Retro Review: Shadow Of A Doubt (1943)

I have made no secret on this blog that I consider Alfred Hitchcock to be overrated as a film-maker. His fans are devoted, and the man’s reputation is so set in stone as for it to be considered sacrilege to say a single word against him. But I do actually like quite a few of his films, and this is one of them.

Small town America, during WW2. Often an effective setting for a mystery, thriller, or drama. Something about the innocence of the people, those white picket fences, and familiar faces in the drug store seems to be crying out to be upset. To me as a youngster, this idyllic world portrayed on film was something to admire. Decent accommodation, soda fountains and ice-cream parlours, always being able to park the car, big fruit pies, and delicious looking hot dogs and burgers. None of that existed in the England of my youth. Many films of the time liked to assault that comfortable exterior, with a moral tale that proved the resilience of the ‘ordinary’ good folks of America, and to show that nice people can make a difference.

This film is perfectly cast, with Joseph Cotten (in for me, his best role) relishing the good guy/bad guy lead of Uncle Charlie. Teresa Wright is perfect as the wide-eyed bored teenager Charlotte, (‘Charlie’) named after the uncle she adores, but rarely sees. The fact that she has a crush on the older relative and is happy for people to believe him to be her boyfriend is a little uncomfortable to modern perceptions, but glossed over as a natural attraction in the story. Character actor Henry Travers is solid as Joseph, the long-suffering brother in law of Charlie, (though he seems rather old to be the girl’s father) and Patricia Collinge is perfect as the fuss-pot mother. The wonderful Hume Cronyn shines as Herbie, neighbour and friend of Joseph, obsessed with crime novels. When the family get the news that their beloved Charlie is coming for a visit, the scene is set.

Two men appear at the house, supposedly undertaking a survey of an ‘average’ family. Uncle Charlie refuses to allow them to take his photo, something which confuses young Charlotte. One of them, Jack, asks Charlotte out on a date, and confesses that he is a detective, hunting a serial killer who has been robbing and murdering wealthy widows across America. He believes Uncle Charlie to be a prime suspect, but the girl finds that impossible to consider. However, certain clues keep turning up, and her uncle’s erratic behaviour and mood swings leave her with doubts. After one episode, he tells the girl that he knows he is a suspect, and asks her to help clear his name by keeping his secrets. She agrees, if only for the sake of her mother.

When another suspect is identified as possibly being the killer, Uncle Charlie is happy, and things calm down. But Charlotte soon begins to have unexplained near-fatal ‘accidents’, and fears for her life. This all leads up to a thrilling climax, as is to be expected in a Hitchcock thriller. This film satisfies on so many levels, but it is Cotten’s performance that stands out. He goes from kindly uncle to worryingly deranged suspect in the blink of an eye, and does it so well. An actor that I often think was over-used, and mildly irritating, manages to redeem himself to me in this one role. And we are left in no doubt (pun intended) that what happens in a supposedly ‘average’ family is far more than we might expect.

And you also get to look for Hitchcock’s signature cameo. If you want to, of course.

40 thoughts on “Retro Review: Shadow Of A Doubt (1943)

  1. I’m glad you sent me the link Pete. Very nicely done. Funny, in my conversation with John Charet, I named all those Hitchcock films as my favorites (including Psycho, which I get the drift you don’t care for that much.) John was surprised that I rated Frenzy as highly as I do. It is a very brutal film. The rape/murder scene is staggering, one of the most disturbing scenes in “mainstream” cinematic history. It’s vicious and troubling, a window into the warped mind of “the master” if you will. Still I really enjoy the film.
    But yes, Shadow of a Doubt is wonderful. The imagery of that early scene–the train coming into town with Uncle Charlie as passenger. The way the smoke clouds and pollutes the idyllic town and atmosphere. I’m a sucker for that stuff.
    Thanks for the follow Pete. You’ll be hearing from me.
    Cheers.
    –Pam

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Pam. ‘Frenzy’ divides film fans, often for the brutal scene you describe. For me, the London locations are a dream to see, my youth on film, in places much altered since. Barry Foster acted against type, and Anna Massey was as solid as ever. (Have you seen her in ‘Peeping Tom’?) Barbara Leigh-Hunt is a rather distinguished actress, so it was strange to see her so horribly abused. And the wonderful Vivien Merchant was in it too! I was left thinking that Hitchcock was filming his own fantasy. (Regarding Tippi Hedren of course)
      I thought Psycho was ruined by Anthony Perkins, an actor who only ever seemed to do ‘angst’. 🙂
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I love the London locale. For the longest time one of my dreams was to visit New York City, London and Paris. I finally made it to NYC. Loved it. Wouldn’t want to live there though. Too vast. Too fast. So London and Paris are still on my list.
        Ha! I think your right about Tippi Hedren.
        I’m a fan of Frenzy as you know. I love the gentle humor of the husband and wife (Vivian Merchant, absolutely love her) dynamic.
        I love Peeping Tom! Really great film. I want to do a post on it. I can’t believe it ruined the director’s career. Masterpiece.
        To me the Norman Bates performance by Perkins was masterful and iconic. I thought he was perfect in it, so we diverge here. But he was the same character in everything else he did. It didn’t work.
        Back to Frenzy. I don’t know Barbara Leigh-Hunt’s work but I was appalled. She is very elegant, a dignified beauty.

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  2. A great review, Pete. I have not seen this but am going to try and find it. It sounds worthwhile to someone who watches about 2 movies a year.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hitchcock’s best film since “Blackmail” (of which I seem to be in the minority, preferring the silent version). Thorton Wilder’s contributions to the script certainly help give the backdrop of suburban ‘normalcy’ an effective setting for the film, perhaps the only one Hitchcock ever directed that wasn’t embellished with heightened eccentricity and tomfoolery (in that he is creative blood brother of, of all people, Frank Capra). Cotten, in my mind, was always a vastly underrated actor (Robert Ryan as well).

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts on this one, Chandler. It has great nostalgia value for me, as I first watched it when I was young enough to still be impressionable. 🙂
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  4. I have never liked him, since to me a stench of selfish cruelty pervades all he did, including the books I used to read as a teenager which he editted or which his company produced. It’s just the vibe or feeling of it all–like Quentin Tarantino. The energy of their work puts me off too much for me to want to voluntarily watch it. Everyone’s mileage may vary, of course, and I am glad that there are some who find his work worthwhile.

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    1. I am presuming you mean Hitchcock, (not Cotten) in which case, I generally agree. Egocentric, and demanding of admiration. Which he got of course. And still does.
      This film, and some others, still appeal to me, despite that caveat.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, Hitchcock–I am sorry not to specify. I can understand that some work can appeal, while one might not like the artist–it seems a matter of degree to me, and there are many performers or artists whom I might not want to date or be employed by or punched by whose work I still appreciate.

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  5. I think it amusing the way you preface your review. I think he’s very interesting and not the least overrated. He’s certainly made some stinkers, but his level A films are why I go to the movies. There’s still some out there that I haven’t seen–Shadow of a Doubt is one I haven’t so I thank you for the review and the reminder to rent it. Hopefully over the summer break when I have some spare time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I got that in first, to set out my stall. But it’s no big deal. I also like ‘Blackmail’, Frenzy’, ‘Strangers On A Train’, and ‘Rear Window’. But you know as well as I do that he is almost worshipped by many film fans, so can do no wrong in their eyes. (I just never got that)
      For my money, this film is so much better than the ‘formulas’, like ‘North By Northwest’, or ‘The Birds’.
      I hope you get a chance to see it, my much-admired American friend. x
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  6. Pete, one of the actors I chose in your A-Z series was Joseph Cotten. I have a number of Alfred Hitchcock films, and “Shadow of a Doubt” is one of them. I believe Hitchcock once said that this film was his favorite. It’s a favorite of mine as well.

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