Premiered January 12, 1943: SHADOW OF A DOUBT, starring Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, and Macdonald Carey. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (Rebecca, Spellbound, Rear Window). Shadow of a Doubt is reportedly Hitchcock’s personal favorite of all his films. While it doesn’t have the glittering cachet of his other films from the period, such as Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Lifeboat (1944), and Spellbound (1945), it is nonetheless a significant entry in the noir canon and a great film in its own right. The film opens with Joseph Cotten on the run from authorities somewhere on the East Coast. We don’t know exactly why the authorities want him, but the enormous wad of big bills he carries suggests he committed a robbery… or perhaps worse. After eluding the police, Cotten decides to leave the East Coast and come to California to stay with his older sister (Patricia Collinge). Collinge’s teenage daughter (Theresa Wright) is especially fond of her uncle and is overjoyed. Collinge and her husband (Henry Travers) live an idyllic life with three delightful children, a charming home, friends, and plenty of community activities. When Cotten arrives, he quickly insinuates himself into the quaint small-town lifestyle enjoyed by the family. However, it doesn’t take long for his past to catch up with him in the form of two agents (Macdonald Carey and Wallace Ford) who tracked him across the country. The agents still need to gather more evidence before they can be absolutely certain Cotten is the right suspect, so they don’t want to approach him directly and risk scaring him off again. Instead, they approach Wright and ask her to act on their behalf, but when she learns they suspect Cotten of several brutal murders, she refuses to believe it and won’t cooperate. But the well has been poisoned and Wright becomes increasingly suspicious and fearful of Cotten as small bits of incriminating information come to her attention. Hitchcock’s expert pacing ensures the tension builds very slowly until the suspense reaches a boiling point and Wright finds herself in a perpetual state of danger. Thematically, Shadow of a Doubt is similar to several other Hitchcock films, in particular, Suspicion, where the story starts out harmlessly enough, with a fair amount of humor thrown in, but gradually transforms into a dark tale of terror. In Shadow of a Doubt, Travers and his best friend (Hume Cronyn) frequently discuss methods of killing one another without leaving any evidence. Initially, their lighthearted banter is quite amusing, but as Wright begins to realize the truth about Cotten, their conversations become increasingly disturbing to her and to the audience. What really makes Shadow of a Doubt so unsettling is that it strikes directly at the heart of idealized American life in the 1930s and early 40s. Shaken by the horrors of war and the trauma of soldiers returning home, a growing sense of unease and uncertainty about the future pervaded American society. Film noir reflected this anxiety and brought it to the surface by eschewing conventional Hollywood entertainment in favor of gritty films about the dark side of human nature. In Shadow of a Doubt we are treated to a clear vision of this emerging noir landscape when Cotten delivers a pointed speech to Wright:
“There’s so much you don’t know. So much. What do you know, really? You’re just an ordinary little girl living in an ordinary little town. You wake up every morning of your life and you know perfectly well that there’s nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day, and at night you sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep filled with peaceful stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares. Or did I? Or was it a silly inexpert little lie? You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you rip the fronts off houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell.”
Noir films would offer penetrating glimpses into that hell for the next two decades and beyond, and Shadow of a Doubt is one great example. Cotten and Wright are superb in their roles, and they are supported by a first-rate cast of actors, an intelligent script, and a legendary director at the top of his game. We give Shadow of a Doubt 5 out of 5 fedoras.