment comes later in the film when Uncle Charlie delivers a nasty little bit of monologue that suggests some people deserve to be slaughtered:

The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands, dead, husbands who’ve spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. And then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewelry but of nothing else, horrible, faded, fat, greedy women… Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?

These thoughts are steeped with so much contempt that you can easily imagine him busting at the seams to tighten his fingers around someone’s throat. It’s a stand-out scene that breaks the fourth wall. The camera moves in on Uncle Charlie’s profile. Getting closer and closer to his face as his vitriol gets uglier and uglier – then suddenly he’s looking right at us, the audience, and those angry fingers seem to press down on our throats as we gasp.

30 Responses “He brought nightmares to Hollywood.”
Posted By Jenni : July 25, 2010 7:41 pm

Thanks for sharing your recent backyard film night. I have always enjoyed Shadow of a Doubt, and do think it is one of Hitchcock’s best films. The cast is incredibly believable in their roles, the suspense builds and builds, great camera shots, I try to watch it whenever it is shown.
I recently watched Smile, which TCM showed last week, and I believe the town that hosted the teen beauty pageant was also Santa Rosa, CA. I remembered reading that Hitchcock chose Santa Rosa as the town for Shadow of a Doubt for it’s pure, traditional, small-town look. This made me wonder how many other films Santa Rosa may have had filmed in its midst?

Posted By Jenni : July 25, 2010 7:41 pm

Thanks for sharing your recent backyard film night. I have always enjoyed Shadow of a Doubt, and do think it is one of Hitchcock’s best films. The cast is incredibly believable in their roles, the suspense builds and builds, great camera shots, I try to watch it whenever it is shown.
I recently watched Smile, which TCM showed last week, and I believe the town that hosted the teen beauty pageant was also Santa Rosa, CA. I remembered reading that Hitchcock chose Santa Rosa as the town for Shadow of a Doubt for it’s pure, traditional, small-town look. This made me wonder how many other films Santa Rosa may have had filmed in its midst?

Posted By Kathryn : July 26, 2010 12:00 pm

“Shadow of a Doubt” is one of my favorite Hitchcock films and definitely an underappreciated gem, so I was happy to see a post about it!

You hit upon two of the scenes that really give the film its creepiness – the scene where the elder Charlie presents the younger with a ring and the scene where Joseph Cotten looks directly at the camera. The implication of incest throughout the film is not at all subtle (at least it wasn’t to me) and it definitely lends the film that extra sense of foreboding and unease. The scene where Cotten looks directly at the camera is really jarring and frightening, especially the look on his face! There’s something about those eyes and that bit of a smirk that definitely give off the “sociopath” vibe.

Wish I could’ve attended the backyard film night – sounds like a great idea!

Posted By Kathryn : July 26, 2010 12:00 pm

“Shadow of a Doubt” is one of my favorite Hitchcock films and definitely an underappreciated gem, so I was happy to see a post about it!

You hit upon two of the scenes that really give the film its creepiness – the scene where the elder Charlie presents the younger with a ring and the scene where Joseph Cotten looks directly at the camera. The implication of incest throughout the film is not at all subtle (at least it wasn’t to me) and it definitely lends the film that extra sense of foreboding and unease. The scene where Cotten looks directly at the camera is really jarring and frightening, especially the look on his face! There’s something about those eyes and that bit of a smirk that definitely give off the “sociopath” vibe.

Wish I could’ve attended the backyard film night – sounds like a great idea!

Posted By Heidi : July 26, 2010 12:13 pm

I Love Hitchcock and Shadow of A Doubt is one of my favorites. It can’t go wrong in my book with Jospeh Cotten in it! He is creepy at creepy’s best in this one, which is why I like it, I think. I think it also hammers home the “be careful what you wish for” addage for Teresa’s Charlie who just knows that her Uncle Charlie will make everything better and really shake up the town! Boy, does he!

Posted By Heidi : July 26, 2010 12:13 pm

I Love Hitchcock and Shadow of A Doubt is one of my favorites. It can’t go wrong in my book with Jospeh Cotten in it! He is creepy at creepy’s best in this one, which is why I like it, I think. I think it also hammers home the “be careful what you wish for” addage for Teresa’s Charlie who just knows that her Uncle Charlie will make everything better and really shake up the town! Boy, does he!

Posted By keelsetter : July 26, 2010 1:24 pm

Jenni – If you do an advanced field search on IMDB, under locations just type Santa Rosa and you’ll find over 70 films! They include SCREAM, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, CUJO, and many more. Just last year a doc called FREEZER GEEZERS was shot there too. Perhaps a look at real, grumpy old men?

Kathryn – At my screening were some people who’d never seen SHADOW OF A DOUBT before and who fell in the “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” camp. As far as I’m concerned, Hitchcock’s genius commands deeper readings and the incest angle, I agree, is obvious.

Heidi – Not only is it a cautionary tale, SHADOW OF A DOUBT also works as a parable for paradise lost. Jungians can also have a field day discussing the duality at play with the two Charlies. Again: so many layers to Hitchcock, it’s like he’s left us with a treasure map that reveals more hidden booty every time we revisit his work.

Posted By keelsetter : July 26, 2010 1:24 pm

Jenni – If you do an advanced field search on IMDB, under locations just type Santa Rosa and you’ll find over 70 films! They include SCREAM, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, CUJO, and many more. Just last year a doc called FREEZER GEEZERS was shot there too. Perhaps a look at real, grumpy old men?

Kathryn – At my screening were some people who’d never seen SHADOW OF A DOUBT before and who fell in the “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” camp. As far as I’m concerned, Hitchcock’s genius commands deeper readings and the incest angle, I agree, is obvious.

Heidi – Not only is it a cautionary tale, SHADOW OF A DOUBT also works as a parable for paradise lost. Jungians can also have a field day discussing the duality at play with the two Charlies. Again: so many layers to Hitchcock, it’s like he’s left us with a treasure map that reveals more hidden booty every time we revisit his work.

Posted By idawson : July 26, 2010 4:32 pm

I love this movie. It is rather subversive; the idea of an idyllic location being the setting for a series of dark and terrifying actions must have been a revelation of sorts for that time. It certainly predates much of the film noir that covered the same territory years later.

Hitchcock was truly a master!

Posted By idawson : July 26, 2010 4:32 pm

I love this movie. It is rather subversive; the idea of an idyllic location being the setting for a series of dark and terrifying actions must have been a revelation of sorts for that time. It certainly predates much of the film noir that covered the same territory years later.

Hitchcock was truly a master!

Posted By Medusa : July 26, 2010 6:26 pm

Oh, boy, do I wish I could have been in that backyard to see the movie and those great introductions, live! I find the movie infinitely fascinating, completely entertaining and frequently hilarious, too. Wonderful performances by all!

There is definitely a tinge of inappropriate interest between the two Charlies, of course started on his part, but are we just so quick to jump to sexually-based conclusions now whereas audiences of the time might not have gone there? Young niece Charlie wasn’t naive at in the least but had doubtless never run up against anything quite like Oakley’s subtle poison.

Young Ann Newton of course saw right through him!

Posted By Medusa : July 26, 2010 6:26 pm

Oh, boy, do I wish I could have been in that backyard to see the movie and those great introductions, live! I find the movie infinitely fascinating, completely entertaining and frequently hilarious, too. Wonderful performances by all!

There is definitely a tinge of inappropriate interest between the two Charlies, of course started on his part, but are we just so quick to jump to sexually-based conclusions now whereas audiences of the time might not have gone there? Young niece Charlie wasn’t naive at in the least but had doubtless never run up against anything quite like Oakley’s subtle poison.

Young Ann Newton of course saw right through him!

Posted By keelsetter : July 27, 2010 12:18 am

Ah, yes, the young Ann Newton played by Edna May Wonacott. A nonprofessional Santa Rosa girl who is always two-steps ahead of most of the adults. I wonder where she is now?

Posted By keelsetter : July 27, 2010 12:18 am

Ah, yes, the young Ann Newton played by Edna May Wonacott. A nonprofessional Santa Rosa girl who is always two-steps ahead of most of the adults. I wonder where she is now?

Posted By Heidi : July 27, 2010 12:28 pm

I forgot to mention the funny bit with Father and Neighbor trying to come up with ways to kill without getting caught. I think that really gave a break to the intensity of the movie. They were really very funny.

Posted By Heidi : July 27, 2010 12:28 pm

I forgot to mention the funny bit with Father and Neighbor trying to come up with ways to kill without getting caught. I think that really gave a break to the intensity of the movie. They were really very funny.

Posted By keelsetter : July 27, 2010 1:56 pm

Those exchanges between Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn are great: “We’re not talking about killing people. Herb’s talking about killing me and I’m talking about killing him.”

Posted By keelsetter : July 27, 2010 1:56 pm

Those exchanges between Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn are great: “We’re not talking about killing people. Herb’s talking about killing me and I’m talking about killing him.”

Posted By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. : July 27, 2010 3:29 pm

I love those screen caps at the end of this piece — it’s probably my favorite scene in the movie. “They’re alive, they’re human beings…” “Are they?”

Posted By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. : July 27, 2010 3:29 pm

I love those screen caps at the end of this piece — it’s probably my favorite scene in the movie. “They’re alive, they’re human beings…” “Are they?”

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 29, 2010 10:30 pm

Your backyard cinema events sound like loads of fun! SHADOW OF A DOUBT is probably my favorite Hitchcock film and I never get tired of watching it. I’ve probably seen it about 10 times but I always discover something new about the movie when I watch it.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 29, 2010 10:30 pm

Your backyard cinema events sound like loads of fun! SHADOW OF A DOUBT is probably my favorite Hitchcock film and I never get tired of watching it. I’ve probably seen it about 10 times but I always discover something new about the movie when I watch it.

Posted By Athur : July 30, 2010 5:39 pm

Note, Cotten puts the ring on his neice’s right, not her left hand, signifying a perversion of the marriage ritual.

Ironically, the two amateur sleuths not only have a murder living in their midst, but one of them actually prevents a murder from taking place without even realizing it when he rescue’s young Charlie from the carbon dioxide filled garage.

Cotten represents the Devil. He is always seen smoking, and the train that brings him to town bellows a large plume of thick black smoke. When he gets off the train he walks with a cane that resembles a scepter.

When we meet each Charlie they are lying in bed thinking of the other. And when he enters his room in Santa Rosa, which previously belonged to his neice, he hesitates and then tosses his hat onto the bed. Putting your hat on the bed is bad luck, and he purposely tempts fate.

Posted By Athur : July 30, 2010 5:39 pm

Note, Cotten puts the ring on his neice’s right, not her left hand, signifying a perversion of the marriage ritual.

Ironically, the two amateur sleuths not only have a murder living in their midst, but one of them actually prevents a murder from taking place without even realizing it when he rescue’s young Charlie from the carbon dioxide filled garage.

Cotten represents the Devil. He is always seen smoking, and the train that brings him to town bellows a large plume of thick black smoke. When he gets off the train he walks with a cane that resembles a scepter.

When we meet each Charlie they are lying in bed thinking of the other. And when he enters his room in Santa Rosa, which previously belonged to his neice, he hesitates and then tosses his hat onto the bed. Putting your hat on the bed is bad luck, and he purposely tempts fate.

Posted By David Ehrenstein : August 2, 2010 1:12 pm

A VERY great film.

Little Edna Mae Wonnacott, with her glasses and knowing airs is a miniature Pat Hitchcock. There’s a real “averge American family feel to the film that was very important to Hitchcok. He aodred Patricia Collinge, and her character’s affection for her brother is genuinely tragei.

I don’t find anythig straightfowardly sexual between Uncle CHarlie and Young Charlie. He’s her ideal. He represents the world outside Santa Rosa — full of adventure — that she longs to join up with. His cynical remarks about people that gradually morph to total contemptuousness disturb her and are the reason why she comes to suspect that he may indeed be the “Merry Widow Killer.” This discovery is deeply said.

It’s more than of passing interest that the script is credited to Thornton Wilder (of “Out Town” immortality) and Sally Benson (of “Meet Me in St. Louis” fame. I’m currenlty reading “Secret Hitorian” — Justin Spring’s mind-blowing biography of Samuel Steward, who for many years was the closest thing the deeply closeted Wilder had to a lover. I suspect that Wilder suspected that were he to have let his Gay Flag Fly he would have turned into someone quite like Uncle Charlie.

Posted By David Ehrenstein : August 2, 2010 1:12 pm

A VERY great film.

Little Edna Mae Wonnacott, with her glasses and knowing airs is a miniature Pat Hitchcock. There’s a real “averge American family feel to the film that was very important to Hitchcok. He aodred Patricia Collinge, and her character’s affection for her brother is genuinely tragei.

I don’t find anythig straightfowardly sexual between Uncle CHarlie and Young Charlie. He’s her ideal. He represents the world outside Santa Rosa — full of adventure — that she longs to join up with. His cynical remarks about people that gradually morph to total contemptuousness disturb her and are the reason why she comes to suspect that he may indeed be the “Merry Widow Killer.” This discovery is deeply said.

It’s more than of passing interest that the script is credited to Thornton Wilder (of “Out Town” immortality) and Sally Benson (of “Meet Me in St. Louis” fame. I’m currenlty reading “Secret Hitorian” — Justin Spring’s mind-blowing biography of Samuel Steward, who for many years was the closest thing the deeply closeted Wilder had to a lover. I suspect that Wilder suspected that were he to have let his Gay Flag Fly he would have turned into someone quite like Uncle Charlie.

Posted By keelsetter : August 2, 2010 2:00 pm

All these great comments serve to remind me that while, yes, we have these amazing auteur Directors like Hitchcock that put their fingerprints everywhere, filmmaking remains the ultimate collective undertaking. When the chemistry is just right between those in front of the camera and all the busy people working behind the scenes, you get art that gets under your skin and stays in your head for years, decades, or even a lifetime.

Posted By keelsetter : August 2, 2010 2:00 pm

All these great comments serve to remind me that while, yes, we have these amazing auteur Directors like Hitchcock that put their fingerprints everywhere, filmmaking remains the ultimate collective undertaking. When the chemistry is just right between those in front of the camera and all the busy people working behind the scenes, you get art that gets under your skin and stays in your head for years, decades, or even a lifetime.

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 12, 2010 4:25 am

This was reprtedly Hitch’s own favourite picture & used to know a guy-(still do, though he moved) that actually lived in SANTA ROSA, CALIF. & sent me shots as if in a time warp of the town

Posted By Jeff L. Shannon : August 12, 2010 4:25 am

This was reprtedly Hitch’s own favourite picture & used to know a guy-(still do, though he moved) that actually lived in SANTA ROSA, CALIF. & sent me shots as if in a time warp of the town

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