Shadow of a Doubt

(Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1943)


Introduction (January 2021): Between 1979 and 1981 – and the ages of 19 and 21 – I gave my first, occasional, invited lectures in cinema courses at three different tertiary institutions (Melbourne State College, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, and Swinburne Technical College – all these names later officially altered) in Australia. In that period, my lecture commissions covered a curious random assortment of films, including Tout va bien (1972), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Mother and the Whore (1973), Angel City (1976), and Rear Window (1954). I have no definite memory or record of when and where the following talk on Shadow of a Doubt (combined here with a preceding introductory lecture) was delivered, but I suspect it may have been at RMIT during 1981, during the time that I served as a tutor in Rob Jordan’s 1st year film course, which included an “auteur” focus on Hitchcock. It was a time of my life when I was still excitedly discovering (and applying) the film theory, “structuralist semiotics” and textual analysis protocols bequeathed by the 1960s & ‘70s, areas where Hitchcock was (and still is today) a constant point of reference; the lecture reflects this enthusiastic immersion. In fact, in 1980, I had already produced program notes for the National Film Theatre of Australia’s Hitchcock season; when ex-Screen editor Sam Rohdie read them, he drily commented to me in the NFTA foyer: “When film theory appears in publicity blurbs like these, it’s time to start writing something else”. Nice guy!


How can we construct the figure of an author in film? There are two broad approaches.


First, abstracting the individual in his or her uniqueness, granting them an absolute autonomy: an author’s movies refer to each other, creating their own world enclosed in and by a particular artistic vision.  Second, dissolving the individual into everything that surrounds him or her: the contemporaneous conventions, cultural tendencies, social problems; here, a film author does not so much express something innately personal, as sum up or epitomise those fields that are larger than themselves (eg., Alfred Hitchcock as acme of the patriarchal culture of the voyeuristic “male gaze”; Hitchcock as Classic Hollywood; etc.).


Naturally, we should aim not to treat these options as mutually exclusive – we can work in-between them, or back-and-forth across the possibilities they define as extreme poles. Personal expression or inflection can happen even when everything in a film seems culturally “given” in advance. In fact, the critical movement we know as auteurism (auteur = author) is, in large part, devoted to exactly this quest. Hitchcock is a great example of someone whose work completely fills the in-between space, in an eternally compelling way.


Using auteurism as a critical, investigative method (beyond some bland, mindless assertion of “the director as superstar” – the title of a 1970 interview book – or a godhead) is all about locating recurring thematic material, an overall attitude toward what is presented (and hence, usually, the reality beyond film), and a type of personal world in which particular things happen in particular ways. So, we talk about the Universe of Fate or Destiny in Fritz Lang, and the role of freedom in Jean Renoir. And, as soon as we possibly can, we must get to the level of grasping how the style or form of the films materially express these various themes, attitudes and sensibilities. Talking in abstract generalities will never get us very far into what is truly cinematic – and hence worthwhile – in an auteur’s work.


So how can we “find” a film author in their work, what are the traces, the marks, the inflections we need to see? First, repetition: distinctive, recurrent material – and its ongoing variations from one film to the next. Second, in how the director organises the elaboration of certain movie formulae, or generic elements: what they overplay and underplay, emphasise or suppress (whether this happens on the level of script, or stylistic treatment, or both – much depends on how much of the total production process a director could or could not control).


In the case of Hitchcock, it’s clear that his films tend toward the repetition/variation of particular types of plots, events, situations and relations. Among these elements: a physical journey or displacement; a problem of identity: who am I to myself and others?; antagonism, power-plays and the fundamental ambivalence of human (especially romantic) relationships (love and hate, desire and aggression); questions of moral guilt and responsibility: who is the guilty one, and guilty of what? Can the guilty be somehow redeemed, forgiven, absolved? Or must they be more violently expunged from the social fabric?


In terms of elaboration, Hitchcock positions himself in specific ways in relation to formulaic plots (all, at some level, borrowed from previous movies and works of fiction in other media), the great actor-stars (Cary Grant, James Stewart, Grace Kelly) and their given personae, the convention of the Happy Ending, and so on. These are all constraints that he works with (and often gets around) playfully, ingeniously, inventively. Some key films, such as Psycho (1960), born of his 1950s work in TV, take bold steps beyond the screen conventions of the time – as in his decision to “kill off the star” (Janet Leigh) early in the proceedings, thus deliberately upsetting and perverting audience expectations. In particular, Hitchcock and his key collaborators (especially at script level) are adept at mixing genres and their key elements: romantic, comic and dramatic modes and tones crossing the fields of mystery-thriller, horror, whimsical fantasy, a very “British” type of everydayness, and so on.


Is this enough? Have we found Hitchcock the auteur yet? That was François Truffaut’s question along the path of building his classic Hitchcock/Truffaut interview book project in the 1960s all the way through to the revised and definitive 1983 edition. There is, as I’ve suggested, a big problem in privileging content or theme over form and style. For, if we can abstract a Hitchcock-content, it would be hypothetically be quite easy for someone else to reproduce this in cinema or, indeed, several other media; many have tried (often unsuccessfully) and, in a sense, it’s exactly what Hitchcock did in relation to himself, turning his “image” as a filmic storyteller into a marketable brand name, a commodity on TV (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, still rolling out after his death) and in paperback literature.


It can be argued – I tend to this position myself – that Hitchcock-as-auteur is best found at the level of film-as-film, the film experience, the “amazing performing film” as I’ve elsewhere described this phenomenon. Narrative cinema as an art of spectacle and sensation affords a certain kind of ritual, and occasions a certain kind of pleasure. Hitchcock’s films are indeed about cinema (they are “reflexive” in this way), exploring its role and function. Why are we drawn to these films that so often tell, basically, the same story? There’s got to be more than pure, detachable, reproducible narrative at stake there.


Hitchcock brings a dynamism to cinema – that’s why he always talked about “action and movement” and evoked the vague but rousing term of “pure cinema”. His films are based on shifts of all kinds, moving you from one position to another, on every level, in the course of the story. It’s not just a kinetic process; it’s also semantic and cultural. His films investigate the primal stuff of fiction: where characters are positioned, and how those positions are altered. On one level (as in the films of his gifted, self-appointed “student”, Brian De Palma), there’s something mechanical and impersonal in Hitchcock’s films (a fact for which many critics, such as David Thomson, have endlessly reproached him): people are machines who live and die, act and react … But, ultimately, all narrative films have this “mechanical” level at their base; it’s folly to imagine some fictions have a special access to “spontaneous reality” that others lack. There is what I would call machine-intensity in Hitchcock, and it’s nothing to sneeze at, when it’s well done!


Hitchcock’s films are all about finding out: a complex logic of seeing, inferring, knowing and taking action (Peter Wollen outlines this logic in his essay collection Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies). They involve situations of fascination, seduction, voyeurism, power. The characters and us, the spectators, are placed in differential positions of knowing, seeing and hearing that are constantly rearranged and redefined. The film becomes a game-space.


In order to link up dramatic subject and cinematic style around the psychoanalytic notion of drives in the example of Shadow of a Doubt – among Hitchcock’s half-dozen or so greatest films – I propose a further principal theme worth exploring and working-through: repression.


# # #


There’s a compulsion factor in loving Hollywood (“classical American”) cinema, meaning particular products of its “golden age”. And an ambivalence that this compulsion can almost inevitably bring. Raymond Bellour expressed it well in a 1979 dialogue with Janet Bergstrom of Camera Obscura: “If I’ve wanted to go to the furthest possible point in understanding the power and subtlety of this cinema, it’s quite simply because I myself am caught in it. It was as the subject whose desire is the prisoner of this machinery that I tried to demonstrate its functioning. […] It’s the only condition under which a certain unblocking can occur”.


What is this Hollywood cinema? We know it but we have to rediscover it with every film; where it is the same and where it is different. The Hollywood-Text, a vast, interconnected network of films great and modest, good and bad. Spectators respond to fragments of this Hollywood-Text as a series of detached cues, not complete films as whole and multiform signifying units. They respond to the images, not the spoken words; not to centripetal scenes but their centrifugal Hollywood context; not a specific style but a group style with its resonance and effectivity.


We can approach Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt in terms of its elements both conventional and unconventional; its specifically created cinematic form and its general, culturally-derived elements; where it conforms and where it subverts. It’s a good way to look at many Hollywood films.


First, two propositions.


There is a particular Hollywood narrative model: normality is threatened by an enemy. It might be an Apache, a Nazi, a killer, a monster, an alien … Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls (1979) offers a vivid recent example. The model story follows the template of (to schematise it baldly) initial equilibrium, disequilibrium (“trouble”), and ultimately the restoration of equilibrium (perhaps only partially successful – or convincing). A great introduction to all this is provided by Robin Wood in his 1977 essay “Ideology, Genre, Auteur”.


Another aspect of the model is what we might call a process of fitting-in: everything must ultimately finds its place (or tragically fail to do so); everyone is searching for a secure identity, a given or achieved truth of their being. It’s a process – or game – that involves tropes of disguise (of the self), as well as institutions that relate self to other (marriage, family, community). The spectator, too, finds a place in this unfolding game: seeing and hearing, coming to know, reaching a point of satisfaction (or not).


How can we begin to work through these two ideas (the threat to normality, and fitting-in) in relation to Shadow of a Doubt? From its earliest scenes, the film establishes a strong semantic relationship of contrast between big city and small town, vice and virtue, cynical materialism and innocent idealism … All this is clinched in the central, fascinating bond established by the two Charlies: male and female, older and younger, played by Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright.


Here, the enemy-monster-killer figure from the city is someone who hides his true identity and charms the naïve, small town family. This Charlie is a psychopath: an accident in childhood has (so we learn) warped his mind. Not only that, but it appears to have granted him special, almost supernatural powers (although this is not, nominally or literally, a film in the fantastique genre): certain of his acts seem telepathic (reading minds) and magical (evading the cops by disappearance at the start). It is always intriguing when supposedly “realistic” mystery-thrillers deploy such apparently illogical but perfectly workable hints of supernaturalism – a tendency that continues today in a film like William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980).


The film’s narrative can be unfolded with reference to Roland Barthes’ notion of the hermeneutic code (from his book S/Z). An initially enigmatic chase at the outset gradually gives way to the story of the police in pursuit of the notorious “Merry Widow killer”. And, although Charlie never quite confesses that it is he who fits this identity-bill, we are left in no doubt by the manner in which Hitchcock lets us know who is really is: through motifs such as his “strong hands”, the spectator pieces the mystery together and gives things their “proper names”, as it were.


The character of Jack (Macdonald Carey) also charms his way into the Newton family, but his true identity as representative of the Law is revealed relatively quickly. In structural-semantic terms, Jack’s place in the overall narrative schema is crucial: for young Charlie is placed between two men, and the conventional pathway decrees that she should end up with the “normal” one, the typical guy, he who stands for Law and Order. In the finale, young Charlie even manages to kill the unsuitable “partner”, personally ridding herself – and the world, and the film – of the designated enemy. It’s the sort of direct, physical, melodramatic resolution of problems that Hitchcock liked to achieve in his work; other examples can be found in Strangers on a Train (1951) and North by Northwest (1959).


However, there is much in the film that complicates the basic “dominant ideological” schema I have just outlined. These complications are what make Shadow of a Doubt a special and rich film, forever alluring to analysts.


For instance, this so-called “happy family”: is it really so happy and self-sufficient? Consider the fact that there is little contact between its members, and not much affection displayed: it’s already the type of alienated, atomised family that will come to aunt film melodrama post World War II and right through to our present day. Charlie says near the beginning of the film that the family is “in a rut”, and she is not wrong. Everybody present is lost in their own, media-fed fantasies. It’s virtually a zero-point of human, emotional relations, a dead end. A very 1940s touch is the eccentric, homely but essentially “castrated” father (Henry Travers as Joseph Newton) – castrated in the symbolic sense of being powerless, ineffectual, ignored, belittled – a mere “small man” in his community, who attracts the company of equally diminished fellows.


Then enter Uncle Charlie, who we could describe as a flatterer, a seducer, a charmer. But what do such labels mean? For the women in the film – all of them – Charlie represents a romantic ideal, a fantasy. For some, he allows them to forget that they are married: “Mrs? Oh, I thought there was something about you” … “You kind of forget you’re your husband’s wife” (an immortal line). Especially for Emma (Patricia Collinge in a superb performance), who speaks the latter remark, Charlie provokes return to a sort of girlish adolescence – hence her delighted, irrepressible giggling.


Return to childhood? In a typically droll Hitchcockian comic irony, the actual, visible children in Shadow of a Doubt are not at all taken or impressed by Uncle Charlie; Joseph is way off-beam when he comments that “Charlie is good for the kids”. Charlie, rather, is good for the grown-up women because the childhood he returns them to is, in a Freudian sense, the sexual desire they have dutifully repressed.


Emma’s feelings for Charlie easily surpass big-sisterly doting – note the strikingly charged, ultra-romantic shot of them posed under trees. When Emma breaks down, it’s a lover who cries over the prospect of Charlie leaving. (For a closely related example, cf. Max Ophüls’ The Reckless Moment [1949].) To cite young Charlie’s words, Uncle Charlie makes Emma feel like she is “not just a mother”. The moment she is relieved of work, she starts humming the “Merry Widow Waltz” – which expresses both a wish not be married, and suggests an “intersubjective”, masochistic link between murder (or the wish to be murdered) and sex. The two drives often appear interchangeable in Hitchcock’s cinema.


For young Charlie, Uncle Charlie offers a way of never growing up to become “just a mother”. The ring passed between them is a metaphoric marriage, or, symbolically, a secret sexual act: the editing in that scene underlines the contact of bodies, evokes the to-and-fro of love making. The cutting rhythms and the visual rhymes or correspondences created are themselves erotic; it is a masterful piece of richly suggestive filmmaking.


This cues us to exactly why that charged object of the ring is the centre or stake of the entire story: young Charlie discovering that it belongs to a dead woman, Uncle Charlie taking it away, her getting it back and thus forcing him to leave Santa Rosa – all this amounts to her (and the film’s) way of declaring, “You are not fit to marry me, you are evil, go away; I’ll marry another normal man, I’ll find another one better than you” (I take the last phrase from the classic nursery rhyme “Skip to My Lou”). And then she will indeed be just another wife, another mother, the world will be back on its tracks …


But at what sacrificial cost? Here is where the film, in its whole form, texture and tone, becomes complex. Hitchcock and his writers (Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, Alma Reville – an extraordinary trio of names and associations across media there!) communicate to us the heavy awareness that young Charlie’s ultimate act of “justice” and equilibrium-resetting entails a betrayal of both herself and her Uncle – a veritable repression of the desire he has aroused in herself and others. Happy endings very often arrive, in Hollywood texts, under the sign of a massive repression of possibilities.


Let us now return to the opposition between city and small town adumbrated in the opening scenes. One iteration of this opposition is based on money, literal currency as in the scene of the money on the floor – contrasted with the cry, “I’m talking about souls!”. As it turns out, however, this small town of Santa Rosa (in California) depends entirely on money, not spiritual values. Consider lines and details like “The house owns us”, the role of the bank job, and the ironic “You’ll be manager one day” (anticipating the dynamic of Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street two years later).


All these “normal” characters only recognise their needs (sexual, creative, personal) in distorted, fabulated forms: “I’m keeping my head clear”. Look, again, at how the ring functions expressively as a core object in the narrative: it is taken as a unique sign of first or new love, when in reality it is anything but that. (I refer you to the work of Andrew Britton to help decipher this “materialist” level of films by Hitchcock, Ophüls, Sirk and others.) When it comes to Dad Joseph and his best pal, their shared fantasy does not concern romance, but murder, suggesting (in a comical vein) a hidden, anti-social aggression toward the very institution of the family: the women who have tamed and domesticated (“castrated”) them, as well as saddling them with the onerous role of economic “breadwinner”. Here again, Uncle Charlie lives out what these chaps can only dream of: he actually kills women! Note, in this wish-fulfilment regard, the moment when Charlie defies the superstition-taboo concerning hats on beds: the camera well conveys the feeling of exhilaration and liberation from the status quo and its rules.


Among the most crucial moments of Shadow of a Doubt is the eventual revelation/discovery that the city (as mythological, cinematic figure rather than geographic reality) sits within Santa Rosa itself. You will recall that, in its opening, we see a bar, a pool table, and so on, i.e., signs of the corrupt urban culture and lifestyle. When Jack first takes young Charlie out, they go to a homely little restaurant named “Gunner’s Grill”. But when Uncle Charlie takes her out (in a rhyming reprise of the earlier scene, but starkly contrasted), it is now in the “Til Two Bar”, and she unsurprisingly protests: “I’ve never been any place like this before!”.


The connotations accruing to this latter scene are rich indeed: 2am is the dark of night; the ‘til’ of ‘until’ also suggests a cash register till. Young Charlie confronts her virtual double here, the waitress who has been through “half the restaurants in town”, evoking the drudgery and slavery of work exploitation and even, at an extreme, prostitution (the “fallen woman”, typical of Hollywood cinema). This double doesn’t waste her time dreaming; she knows everything about the real world, starting with the fact that the all-important ring carries a real diamond – in another euphemistic sexual reference, she would “die” for it.


This same scene contains Uncle Charlie’s classic speech about ripping off the fronts of houses to reveal the animals inside, the universe as a foul sty … In other words, this small town is not some pure, immaculate haven unto itself; in fact, it breeds, even desires, “monsters” like him. So let’s return, one last time, to the opening sequence: we now note that these consecutive places are not different but, fundamentally, the same. There are complementary camera angles, shapes, positions, patterns; they can be joined up like the interlocking pieces of a puzzle. And if you connect the two Charlies on their beds in this “combined mental image” way, I need hardly tell you what you get as a result! (Ronnie Scheib’s 1976 essay “Charlie’s Uncle” offers a brilliant account of these connective strategies in the film.)


I don’t want you to form the impression that I consider Alfred Hitchcock to be a great critic and analyst of Western society, deliberately placing Uncle Charlie into the film in order to liberate all desires and revolutionise all relations. There are films that explicitly aim in that direction, like Claude Faraldo’s Themroc (1973). But Hitchcock, a person of his place and time (like all of us), is a more intuitive filmmaker – an entertainer and storyteller, which is no way to denigrate those words or vocations. Uncle Charlie, as I’ve suggested, works more on the level of fantasy than of logical critique: he possesses no particular social awareness beyond his passionate nihilism (kill all hypocrites!), he has no program of reform (why should he?), he’s just a bundle of drives – seduction and aggression, love and murder, deceit and charm. He works from animal impulse, and his intellect is cunning, self-preserving. He’s a “walking contradiction” (as the Kris Kristofferson song says): he hates money, but he hoards it. He hates women, but he “collects” them (a Don Juan complex, of sorts). He longs for the past, but he lives in the moment. His savage, nihilistic philosophy expresses itself in formulations like “It doesn’t matter what you do” – whether you build or destroy. For Hitchcock – and for our culture – Uncle Charlie is a dangerous madman, but also fascinating and attractive. Murder stories have been playing on this ambivalence throughout the 20th century (at least!).


The film changes direction mid-way – a typically bold step in Hitchcock (see the famous case of Vertigo, 1958). The law fixes on the wrong man; young Charlie is left on her own to outmanoeuvre her Uncle, to forcibly expose and expel him from the community, ultimately to kill him. She becomes, at that turning point, the driving force of the cinematic narration, the active “subject” of the plot – we follow her moves, we are with her. Whereas earlier, beginning with the opening scene, we were more aligned with Uncle Charlie.


As I’ve argued, young Charlie eventually “chooses” the normal guy over the abnormal one. But we must yet again ask: what is Hitchcock’s expressed or suggested attitude toward the final union of Charlie with Jack? Consider three aspects of this conclusion: it involves a “missing”, unshown scene; it takes place in the oddly unromantic setting of a garage; and it has an undeniable flatness of tone. Is this Happy Ending all it’s cracked up to be, really, or more like what Douglas Sirk used to call an “emergency exit”?


Shadow of a Doubt ends on a beautiful line: “The world needs a lot of watching – sometimes it goes out of control”. You can take that straight, or ironically, or something poignant and reflective in-between. However you take it will depend on the rigour with which you attend to the film, how you disassemble and relate its parts. There’s an implanted Hitchcockian joke about exactly this process: the auteur is part of the card game on the train, and a close-up insert shows us that he has all the best cards, that he is the master of the game. But how, precisely, he deals out those cards, how he arranges and plays them – that is for each of us to decipher.

MORE Hitchcock: The Birds, Lifeboat, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Family Plot, Notorious

© Adrian Martin September 1981

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search