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SHADOW OF A DOUBT (director: Alfred Hitchcock; screenwriter: story by Gordon McDonnell/Thornton Wilder/Alma Reville/Sally Benson; cinematographer: Joseph A. Valentine; editor: Miton Carruth; music: Dimitri Tiomkin; cast: Joseph Cotten (Charlie Oakley), Teresa Wright (Young Charlie Newton), MacDonald Carey (Jack Graham), Henry Travers (Joseph Newton), Patricia Collinge (Emma Newton), Hume Cronyn (Herbie Hawkins), Wallace Ford (Fred Saunders), Edna May Wonacott (Ann Newton), Edwin Stanley (Mr. Green, Bank President), Charles Bates (Roger Newton), Frances Carson (Mrs. Poetter, Widow); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Jack H. Skirball; Universal; 1943)
“First-class psychological thriller.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Alfred Hitchcock directs while living in America during the war this first-class psychological thriller. It’s scripted by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville (Mrs. Hitchcock) based on a story by Gordon McDowell. The author was inspired by real-life “Merry Widow” murderer Earle Leonard Nelson who was hanged in 1928. This darkly cynical film proved to be one of Hitch’s favorite, if not his favorite, and is also one of his most personal. The character of Emma Newton was based on Hitchcock’s mother.

Joseph Cotton plays the role of the infamous “Merry Widow” murderer, here tagged with the fictitious name of Charlie Oakley. When pursued in New York City by the police as a suspect in the strangulation murders of three rich widows, Oakley poses as a rich businessman and takes refuge with adoring older sister Emma Newton (Patricia Collinge) in the small northern California town of Santa Rosa. The other family members include Emma’s mild-mannered bank clerk hubby Joe (Henry Travers), their two youngsters, the friendly Roger (Charles Bates) and the book-wormish Ann (Edna May Wonacott), and their teenaged daughter Charlie (Teresa Wright), the namesake of her uncle. Emma is delighted to have her brother as a permanent guest, and Charlie is relieved to have her exciting but mysterious world traveler uncle visit and enliven her dull life–he’s someone she feels very close to as if they were twins, and even volunteers to give up her room for him and move in with Ann.

Oakley endears himself to the locals by donating to a children’s charity hospital and opening in Joe’s bank an account for $40,000, but does it in such a splashy way that it turns his brother-in-law off.

Soon Charlie becomes suspicious of uncle when he gives her an emerald ring with an insignia on it, steals pages out of the local newspaper in which she later discovers in the library had the headline: Who is the Merry Widow murderer? In conversations, she’s disturbed that he has such a hostile opinion of the world when he tells her “You live in a dream. Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?”

Things intensify when two policeman, Jack Graham (MacDonald Carey) and Fred Saunders (Wallace Ford), pose as pollsters doing a survey on a typical American family and contact an agreeable Emma to get access to the house to conduct their survey. Oakley immediately suspects them of being cops and refuses to cooperate or let them take his picture, which they get anyway through trickery and send out to headquarters. Uncle’s not wanting his photo taken only further arouses Charlie’s suspicions, which she does not tell her mom–fearing it would break her heart to know what her brother’s suspected of doing.

A romantic interest develops between Jack and Charlie, who go out on a date and he informs her he’s a detective conducting an investigation on her uncle and that she should be careful. When the only other suspect in the case is accidentally killed while running away from the police, the investigation is closed and the FBI men go back to their Fresno headquarters (which seems to me like shoddy detective work!).

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

Uncle is relieved but still wary that his niece knows too much and unsuccessfully tries to kill her twice. Recovering from her shock, she warns him to leave town or else. After giving a successful lecture to the local women’s club, uncle announces that he’s leaving. But he doesn’t trust Charlie to remain silent, especially, since she has the ring as proof that he’s the serial killer. He tries to push her off a moving train into an oncoming train, as he’s leaving town. In the scuffle, he slips off and is killed. At his funeral, the town of Santa Rosa eulogizes him as a great man, while only Jack and Charlie know what a monster he was.

Hitchcock’s disturbing film pokes holes at what goes for the all-American typical family, as he uncovers behind the rosy innocent facade a lurking darkness. In this case, the psychopathic Cotton character. Uncle Charlie changes in his niece’s eyes from a kindly and generous man she generously welcomed home to a cold-blooded killer with no remorse or concern for his fellow human beings who is no longer welcome. It’s also of no help to Charlie that her weakling middle-aged father and his nerdy friend Herbert (Hume Cronyn) from work are both mystery story buffs and are constantly talking in front of her about gruesome murders. Charlie is stuck in dullsville and has no hobbies or interest in reading like little sis to make things more bearable, but then along came Jack.

Cotton and Wright give superb performances, while the supporting cast add their fine nuanced touches to the crime drama. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score includes the haunting original called appropriately enough the Merry Widow Waltz.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”