Though I’d never claim to be a film buff, I’ve watched quite a few film noir movies in my time, and no one quite does noir like Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Spade and the Maltese Falcon be damned. Hitchcock through his vast body of work pulls nerves as taut as the strings on a fiddle, bowing us into fear and exhilaration in classics like Psycho and The Birds. My favorite film by Hitchcock, however, is lesser known than his more famous works, but I would argue the best of all.
Shadow of a Doubt is the tale of a young woman and her beloved “Uncle Charlie,” whom she discovers is not as he seems. Directed in 1943, the movie is set in idyllic Santa Rosa and fraught with tension classic of the director. Hitchcock especially liked it: “It was one of those rare occasions where you could combine character with suspense.” Teresa Wright stars as Charlotte Newton, who imagines she lives a half-life in the suburbs, trapped in an average family. The monotony of her existence can only be broken by the uncle for whom she is named, played by Joseph Cotten.
Throughout the film, they exhibit a close, nearly explicit relationship. The love they share seems less filial and more sexual. Like Hades, he is the figure of death that abducts his niece into the film noir underworld. During the course of the film, Uncle Charlie is revealed to be psychopathic and appears incapable of sympathy: he loves Charlotte because he loves himself. She is like a younger version of him- his reflection. Charlotte initially serves as Charlie’s mirror but eventually usurps her uncle, becoming his foil.
Charles is the classic “Other” that brings excitement to Charlotte’s life. There is a lack of a father figure in her household: when Charles arrives, he easily usurps her father and takes his place in her mother’s affections. While Charlotte’s father and his friend play at death, Charles emasculates them by being a true killer. He sits at the head of the table and smokes large, phallic cigars. He represents Charlotte’s id: her desire for excitement and a life outside the moral code. She must conquer her id by the end of the movie to bring about the unification of her personality.
Like the very Devil he is summoned. Charlotte utters his name, and through their preternatural “telepathy,” Uncle Charlie comes. His telegram sends “a kiss for little Charlie,” and throughout the movie, he singles his niece out as the object of his attention. He invades her home and forces her to mature. Charlotte, in turn, seems obsessed with her uncle: “When I think of how I feel, I always come back to Uncle Charlie.” Charlie forces her to confront the darkness lurking under the “sty” of life and acts as the catalyst to her maturation.
Like Hades forced Persephone to abandon her childhood and become the Iron Queen, so does Uncle Charlie. By the end of the movie, Charlotte acts as her family’s protector and kills him in defense. The Death and the Maiden theme that permeates the film is overturned as Death becomes the Maiden, and Charlotte claims Uncle Charlie (her id) as a part of herself. The truth is that they are mirrors of one another: Charles is her darker reflection. He loves his visage when it beams back at him, but once his facade is cracked, he seeks to destroy the mirror that passes judgment. She is the looking glass and he is Snow White’s Queen.
Charlotte’s miraculous summoning of her uncle is like calling the Angel of Death. In superstitious belief, “speaking of the Devil” (her wish for Uncle Charlie) makes him appear at the door. Their telepathy further proves they are extensions of one another. Their small age difference and interactions create sexual tension throughout the movie. It as if Charles is romancing himself.
Charlotte represents her uncle’s dead innocence. She possesses the only picture of him from his youth and keeps it at her boudoir, an intimate place where she dresses and beautifies herself. Its placement invites corruption into her household. Charlie is the vampire that, once he enters, cannot be banished, even if the invitation is revoked. The mirror his image occupies is also telling. Mirrors were once thought to be portals to the other world, and had the power of summoning demons. The position of his image: icon-like in front of the mirror, simply asks for trouble.
Throughout Shadow of a Doubt, reflective surfaces and a dark atmosphere contribute to the theme of Charlie as her dark reflection. In the opening scene, the glassy Hudson looks like the River Styx, with dark bridges over an abandoned beach and a wrecked car like Hades’ chariot. The mist is reminiscent of the underworld, and the “dead,” unmoving men on the bank seem to be awaiting passage. The scene changes to children outside Charlie’s house. Their youth, like Persephone’s, contrasts against his corruption He is laid out like a corpse on the bed, stiff and unmoving. The camera pans to the money carelessly spilled on his nightstand, which echoes the Plutonic themes of wealth and death. Before he leaves, Charlie shatters a glass in anger. Vessels, symbolic of the feminine, represent purity. The carelessness with which he smashes it foreshadows how he will treat Charlotte.
Uncle Charlie dwells inhabits the Shadow Side of Jung’s conscious. In his room, the shadows and objects tilt to the left, the side associated with Satan, the “Left Hand of God,” and Samael, the Angel of Death. Hitchcock uses the angle to create sinister tones. Charlie wears a black hat like Hades’ Helm of Darkness. Throughout the film, he wears dark clothes that mark him as a member of the underworld. Charlotte, in contrast, wears light dresses and is the angel to Charlie’s demon.
Charlie arrives in a black train like Hades’ chariot. He feigns sickness and is “of death” until he sees Charlotte, who revitalizes him. There is an uncomfortably romantic scene when he and Charlotte embrace. They act like two lovers being reunited. As Charlotte walks away, he watches her with a lustful eye and takes out a cigar and nibbles on the tip suggestively. Charlotte gives her uncle her room. As he enters, her father warns Charles not to put his hat on the bed: “I don’t believe in inviting trouble!” Hats, not traditionally worn indoors, left on beds indicate someone has died. Once alone, her uncle gazes at Charlotte’s picture. He smirks as he plucks a rose. Chares watches her out the window, then tosses his hat on the bed as if it were a sexual come-on. The action also foreshadows his ultimate intent: murder, even though Charles is unaware of it at the time.
At dinner, the two sit side-by-side as if they were lovers. In the privacy of the kitchen, he gifts her with an emerald ring and slips it on her finger as if proposing. She protests the gift, saying “All I want is you, Uncle Charlie. You’re the best gift of all.” The two look as if they are about to kiss. Later that night, he cups her face intimately. “Good night, young Charlie,” he says, referring to his niece as if she were an extension of himself. After their symbolic marriage, he becomes her Bluebeard. She feels a “powerful sense of kinship” with him and, when she realizes he’s stolen the newspaper, says she knows a secret of his past, “an enigma that endows him with an aura of mystery.” As an extension of him, she feels entitled to know it, and so becomes hellbent on determining his secret: “I know you. I know that you don’t tell people a lot of things. I don’t either. I have a feeling that inside you somewhere there’s something nobody knows about.” “Something nobody knows about…” he says, echoing her. “Something secret and wonderful, and I’ll find it out… we’re sort of like twins, don’t you see? We have to know.” He is almost like the Devil tempting Eve through forbidden knowledge. She wants to “know” her uncle in the intellectual and carnal sense.
Their relationship is made explicit through Hitchcock’s direction. “We’re not just an uncle and niece. We’re something else,” Charlotte asserts. “It’s something else. I know you.” They are the first characters introduced, both filmed in voyeuristic shots as they lay in bed, mirroring each other. The camera begins outside, as if examining the veneer of society, then slips intimately into their rooms. The shot is morbid and erotic: the filming hints that they are thinking sexual thoughts, yet both look as if they are laid on the death bed. Finding themselves at dead-ends, their solution is to telegram each another.
Charlotte’s emotions mirror her uncle’s. She echoes his displeasure, and her mercurial mood follows his. As two parts of a whole, it is not until they are reunited that either seems truly alive. When Charlie arrives, Charlotte becomes ecstatic and floats about in a lover’s bliss. As she begins to distance herself from her uncle, she comes fully into her own right as an individual. The movie becomes her search for independence and existence beyond Uncle Charlie. But even as she rebels, Charlotte acts likes Charles. In pursuit of truth, she runs into trouble with the law, bypassing policemen, bullying librarians, and manipulating detectives. Like him, she becomes a renegade. She cannot escape her name.
Though their actions mirror each other, the two possess radically different outlooks on life. Hitchcock uses their characters to depict different worldviews. Violence and aggression are underneath the surface throughout the film, and appearances are deceptive. Charlotte is the soapbox for morals, while Charlie embodies nihilism. He shows that the capacity of evil lurks in us all: it emerges from boredom and opportunity. Charles’ capacity was unlocked after his accident. In the bar, he gives Charlotte the same opportunity: to abandon her morals and enter his world of crime. She refuses, watching in horror as he twists a napkin as if strangling a widow’s neck. Uncle Charlie does not even realize the brutality of his actions. But Charlotte fully sees him in the light of a murderer.
In a last-ditch effort, he tries to reaffirm their bond: “We’re more than family, Charlie. Anyone can see that. I’m not so old. I’ve been chasing around the globe since I was sixteen. I guess I’ve done some pretty foolish things…” The tone he uses is sexual, raw like the violence of his actions. Charlotte stares at the napkin, horrified. “How could you?” she rages. “We thought you were the most wonderful man in the world! The most wonderful and best.” He castigates her: “The whole world’s a joke,” he says. “The world is a hell, what matters what happens in it? Wake up Charlie, use your wits, learn something!”
And use her wits she does. Charlotte faces her demons, embodied by dear Uncle Charlie. He plays the part of the enraged Bluebeard, determined to murder the girl that unearthed his past. She is the only one who can bring him to justice, as he is a part of her. Like Lucifer’s pride, Charles’ hubris is his downfall when he underestimates his niece. In the beginning, she embodied innocence. Yet Hitchcock twists the narrative to show how quickly things can turn dark. Charlotte was troubled because her life was ordinary. Average. She feared a life of tedium and stupidity, and regarded herself as living in the “sty” of Charlie’s imaginings: “You sort of go along and nothing happens. We’re in a terrible rut. Eat, sleep, and that’s about all.” Her uncle brings passion and melodrama into the household.. He awakens her, and the average lifestyle Charlotte once loathed becomes something to protect. She challenges him at dinner, trying to make him leave: “I slept alright – I kept dreaming. Perfect nightmares. About you, Uncle Charlie.” As Bluebeard, Charlie has shattered her middle class dream, like Hades destroyed Persephone’s innocence.
Her forthright manner sets him on edge. Over dinner, he rants about widows, revealing he views humanity as evil. We are privy to his inner workings of his mind; as he confronts Charlotte, he battles his consciousness: “Are they human, Charlie, are they? Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals? Hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?” Through Uncle Charlie, Hitchcock provides social commentary on the middle-class nuclear family: it is a “dream,” but a necessary one. If characters like Uncle Charlie go unpunished, it becomes a nightmare.
Charlotte, now awakened, must triumph over the nightmare. Her uncle drags her to a seedy bar and confronts 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?” His nihilism is made truly evident. Like a fighting couple, she rejects the ring that symbolizes her marriage and his murders. She speaks against him in the role of superego, and he acts like a scorned lover. Charles attempts to kill Charlotte in an obsessive, methodical fashion. He stalks her and acts jealous when she begins dating the detective.
Charles’ methods of death are close and personal, always involving Charlotte’s home. From her garage to her back steps, it is made clear that the threat is coming from inside– an internal conflict. The battle rages not only around her but in her own mind as she struggles to tame Charlie. Charlie’s acts are penetrative: he tries to stab her with broken wood, deprive her of oxygen, then strangle her in the mockery of a loving embrace. There is no telling what he would have done to her body, had it been left in the garage. It is implied that he rapes the widows he strangles, who are murdered intimately in their beds. As Charlotte is his “own,” joined by more than blood, he can do with as he pleases. She can pleasure him if he is happy with her, and be his punching bag if he disproves.
At the end of the movie, Charles is possessive to the point of insanity. He constantly inquires after Charlotte and will not rest until she’s disposed of. He is relentless, even when a dead man is accused of his crime and Charlotte promises he will go unpunished. Charlie no longer recognizes her as a part of himself, or perhaps can’t stand to accept that his own extension disapproves of him. This dissonance is maddening, and the solution, of course, is to kill it. Charlotte becomes his foil, something to dispose of, and he the dragon she must slay.
On the train, Charlotte accidentally kills him. She becomes “Death” and assumes his place, fully severing their connection. Charlotte is now the “man” of the family who has come fully into her power as an adult. Tainted by the underworld, she can never go back to a truly normal existence, and will forever keep Charles’ secret. At her uncle’s funeral, she pities him. Even in death, he affects her. She reminisces about how he thought the world was a “rotten place” and cynically concludes it needs surveillance. “Sometimes it needs a lot of watching,” remarks the detective at the closing of the movie. “Seems to go crazy every now and then like your Uncle Charlie.” Throughout Shadow of a Doubt, we witness Charlotte’s transformation from Charlie’s mirror to his foil. She tastes the film noir underworld, but like Persephone returns to the light. Charlotte contents herself with the “tomb” of family and marriage, happy to lead an average life with its own, smaller pleasures.