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Shadow of a Doubt: Menace Comes to a Small Town

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One of Alfred Hitchcock’s personal favorite movies was Shadow of a Doubt. In Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary short on the film, Hitchcock’s daughter, Pat, explains that her father delighted in the notion of bringing “menace to a small town.”

That town is Santa Rosa, California, a tiny rural community with a J.C. Penney, a movie theatre, a town square, and a Bank of America. More specifically, though, Hitchcock introduces evil to a prosaic, middle-class family, the Newtons, in the guise of Emma Newton’s (Patrice Collinge) adored younger brother, Charlie (Joseph Cotten). Hitchcock carefully sets up the family dynamic: hardworking, cheerful Emma who sacrifices all for her family and whose loving devotion manifests itself in a well-kept house and the meals she prepares, and Emma’s humorous, slightly distracted husband, Joseph (Henry Travers), addicted to murder mysteries as an escape from his mundane job in a bank. The couple’s three children, including the bored, teenage Charlie (Teresa Wright) — named for her uncle — are adored and indulged.

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Into this happy household comes Uncle Charlie, bearing gifts for the family and the promise of a more exciting life. For the family, Uncle Charlie’s life in Philadelphia, far away both physically and psychically from home, is sophisticated and mysterious. When a detective later asks Emma what her brother does for a living, she can only answer that he’s “just in business,” and when another asks young Charlie what she knows about her uncle, she tells him, “Why, he my mother’s brother.” The viewer knows what the family doesn’t — that Uncle Charlie is on the lam. The family — with the exception of young niece, Ann (Edna May Wonacott), who begins to dislike her uncle when he destroys her father’s newspaper in a clumsy attempt to hide a story about his crimes — dotes on him.

Uncle Charlie returns his family’s adoration, but he barely hides his true nature when he jokes about Joseph embezzling in front of the man’s co-workers at the bank and when he rails against “useless” rich widows — he is, after all, the Merry Widow Killer. The clues to the real Uncle Charlie, in his refusal to ever be photographed or in Emma’s remembering how his personality changed after a childhood accident, the family chalks up to his eccentricity. Eventually, young Charlie puts all the pieces together and begins to suspect the enormity of her uncle’s evil, and he, in turn, makes plans to eliminate her.

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Hitchcock makes their struggle a silent one. Emma and Joseph only see what Charlie and Uncle Charlie allow them to see, and that is plain, old, ordinary Uncle Charlie, the Philadelphia businessman, not the threat he represents to their happy household. Uncle Charlie explains the sea of change he brought to the Newton’s life when tells his niece, “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.”