SHADOW of a DOUBT: The Devil in Disguise

Shadow of a Doubt is a psychological thriller movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock and it’s made in 1943. It’s the director’s favorite one in terms of his own films. That makes it an outstanding movie just from the start. There’s a prosperity of themes in this movie and many ways to read them as a result. Analyzing Shadow of a Doubt in terms of the oppositions it contains is just one way of doing it. As writer and film critic Robin Wood suggested in his essay Ideology, Genre, Auteur, the comparison of characters, neighborhoods and the analysis of the relationships will be employed as a way of understanding Shadow of a Doubt in depth. Deconstructing Shadow of a Doubt via identifying the oppositions which Wood has suggested will provide a strong base of analysis.

First, there’s a repeated theme in the movie which turns around superstition. In the opening scene, we see that Uncle Charlie’s (Joseph Cotton) room number is 13. After this, with the conversations going on we can understand that the little girl of the family, Ann (Edna May Wonacott) and the father, Joseph (Henry Travers) are prone to superstitions. With throwing his hat on Young Charlie’s (Teresa Wright) bed, Uncle Charlie brings bad fortune to the family. In addition to these, there’s an undergoing theme of luck and telepathy. Young Charlie, as if there’s something supernatural between her and Uncle Charlie, thinks that she can communicate with him. Then, she begs him to save them. It’s as if she’s waiting for a chevalier to save her from her dull, boring life and bring some action to her life. At last, we see that this “rescue” has brought nothing more than a chain of misfortune to the family.

The employment of noir syntactics can be seen clearly in the movie: shadows depicting prison bars, oblique angles, etc.

Clash of Two Worlds: Darkness of Film Noir vs. Cheerfulness of Suburbs

There are lots of cues, that the uncle is no good, even from the beginning. While showing him in his own room, there’s oblique angle usage which is hard to miss. This choice of angle shows his uncanny world and his dark motives. Money spilled on the commode shows that he doesn’t even care about money and the abundance of it due to dangerous business he’s involved.

The first opposition in the movie occurs between film noir world and “the sunny world of small- town comedy” as Wood has put it. Obviously, the deranged world of film noir belongs to Uncle Charlie. Detectives with hats, murder, escape, money, cigars indicate a certain theme of noir. The children play on the street recklessly which means there’s no order and no kindergarten available. The neighborhood is full of wrecks which is far from the understanding of civilization.

On the contrary, in Santa Rosa where Charlie lives, everything is in harmony. There’s a policeman who regulates the traffic. There’s law and order and most importantly there’s an established American family. We see that in Hollywood films the presence of a true American family holds a great importance. However, in Shadow of a Doubt, there’s a surprising factor. Normally this opposition would be much more severe with the depiction of a perfect American family. Yet in Shadow of a Doubt, we see problems normally we shouldn’t be seeing in the family. Nobody listens to each other. There’s a cacophony, an emasculated father, and all characters are problematic. Nobody acts according to their age. In Young Charlie’s words, the members of the family only eat, drink, work and sleep, yet they can’t even have a decent conversation.

The main underlying theme of this movie is the sexual tension. There are two situations in the movie in which this tension exists:  between Emma, the mother (Patricia Collinge) and Uncle Charlie, between Young Charlie and Uncle Charlie. Since Hays Code had a true authority those days, these themes are not overtly displayed in the movie. Yet there are lots of hints which indicate this tension. For example, in the opening scene, Uncle Charlie was lying on his bed. Then we see Young Charlie, who was also lying on her bed, but with the feeling of a daydreaming with her hands under her head. This scene speaks to us, such as she was dreaming of a savior, of a hero, of her uncle: Charlie… He was her prince and because of this overtly dreamed image of a scattered man, she was unable to take necessary actions when he turned out pure evil.

A Psychoanalytic Look

When Uncle Charlie arrived in town, we see that he was carrying a stick and he wasn’t walking fast. When he sees little Charlie, he throws that stick, meets Charlie and embraces her. This stick of his and his “inability” to walk fast, then getting rid of it and moving with an upright posture, indicates he’s getting erected when the scene is analyzed from a psychoanalytical aspect. Besides, he is the only one who smokes cigars. Although the father smokes too, he uses only pipes, not a cigar. That cigar of Uncle Charlie stands as a phallic image.

He doesn’t like to talk about himself especially about his childhood trauma and he doesn’t like being photographed. This bicycle accident may be telling that after mishap, he might have had an early sexual “advancement” which caused him being problematic and violent. After all, he uses his sexuality in order to capture old widows and then he kills them. Moreover, Emma explains that he used to read a lot when he was a kid. Then, after he cracks his skull which apparently may have hurt the brain and Charlie’s impulses, he stops reading. This tells something apparently: he has lost his logical and intellectual side and became a sexually disordered character who is also very violent. He “exploded” in terms of his anger and lost his logical side completely. He still acts in a primitive state as a result.

Securing One’s Own Justice

One of the movie’s most outstanding scenes is the one when Uncle Charlie gives a speech on widows for sure. He says that they are old women who live on their dead husbands’ money and then he asks: Do they even live for real? Although the rest of the family doesn’t have an idea of his killings, other than Young Charlie, he justifies his actions in the most passionate way possible. The close-up to his face while he’s talking gives a very dramatic effect. His confidence and the way he looks at the camera, as if he’s speaking directly to us, provides an effective portrait of a destructive soul. The money isn’t important for him, since he’s dependent on the feelings of satisfaction which comes as a natural result of murders he commits. We see this kind of notion of justice in lots of movies. A mentally disturbed character believes that there’s something wrong in the society and then they “know” that they are the one who should be solving it. Many of the contemporary movies rely on this attitude.

When it comes to sexual tension again, there are other connotations which indicates it. When Uncle Charlie arrives home, they gave him Young Charlie’s room which creates an awkward situation. When he enters the room, he sees the flowers and then rips one off from the bouquet. This can be read as deflowering of a young girl’s flower. Furthermore, there are lots of indications both from Young Charlie and the Uncle that they don’t have a usual uncle-niece relationship. This unusual relationship between them gets even more bizarre when Uncle Charlie gives the younger one a ruby ring and puts it on her finger. This basically signifies a marriage proposal but of course it’s not displayed overtly.

After all, Shadow of a Doubt starts with a great pace and its character developments, the theme of psychology and processing of the story are very satisfactory. Yet I would expect an ending which is also explanatory just like the climax and beginning of the story. Shadow of a Doubt might have been a three-hour movie with no push at all, but when we think of the demands of the studios these days, the “rushed” end seems normal. Still it’s a very interesting movie to watch and while reading it there are lots of subjects which comes to one’s mind related to society, relationships, gender roles, American dream and pathologic characters. That’s why I believe it’s well worth to spend time and contemplate about the movie’s oppositions and themes after watching it.

Reference: Robin Wood, Ideology, Genre, Auteur, Film Theory and Criticism, pp. 717-726.

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