Wednesday 23 June 2021

Movie Review: Shadow Of A Doubt (1943)

A suspense mystery directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Shadow Of A Doubt meanders around a few intriguing topics without finding a firm footing.

Charles "Uncle Charlie" Oakley (Joseph Cotten) is hiding out in a rooming house with a large stash of crumpled cash. When two men track him down, he gives them the slip and relocates to Santa Rosa, California and the family home of his sister Emma (Patricia Collinge). She is married to banker Joseph Newton (Henry Travers), and their teenaged daughter Charlotte (Teresa Wright) is named after her uncle and also goes by "Charlie". 

Charlie sees her Uncle as a suave, sophisticated, mysterious and brilliant businessman. Emma is equally enthralled by her brother. But in reality Uncle Charlie is the subject of a nationwide manhunt as one of two men suspected of being the "Merry Widow Murderer" for marrying and killing a succession of wealthy widows. When detective Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) arrives in Santa Rosa and starts asking questions, Charlie is torn between admiring and suspecting her increasingly agitated Uncle.

Uncle Charlie's guilt or innocence is the core question in Shadow Of A Doubt, but the attempt to prolong the guessing game is exceptionally weak. The script by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville fools no one in introducing an abstract potential other suspect on the other side of the country. With the detective work on display best described as inept, the crime-related suspense elements are tame and only marginally intriguing until a late but clumsy burst of malevolence. 

Hitchcock settles for merrily dancing on the edge of other subversive topics, and meanders towards dangerous domestic alleys. Charlie's infatuation with her Uncle is excessive and pushes well into romantic crush territory, with references to their special relationship not discouraged when he gifts her a ring. And Emma's protective coddling of her brother further suggests unusual family dynamics.

Beyond the real, desired or imagined taboo liaisons, Hitchcock teases with a running side-conversation between Joseph and his tweedy buddy Herbie (Hume Cronyn) about murder methods. This banter is only partially humorous before descending into pointlessly morbid dinner table conversations (with Herbie an uninvited but frequent guest). A lazy side-trip to Joseph's bank for Uncle Charlie to flash his wealth and insult all comers provides another distraction.

More pertinent is Uncle Charlie's deeply troubled psyche, and here Shadow Of A Doubt crackles. Joseph Cotten exudes well-rehearsed smarm as a curtain to hide depravity, but only until the hate bubbles to the surface and Uncle Charlie expresses disdain for elderly women and utter antipathy for peaceful small-town life. This is one tormented soul, and of that there can be no doubt.

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