Compared to Alfred Hitchcock‘s better-known films, Shadow of a Doubt may not claim as much suspense or plot perfection, but as an overall execution of storytelling, it’s as effective as it gets. Hitchcock considered this his best American film, and it is easy to see why. Shadow of a Doubt is an example of a masterful film-making, especially when considering the implausible elements of its plot.
- Director: Alfred Hitchcock
- Writer: Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, Alma Reville
- Cast: Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotton, MacDonald Carey
An ordinary family of four in Santa Rosa, California welcomes the arrival of uncle Charlie (Cotton), a man known to the family as a “businessman” from the east coast. At first, his charm brings life to their home and the town. But before long, uncle Charlie’s secret is gradually exposed by the suspicions of his niece, who is also named Charlie (Teresa Wright), and two detectives on a manhunt. The headlines describe the real killer as the “Merry Widow Murderer”, and law enforcement has narrowed down the suspects to two men. Is uncle Charlie a murderer or simply a man caught up in a nationwide search?
Much of the credit begins with the crafty screenplay of Thorton Wilder. With economical dialogue, every word in the script is purposeful, packed with subtle clues providing rich detail. Consider, for example, an early scene where uncle Charlie sees a story in the newspaper that leads him to paranoia. He first decides to conceal this story by using the newspaper pages to make a paper house for his youngest niece. But she expresses concern that her father will want his newspaper intact. He then attempts to entertain his nephew and his oldest niece, but is met with similar responses, further emphasizing the suggested importance of the written article to the mystery. Immediately after, the kids start putting the newspaper together by referencing the page numbers, leading to the realization that pages 3 and 4 are missing. This scene may sound simple, but its level of detail serves to magnify our curiosities. In another scene, uncle Charlie crumbles a napkin with such ferocity that its implied violence at that point in the story is brilliantly suggestive.
Hitchcock’s talent is indisputable, and it is great to see a film of such mastery so early in his career. But it is important to note that there is more to Shadow of a Doubt than Hitchcock’s genius. Each reveal is executed with such a patience that Joseph Valentine’s subtle camera work is equally worthy of mention. When Charlie makes a giant discover and begins walking away from a library table just prior to closing, a crane shot rises to convey her loneliness by exposing the shadow and emptiness around her. To augment the power of the story, the performances are as flawless as every other aspect of the film. To augment the mystery, Joseph Cotton is both charming and menacing at the same time, while Teresa Wright is effective at exuding a certain level of naivete while also suggesting enough intuition to sense danger. Even detective Jack (MacDonald Carey) is well-casted, as he lends his role enough authority-like presence and enough personable traits to entertain the possibility of his love interest. While Shadow of a Doubt is typically unmentioned among Hitchcock’s top five films, it absolutely merits a place in such discussions.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Not only do we get an engaging murder mystery, here is a film worthy of artistic and technical merits. Mostly, of course, much of this achievement is due to Hitchcock’s attention to detail. For those the sometimes discredit films due to their implausibility, I enjoyed reading Ebert’s mention that Shadow of a Doubt is implausible, but is yet very consistent in its storytelling. It is also interesting to consider how he points out the “absurdity of two detectives following a suspect from New York to California, apparently without being sure of how he looks”. I also agree that all the elements seem to mesh efficiently during the running length of the film, and that it is only later that the weaknesses grow evident. Mr. Ebert’s review is also worthwhile when considering the context of Hitchcock’s own mother and his reminder that this film was shot during the early stages of World War II. As usual, such background only adds to our appreciation of a film, which in this case, is nothing less than great.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT
Do you like Shadow of a Doubt? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Ordet
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Alfred Hitchock’s Shadow of a Doubt this week, he now has 310 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.