Shadow of a Doubt is the odd but interesting production of the mating between Alfred Hitchcock and playwright Thornton Wilder. It doesn’t represent the best work of either but the pairing is still worthwhile nonetheless.
We meet Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten) in Philadelphia as a nattily dressed man lying in a cheap Philadelphia apartment. His nosy and talkative landlady pokes her head into tell him that two men are looking for him. The film doesn’t let us in on the secret of who they are and why they. He slips out and eludes them. Deciding to lie low, he wires his sister, Emma Newton (Patricia Collinge) in Santa Rosa, California that he’s coming to visit for a while. This is music to the ears of his neice and namesake, Charlie (Teresa Wright), who thinks that her favorite worldly uncle will be just the thing to bring some excitement to her boring small town existence.
Uncle Charlie’s arrival is a cause for great celebration for his sister’s family, although her husband Joe (Henry Travers) and Young Charlie’s siblings Anne (Edna May Wonacott) and Roger (Charles Bates) can’t quite equal the bubbling enthusiasm of the two women of the house. Soon after his arrival, however, troubling clues start to emerge. Uncle Charlie sees something in the paper that he quickly hides from his family. He deposits unusually large amounts of cash in his brother-in-law’s bank. When two poll takers want to question the Newtons as a “typical American family,” Uncle Charlie angrily declines to answer their questions and they seem more interested in Charlie than the rest of the family.
When Young Charlie runs into one of the poll takers, Graham (Macdonald Carey) again, she learns why they were interested in her family and Uncle Charlie. And when Uncle Charlie realizes that she knows, Young Charlie’s life is in danger.
The thriller aspect of Shadow of a Doubt works well, since it forces Hitchcock to move the plot along. The problems come when the movie slows down for a long dialogue scene and Thornton Wilder’s hand shows like a neon sign in a cemetary. These scenes play more like bad imitation of a Thornton Wilder play rather than an actual Wilder play. Long, wistful speeches might work in the minimalist staging of Our Town, but they drag this film to a screeching halt.
This is also not the best work of Alfred Hitchcock, the assured stylist. Some of the camera movement, especially early in the film, looks the work of a tourist trying out his new camcorder. This is a bit odd, since this film follows the very stylish Best Picture winner known as Rebecca by three years.
Fortunately Joseph Cotten is convincingly sympathetic and sinister when he need to be and Teresa Wright is appealing as Young Charlie. Altogether, this is not great Hitchcock but it is a pretty good movie.