Is this Alfred Hitchcock’s best movie? The Master thought so. Of all the films Hitchcock made in his lifetime, this was his very favorite. It combines many of his best filmmaking techniques, it is tremendously suspenseful, and the very heart of the movie is loss of innocence. This review contains plot spoilers, so beware reading the entire summary below if you want to be surprised!
The opening credits show a ballroom with couples dancing to “The Merry Widow Waltz,” an image that will be reprised throughout the movie.
Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotton) lies on his bed in some nameless Eastern city, a pile of money laying on his bedside table. His landlady tells him that two men have been looking for him, so he languidly gets himself together, goes downstairs and immediately loses the two men who are following him. He sends a telegram to his family in Santa Rosa, California, informing them that he will soon arrive for a visit.
His niece, Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) lies around her bedroom bored to tears with her life in the small town and wonders if anything exciting will ever happen. Her father, Joseph (Henry Travers) can’t understand her, but promises that things will get better. Charlie decides to send a telegram to her uncle Charlie hoping that he will come visit them to make things more exciting and she is stunned when the telegram from her uncle arrives–she calls it mental telepathy that they were thinking of the same thing at the same time. Uncle Charlie’s sister, Emma (Patricia Collinge) is young Charlie’s mother and the family is completed with brainy little sister Ann (Edna May Wonacott) and a younger brother. When Uncle Charlie arrives by train, they are all excited to see him, especially Charlie who feels that they are like twins, partly because she was named after him and partly because he seems to bring that excitement that she really wants out of life. During dinner that night, Emma begins to hum “The Merry Widow Waltz,” but no one can remember what it is called. Uncle Charlie distracts them so that no one does actually give us the title.
Uncle Charlie gives everyone gifts, including a ring to Charlie that has an inscription inside, but one from someone else to someone else. A neighbor, Herbie (Hume Cronyn) shows up to discuss crime fiction with Joseph. Uncle Charlie finds something in the newspaper that disturbs him. He pretends to play a game with Ann where he tears up the section of the paper he was reading. Stuffing it into his pocket, he goes upstairs, but Charlie is curious. Claiming that they have nothing to hide, she steals the bit of paper, but can’t make anything out of it. Ann tells her that the library is open until 9 PM, so Charlie runs down and finds the paper. There is an article about the “Merry Widow Killer,” a man who marries rich widows and then kills them for their money. When two government agents, Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) and Fred Saunders (Wallace Ford), show up posing as a national survey team, Uncle Charlie gets nervous and refuses to have his picture taken, but Charlie agrees to go out with Jack to show him Santa Rosa and he admits that he is a detective on the trail of the “Merry Widow Killer.” Uncle Charlie is one of two suspects they are investigating.
Suspicious and torn between family loyalty and fear that Uncle Charlie really is the killer, she proceeds cautiously. When the suspect on the East Coast is killed trying to run away, it is assumed that the man was the killer, but Uncle Charlie begins to arrange “accidents” for Charlie, including a broken stair step and finally locking her inside their garage with the car running and the key in his pocket, trying to kill her with carbon monoxide poisoning. The family all go off to a speech that Uncle Charlie is giving, so Charlie tries to call the government agents to no avail. Later Uncle Charlie announces that he is leaving. He has carefully arranged to run off with a family friend, who just happens to be a rich widow.
As the train moves off, he holds Charlie prisoner and tries to throw her off the moving train, but as the struggle, he loses his balance. A little push from Charlie and he falls into the path of an oncoming train. The final scene shows Charlie talking with Jack at Uncle Charlie’s funeral. She remarks that Uncle Charlie thought the world was an evil place, but Jack tells her that there is only some evil in the world.
One can understand, especially from a thematic point of view, why this would Hitchcock’s favorite film of his entire canon. The story develops Charlie’s arc from being an innocent, bored with her simple hometown life, to understanding that evil can lurk in the most unexpected places. The viewer sees her grow as a person from an immature girl into a mature woman and that is always eminently satisfying. But the film offers much more than this. Uncle Charlie and Emma’s wistful view of the past as a beautiful waltz contrasts sharply with his perception that the world has grown into an awful place, full of stupid people who only eat and talk and display their jewelry. His own bitterness at the world fuels his murder spree and when he sees his hope of that innocence of youth, his niece Charlie, turning cold to him, he can only respond with the despair that leads him to try to kill her.
In addition, the suspense is so finely crafted in this film that the viewer is pulled to the edge of their seat, waiting to see what happens to the girl Charlie.
The performances are uniformly good, but Joseph Cotton is magnificent as Uncle Charlie. He leads us through all of his moods, from that painful yearning for innocence to the fear of being caught, to the despair of losing his niece’s good graces. It is a powerful performance. Teresa Wright is wonderful as the girl Charlie, capturing the essence of a soul at the turning point of her life between childhood and maturity. Hume Cronyn is delightful as the family friend Herbie, who is always trying to find the perfect murder. One of the best performances in the film is given by Patricia Collinge as Emma, who may miss the innocent past even more than Uncle Charlie and whose love of him creates the central challenge to Charlie’s struggle about revealing her uncle’s identity as the killer.
However, Macdonald Carey failed to make an impression on me as Jack. Perhaps the character was written with too many contradiction or maybe I just didn’t buy his romantic interest in Charlie. For whatever reason, his performance did not ring true for me. It is the only blip in an otherwise great cast.
All of Hitchcock’s best film techniques are present in Shadow of a Doubt, some of them never more finely executed, and it will remain as one of the best films he ever made. His best? That question is still open for debate.