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Saturday, 19 May 2012

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)


Spotlight on Movie Mothers - Mothers Dearest and Star Birthday - Joseph Cotten


Star Birthday - Joseph Cotten


Joseph Cotten was born on 15 May 1905, and
enjoyed a prolific career of over 130 films and television appearances in almost 50 years.

Recommended viewing



Keeping with the spotlight on Movie Mothers throughout May, I have selected 'Shadow of a Doubt' (1943), one of the rare films where he played the villain, to celebrate the life and career of Joseph Cotten. 

Shadow of a Doubt


**spoiler alert - this blog may spoil the outcome of the film for those who may not have seen it**


'Shadow of a Doubt' (1943) is one of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpieces of mystery and suspense. It stars Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright and Macdonald Carey (best known for his role as Dr. Tom Horton on 'Days of Our Lives').  The film is an ambiguous character study into the mind of a misogynist serial killer.

The film is significant for several reasons:
  • It was director Alfred Hitchcock's personal favorite of all his films
  • It was Hitchcock's first true American film, which was made in America and set in America
  • It was one of the rare instances where Joseph Cotten played the villain, instead of the romantic lead
After a mysterious opening scene, Uncle Charlie visits his sister, and her family after being away for a long time. His sister, Emmy, adores Uncle Charlie, and has named her eldest daughter Charlie. As the film progresses, through the eyes of young Charlie, we (the spectator) begin to suspect Uncle Charlie is not the man he seems to be, hence the film's title 'Shadow of a Doubt'.

The famous dinner scene

A very famous dinner scene occurs during the film. Through the point of view of young Charlie, we see Uncle Charlie's nasty side with a misogynist monologue:
"And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands. Drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bride, playing all day and all night. Smelling of money. Proud of their jewellery but nothing else. Horrible... fat, faded, greedy women."
This monologue shocks young Charlie, as she replies with: "But they're alive! They're human beings!", to which Uncle Charlie responds with: "Are they? Are they, Charlie?"


It is the glare in his eyes when he says this, which sends a chill down our spine and confirms Charlie's (and our) suspicions of Uncle Charlie being the wanted murderer.


Watch the YouTube video to see this scene. It's fascinating to see the photographic technique Hitchcock has used in this scene, particularly towards the end of the monologue.
  • the scene begins with a shot of the full table - notice Uncle Charlie is seated at the head of the table, giving him a sense of power and control
  • as he begins the monologue, the camera cuts from Emmy to young Charlie, showing the concerned look on her face, before cutting back to Uncle Charlie
  • as the monologue climaxes, the camera continues to move closer to Uncle Charlie's face until we get to an extreme close up - notice Uncle Charlie's eyes never blink during the monologue, adding to the suspence
  • as young Charlie says "But they're alive! They're human beings!", the camera continues to stay focused on Uncle Charlie's face - it is fascinating Hitchcock decided to keep young Charlie's dialogue off screen, as most directors would have cut to young Charlie
  • as Uncle Charlie says "Are they?" Are they, Charlie?", Uncle Charlie turns his head towards the camera - this is intended to force the spectator to see what young Charlie would have seen, and puts us into her character, giving this scene further impact

Significance of the train

The motif of the train recurs throughout the film:


  • Uncle Charlie arrives by train
  • as young Charlie learns her Uncle's secret, we hear a train whistle
  • and finally Uncle Charlie is killed whilst travelling on the train.
This recurring motif is not a coincidence. Hitchcock is using the train as a mechanism of suspense and to help the spectator in putting together the pieces of the film by subconsciously thinking about the train. 


Charlie's relationship with Uncle Charlie

At the start of the film, young Charlie refers to Uncle Charlie as the only person who can make things better. She worships Uncle Charlie and everything he stands for. There is a strong rapport between the two, and Uncle Charlie even presents her with a ring, which ultimately becomes the catalyst for the destruction in the relationship. 
This is likely to shatter not only young Charlie's perception of her Uncle, but also her perception of the world. If her Uncle can be so horrible, is there goodness anywhere in the rest of the world. Consequently, young Charlie (the person who loves Uncle Charlie the most) is ultimately the one who turns against him. 


Significance of the the mother


We see Charlie protective of her mother several times in the film. After her younger sister Ann yells at their mother, Charlie questions Emmy, "I don't see why you let that child yell at you like that." 
Once we find out Uncle Charlie's secret, young Charlie tells him: "I don't want you to touch my mother. Go away or I'll kill you myself!"
We see Emmy reciprocate this protection when Charlie trips down the stairs, and after her near-death suffocation. It is young Charlie's desire to protect her mother from the truth which prevents her from telling Emmy about Uncle Charlie's secret.


Emmy is blind to her brother's unusual behaviour. She does not feel intimidated or offended by Uncle Charlie's monologue at the dinner table.


Why is Emmy so blinded by her brother's behaviour? It could be because she is desperate to remember their childhood together. Uncle Charlie knows his sister well, and to provoke this sense of nostalgia he presents Emmy with photos of their parents early in the film.

After Uncle Charlie is killed, we subconsciously sympathise with Emmys. Hitchcock made an interesting decision to not include Emmy in the final funeral scene. This allows us (the film spectator) to make our own judgement on how Emmy is feeling.

Closing thoughts

I have seen 'Shadow of a Doubt' a number of times, and no matter how many times I watch it, I always feel a shiver down my spine during the chilling dinner scene.

Although there are more well known Hitchcock films, I strongly recommend watching 'Shadow of a Doubt' if you've not yet seen it.

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