Shadow of a Doubt is the story of the psychopathic Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten, in one of his most critically acclaimed performances). Unlike many of Hitchcock’s movies, in which the role of the villain is not revealed until well into the movie, this movie opens with Uncle Charlie wooing a wealthy woman and then killing her to get her money. Luckily, he had wired ahead to his sister Emma (Patricia Collinge) in California, telling her that he is coming to stay for a long time, and so he is able to elude the police, make it to the train station, and head west. Upon his arrival in California, his niece (also named Charlie, played by Teresa Wright), who has heard tales about her funny, sophisticated uncle, is instantly charmed.
When Uncle Charlie arrives in California, everyone is shocked to see him using a cane – an integral part of his disguise. However, as he recovers, he takes Charlie around with him, and her naïve approval of her uncle helps get him out of a scrape at the bank when he wants to deposit $40,000 – his odd mannerisms are explained away as just part of his whimsical personality.
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His odd mannerisms grow when Uncle Charlie’s sister Emma (young Charlie’s mother) tells of a childhood story in which he had been hit by a streetcar while on a bicycle. While Uncle Charlie was recovering, she says, “There was no holding him. It was just as though all the rest he had was too much and he had to get into mischief to blow off steam.” This passage is actually based on an event that happened in Alfred Hitchcock’s own life and had personal resonance for him, as it was the frustration of convalescence that drove him to be so creative. This is an important point in the film, for a noir analysis, because it shows us much of the motivation behind Uncle Charlie’s anger. He talks about his nostalgic fondness for “the old world” – a clue to what will come later, as it becomes clear that Uncle Charlie despises the modern world, particularly the women who inhabit it, except for his own sister, who served as a surrogate maternal figure for him.
Another element of this film that establishes it in the noir genre is a preoccupation with violent crime, particularly murderer. While Uncle Charlie is convalescing, his brother-in-law, Joseph (Henry Travers) has an ongoing conversation with his next door neighbor about how to get away with murder, defining the perfect crime. The ensuing scenes show several different crimes carried out by British villains in the nineteenth-century, all of whom had captured Hitchcock’s attention.
The fact that Uncle Charlie’s dark past begins to catch up with him is yet another element of film noir that appears in this film. Detective Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) shows up and starts interrogating young Charlie about her uncle, causing her to be suspicious. Graham tells her that Uncle Charlie has killed many women, which causes young Charlie to feel a contradiction – after all, how could someone who has charmed her so turn out to be a mass murderer. She asks Uncle Charlie some questions about his past; figuring out what she is after, Uncle Charlie just tells her that family must support one another. However, Uncle Charlie yanked a clipping about the “Merry Widow Murderer” out of the local paper and hides it in his room, where the increasingly inquisitive young Charlie finds it – the hiding of incriminating evidence and its discovery being yet another staple of the noir thriller.
The more suspicious that young Charlie gets the angrier her uncle becomes, and the more his darkness bursts out from him. The unraveling of the dark villain, of course, is another example of film noir as a genre. At the dinner table one evening, the topic of rich widows comes up, and he unleashes this rant: “You see these women everywhere – useless women, drinking the money, eating the money, smelling of money!” As the viewer can see from the tears that well up in young Charlie’s eyes, his charm is fading – and fast.
Ultimately, Uncle Charlie admits his past to Charlie, but then has to kill her. He tries to kill her with carbon monoxide, by having her go out and start the car while he closes the garage door; in the film’s climax, Hitchcock does a masterful job of focusing on their legs, battling with one another, scissoring for balance, as he tries to push her in front of a train. Ironically, it is she that pushes him, and he ends up dead under the train’s wheels. In a final stroke for film noir, she does not reveal his past, and he is simply buried, the family honor still intact, and the “Merry Widow Murders” unsolved.
Another Alfred Hitchcock film that fits squarely in the noir mode is the 1951 release Strangers on a Train. Remade later as Throw Momma from the Train, this movie had the innovative plot idea of having two strangers, each of whom would benefit from a death, committing the murder for the other person, and so completely evading suspicion. Bruno Anthony is one of the strangers who meet on a commuter train, and he despises his father (and is somewhat insane). He meets Guy Haines, who is trying to get his wife, Miriam, to divorce him so he can marry a senator’s daughter named Anne. Anthony suggests the “criss cross” murder scheme when he hears about Haines’ unhappiness, and the fact that he would suggest such a thing in a first conversation with someone shows a bit of his instability (a key feature in many noir films, as is the sheer amorality of the plan).
Visually, the film shows patterns of intersections throughout, whether it is networks of train tracks crossing another, the crossing of tennis rackets, or the shadowy intersections of lines that cover the faces of Anthony and Haines as they become further ensnared in this trap. The idea of “doubling” also appears visually, as Anthony orders a pair of double drinks while on the train. Even in the cameo of Alfred Hitchcock in the film, he is toting a double bass.
Just after Guy has had an argument with Miriam, where she again refuses to divorce him, it turns out that she has been strangled. Bruno calls Guy to let him know – and to tell him that it is now Guy’s turn to do the favor by killing Bruno’s father. Because Guy does not want to go through with this, Bruno spends a great deal of the film stalking Guy. However, Guy has some relief in his life as a result of what Bruno has done, because the only obstacle that he faced when it came to happiness with Anne was the death of his wife. This cold condoning of the murder, in its shocking lack of morals, is another element of film noir. Bruno suspected, though, that Guy might be less than willing to carry out his end of the “bargain,” and so he kept Miriam’s eyeglasses with him, to plant as evidence if necessary.
As Bruno’s home life deteriorates, he continues to place more and more pressure on Guy to murder his father for him. He begins to follow Guy various places, including his tennis matches, and the strain begins to wear on Guy. Bruno’s affectations, as well as the constancy of his pursuit of Guy, suggest that Bruno may be homosexual – in many ways, he is the opposite/double for Guy. Instead of being talented, successful, and attractive to women, Bruno appears to be stifled, a failure, and attracted to men. This “double” would be just another on the list that appear in the film.
A visual element that is particularly bizarre (in line with the noir genre) is the close-up shot of Bruno’s hands, freshly manicured, right after Guy has screamed “I could strangle her!” into a telephone. Elements like this are a part of Hitchcock’s analysis of the moral changes that take place in the film. Take, for example, Guy’s realization that Miriam’s death has not only failed to free him, but that it has replaced her with an even more dangerous enemy in Bruno Anthony. While the problem of Miriam would eventually resolve itself in family court, Bruno’s problem was insistent, because he had evidence that could implicate Guy. The fact that Guy has benefited from a murder about which he apparently feels no guilt (again, the amorality of which is a hallmark of the noir genre) will now force him to act.
Guy shows up at Bruno’s home and thinks he is revealing Bruno’s plot to his father; unfortunately, Bruno turns around in his father’s chair to face Guy. Then it becomes a race to the fairgrounds to get the evidence that will either implicate Guy – or implicate Bruno. The fact that Guy is about to go to jail, until the lighter falls out of the lifeless Bruno’s hands, comprises a plot twist at the end that, again, is a key element of film noir.