When we first meet Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) he’s laying on a bed, fully dressed, face weighted with brooding, waiting for some men to come and prompt his next move. When we first meet the teenaged Charlie (Teresa Wright), Uncle Charlie’s niece, she’s laying on a bed, fully dressed, face weighted with brooding, waiting for a miracle to save her immediate family, whom she feels is stuck in a perilous middle-class suburban rut. Turns out that miracle is... Uncle Charlie! Somehow—perhaps, as Charlie suggests, via telepathy—Uncle Charlie heard his niece’s psychic summons. He’s coming to Santa Rosa on a train that spews one colossal black cloud, coming to visit his adoring elder sister and her rather perfect little American family. (The only element that betrays this sense of perfection is the unusually advanced age of the parents, considering that their youngest looks to be no more than six.)
Let’s not call Shadow of a Doubt (1943) noir exactly. It’s a touch too early, and, despite its title, not too concerned with expressionist atmospherics, nor does it exude toughness or underline its characters’ darker impulses. But it fits quite beautifully into Metro Cinema’s Film Noir series because it emanates a murky, resonant perversity that finally out-obscures many of the more overtly noirish pictures to come. Its director, Alfred Hitchcock, often said it was his favourite among his films. I wonder if it wasn’t this very perversity, so neatly nestled in a seemingly innocent small town setting (the film’s main scenarist was Our Town author Thornton Wilder), that earned Hitchcock’s special affection (and looks forward to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet). Because Shadow of a Doubt is without a doubt a love story—between an uncle and his niece. The way she just looks at him in those early scenes, starry-eyed, sort of floating in place, like she’s beholding a dream-figure, is fraught with a woozy ache—one that might not have been so near-palpable if the both script and Wright’s performance didn’t maintain a surface of essential sweetness. Every time I watch Shadow of a Doubt I wonder if it wouldn’t be juicier if we saw more of Uncle Charlie’s hidden shadows reflected in little Charlie—which is the same as saying if we saw more noir—but then I look at Wright melt before Cotten in the kitchen, where he gives the sort of gift one gives a lover one’s come to court, and those doubts fall away.
If you haven’t seen the film you may be wondering what are these hidden shadows exactly. It’s best to let them sink in slowly. Uncle Charlie’s never been photographed and he’s never stayed anywhere long. He brings money and lavish gifts but doesn’t specify just how he acquired them. He gets especially uneasy when he hears a certain waltz. And every now and then he lets his mask of gentle charisma slip and says the nastiest things about people, about women in particular. Some years later, in another masterpiece, Cotten would embody the American innocent abroad. But here, still fairly young, still fairly new to moviegoers, he is the epitome of American corruption. And the juxtaposition of his sordid allure next to Wright’s purity still sends a shiver up the spine.