Shadow of a Doubt
There are many Hitchcock enthusiasts who rank this film as his best, and his first true masterpiece. Other contenders are Vertigo, Psycho, and my own favorite, Rear Window. Which is not to take anything away from this one. There is a psychological depth to the story and the characters, particularly Joseph Cotton’s wonderful performance as the evil Uncle Charlie, that few other Hitchcock films can rival. It really is a study of a sociopathic personality, a man who doesn’t really think the rest of us exist except as playthings for his every whim. He can be affable and charismatic when it suits him, but he’s not always in the best control of his demons, and frequently says inappropriate things. He doesn’t care; he’s above us all. Teresa Wright is also very good as his niece and namesake, Charlotte “Charlie” Newton.
When we first see Uncle Charlie he is lying in bed, perfectly still, almost a corpse. He looks like a man profoundly depressed. Soon he is evading two cops and it is clear that he’s done something, but we don’t know what. He decides to go to Santa Rosa, California and hole up with his older sister and her family. (The movie really was made in Santa Rosa, though very little of what we see is left due to urban renewal in the form of a 1969 earthquake.) When we first see the girl Charlie, she too is lying on the bed, depressed by small-town life. But she soon perks up when she hears her beloved Uncle Charlie is coming to town. She adores him, which makes it all the harder when two detectives come to town and one, smitten with her, tells her Uncle Charlie is a suspect in the “Merry Widow” murders. Unknown to him, Uncle gave her a piece of jewelry that pretty much convicts him of being the killer. She dare not reveal this to her family or the detective, as she feels it would kill her mother.
So the tension builds and builds. Twice Uncle Charlie tries to kill her, making it look like an accident. The cool thing, to me, is no murder occurs during the length of the film! It’s all tension, masterfully built. Most of that rests on Joseph Cotton’s sinister presence, as we learn more and more about what a despicable cur he is.
There’s great comic relief from Henry Travers as Charlie’s father, and Hume Cronyn as their rather creepy neighbor, Herb. They are mystery enthusiasts, reading and sharing pulp magazines, and discussing how to commit the perfect murder. And of course they don’t have a clue about the real life-or-death intrigue going on under their very noses.