This is only my fifteenth Hitchcock film. I would have thought I had seen more, my mom was a big fan, but I guess I just saw some of them over and over. Many people, including Hitchcock himself, consider it his best film. I did not know this going in, in fact, I didn't know much about it going in, it was just one I had in my queue and I was in the mood for Hitchcock. So here we go.
A man named Charlie is evading a pair of other men and decides to go hide out with his estranged family (by his older sister) in a small town. Not so coincidentally, all the way across the country, his namesake niece, Charlie, feels that the family is in a rut and suddenly decides that what they need is a visit from Uncle Charlie. So everything seems wonderful. The family are thrilled to have him back and he does not disappoint when he brings outlandish gifts to all of them, including a mink stole, a fancy wristwatch (when those were new and uncommon), and an actual emerald ring for his niece, and announces he'll open an account at his brother-in-law's bank to the tune of $40,000 (approximately $600k today), regaling them with stories of lucrative business. No one seems to question all this except, perhaps, his highly intuitive, almost psychic niece, Charlie, who seems to be able to tell that certain things have more meaning than they may seem and suggests that she and her uncle have some connection. Certainly she notices the inscription in the ring that her uncle missed but reacts with alarm to when she points it out. We as the audience assume that Charlie is a bad man but just how bad? What has he done?
From there a sort of cat-and-mouse begins between Charlie and Charlie as the young and possibly clairvoyant niece starts to piece together the (admittedly fairly simple) puzzle when two men come calling for Uncle Charlie.
There is a lot to like about this movie, for sure, especially the performances of Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten, Hitchcock's direction, and Joseph A. Valentine's cinematography (he also filmed Rope
and was nominated for Best Cinematography five times).
Shots like these two seeing each other at a pivotal moment in the film are commonplace throughout and some are really suspense-forward while others more subtle and a lot intentionally made to look as plain and milquetoast as a small town where everything is right and as it seems as can be. But things are not.
Teresa Wright was, I thought a bit of a revelation. I don't know her at all and I was surprised (not because of her performance, I can assure you) that she was nominated for Oscars for each of her first three film roles. She's fantastic here and it is really she, not Cotten, who carries the film. Cotten however is sinister as hell as a sociopath who, like so many of them, is perhaps not quite as slick as he thinks and always on the verge of being caught, propelling him to more and more desperate actions.
I did not know going in that this film is considered one of Hitchcock's best films, if not his best, and I must say I was a little surprised as I was slightly underwhelmed. Despite all the good here I've talked about, the film just didn't really wow me the way I kind of expect from films like Psycho
and Strangers On A Train
or even the recently-viewed Dial M For Murder
, which I felt was much more of a standout that some seem to think. Not all that much really happens in the film, there's a really shoe-horned in romance angle that made no sense, and the climactic moment was pretty anticlimactic if you ask me. Roger Ebert, who loved the film, even said in his opening sentence of his Great Movie review of it, "No one would ever accuse Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt
of being plausible..."
When I did my post-viewing research, as I always do (I don't like to know much about movies going in), I discovered that the film was not a late-black and white-era film like Psycho, but was actually from 1943. This alone changed my opinion significantly as I thought of the context of what existed before this film came out and how challenging this film must have been in its day. A serial-killer in a small town, living with an idyllic family, and I would swear (though it's hard to tell with films from bygone ages) there's a bit of a pedo vibe going on here too, it must have been something for audiences and critics in '43 and the film was immediately lauded as possibly Hitchcock's best movie to date.
But this also brings me to questions I have about how much we are influenced by expectations with film as well as with knowledge about them in general. Was I more disappointed by this film because it was Hitchcock and didn't live up to my initial expectations? Did I change my mind about how I actually felt about the film when I put it into the context of how revered it has been by others for decades and how daring it may have been for its time? One wonders.
Anyway, certainly, by any measure, a film worth seeing and it has given me a lot to chew on for the time being. At the moment I would probably put it in the low-middle, honestly, among the fifteen Hitchcock films I've seen thus far, but we'll see what happens with that over time.