Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten from my favorite Hitchcock movie: “Shadow of a Doubt.” A tale of two Charlie’s. One good, one evil. Look at the scene toward the end when the Charlies are on the train. Watch her expressions change just before and after the train starts moving. This is an impressive emotional display, taking place in less than a minute. Boredom to empathy to confusion to awareness to terror.
The 1943 movie is about an empathic uncle and niece. They are soulmates, but young Charlie Newton (Wright) is the good half of the soul and Uncle Charlie Oakley (Cotten) is the dark side. The premise: Uncle Charlie is an East Coast serial killer of wealthy widows eluding the authorities while hiding out with his sister’s family in California. His namesake niece adores him. Though the cops are on his tail, there are two suspects in the murders, one remaining in the East. And the police aren’t sure who the real murderer is. Uncle Charlie worms his way into the family and into the community; a sophisticated, intellectual easterner on the path to becoming a pillar of the community. Even young Charlie adores him. But her pedestal of adoration is chipped away, because in her desire to know all about him, she discovers things she never imagined about her uncle and her vision of the world.
Thornton Wilder wrote the screenplay, along with Sally Benson and Alfred Hitchcock‘s wife Alma Reville. Wilder had already captured American idealism in “Our Town,” for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938. He was in the Army when he wrote the “Shadow of a Doubt” screenplay. Perhaps this later, darker version of “Our Town” came from the gloom engulfing the world because of World War II. Even in 1943, as horrific as things were, people didn’t realize how evil the world could turn.
The movie contains another dynamic, which was probably understood in the 1940s, but is more apparent to 21st century sensibilities. Young Charlie is entering womanhood, and she and her uncle share a secret that no one can ever find out about. Her revelations concerning her uncle come when they’re alone, sometimes in her room, behind closed doors. When she confronts him, his response isn’t to lie, but to tell her to keep his secret, because otherwise, it will tear up her family. Though there’s no sex involved, this is about incest.
There are number of great scenes between the two: Cotten’s chilling dinner-table commentary on “silly wives,” a visit to a seedy bar in an idyllic American small town, young Charlie’s threat to kill her uncle and the clip above.
Though the final minute and a half seem to be a letdown, listen closely to the pastor’s eulogy in the background. As far as the world is concerned, Uncle Charlie was a great human being, a shining light that was extinguished too soon. Only Charlie, and her detective boyfriend, know the truth. “Our Town” has its secrets, found in shady bars and behind closed doors. Uncle Charlie show us the dark side of “Our Town” an idealized entity, concealing an unimaginable evil.
Hitchcock’s daughter said this was her father’s favorite movie. It’s one of Hitchcock’s treasures that shouldn’t be missed.