When we first meet Charlie Newton, the young woman played by Teresa Wright in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt , she is lying in bed, thinking. She is stuck not only in her thoughts, but in a transitory period of life. Charlie is at that very specific age, a budding adult with childhood completely in the rearview mirror and the unvarnished facts of life ahead. Soon, she will find the previously untroubled comforts of suburban life upended when a beloved family member comes to town.
Famously Hitchock’s favorite of his films, Shadow of a Doubt stars Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie, the man from whom Wright’s character gets her name. The film begins with the handsome man lying in bed, the first of many commonalities between these inter-generational Charlies. To evade whatever trouble he has gotten himself in, he decides to journey west, to his sister’s home in Santa Rosa, California. On the same day he sends a telegram warning his sister of his arrival, niece Charlie gets the same idea. Frustrated by the banalities of everyday suburbia, she hopes that a visit from her beloved uncle will provide a welcome jolt to family life. When she arrives at the telegram office, she finds that her uncle, as he will be for most of the film, is already one thought ahead. Soon, however, she will catch up, and learn the murderous truth behind his reasons for the visit.
A psychological thriller and gem of film noir, Shadow of a Doubt functions as a dark coming-of-age tale. When her Uncle Charlie arrives, niece Charlie, elated, greets him as if they were each ten years younger. Niece Charlie brings to the exchange a clear admiration she has had for him since youth. But soon, the bubble begins to burst. Uncle Charlie gives his niece a ring with the initials of another woman, one of many uncomfortably flirtatious moments between the two. She notices he seems on edge. He rips pages from the newspaper. He refuses to have his picture taken. Investigators begin lurking around the house. Niece Charlie hears rumors about a man on the run from the law who murdered wealthy widows and took their valuables. A new picture in her mind begins to form.
Hitchcock’s depictions of the goings on in Santa Rosa are often likened to a Norman Rockwell painting gone wrong. Those of us who grew up in suburbia know how unsettling a place it can actually be. Everybody thinks they know everyone else, that neighbors have the best intentions, that family members always look out for one another. Yet a certain darkness lingers beneath it all. And it is when Uncle Charlie arrives that his namesake begins to experience that reality.
Along with Cotten’s usual magnificence, one of the film’s great joys is Wright’s performance. As she begins to understand the world around her, we watch her grow. Once comfortable domestic spaces become the stuff of nightmares. Protective of her mother and young siblings, and scared of her uncle, she remains fully alone with the idea that he may be a murderer. And once he realizes she may be on to him, she rightly begins to fear for her own life. Just like when she was on the bed, niece Charlie spends much of the film thinking, going over what she knows in her head, learning how to trust her instincts and overcome self-doubt. It is an experience that all people, especially those just beginning to grapple with adulthood, endure today; it is Wright’s ability to convey what it feels like to grapple with such realizations that gives Shadow of a Doubt a timeless feel.
Perhaps the film’s best scene comes just after niece Charlie sees an article ripped from her father’s evening newspaper in her uncle’s pocket. Sensing that there is something in the paper that her uncle does not want the rest of the family to know, she races off to the town library, minutes before it is set to close. Disoriented, she nearly gets hit by a car. Familiar streets and traffic lights, the world she has known, seem changed. The library, presumably a former site of joy and comfort for the town, now takes on a new, darker function. It houses a secret, a clue about her uncle, one that will cause her so much anguish and, by the film’s end, nearly bring her life to a close.
Take away the murder, the 1940s milieu, and the film’s melodramatic trappings, you get a story that grapples with one of the great burdens of getting older: learning the truth about one’s family. What we learn is hardly ever akin to Charlie’s realization that her uncle is a serial killer, but with age, we begin to see members of our family for who they really are. We learn the family secrets. And as our relationships with uncles, aunts, cousins, parents, and neighbors begin to change, we join them in the ranks of adulthood. And with that comes new ways of seeing and existing in the world, and reckoning with the fact that even the most comfortable of places have their menacing secrets.
“Shadow of a Doubt” is available for digital rental or purchase.