Rebecca McCallum returns with a new essay in her series on Hitchcock’s Women, this time zeroing in on a tale of domestic terror which was Hitch’s favourite of his own films…
Made in the height of WWII, Hitchcock’s takedown of the American family offers a bleak and brooding tale, reflective of the paranoia and nihilism buried beneath a veneer of respectability. Shadow of a Doubt depicts the Newton family, centring on teenage girl Charlie (Teresa Wright) who is beginning to question the meaning of small-town life. What will ‘shake everything up’, she decides, is inviting Uncle Charles (her mother’s brother, played by Joseph Cotten) to come and stay. Arriving in town, Charles integrates himself into the Newton home and – by extension – the wider community. At first, young Charlie seems enraptured, believing an unexplainable connection exists between them. However, a smoky cloud floats around Charles and his strange behaviour, coupled with news of the hunt for a serial killer. This raises suspicions in Charlie as she must come to terms with an earth-shattering truth.
The Future of Souls
Charlie is just coming of age and her being caught between childhood and adulthood is fundamental to her journey. Her experiences with ‘Uncle Charlie’ (as she affectionately calls him, shortening his name to reflect her own) act as a metaphor for awakenings of many kinds. We first hear of Charlie through her uncle, an enigmatic man around whom a detectable sense of invisible danger circulates.
Ahead of Charlie’s invitation, Charles also sends a telegram to his sister, Emma (Patricia Collinge). In conveying his message to the operator, he is certain to single out his niece: ‘and a kiss for little Charlie from her Uncle Charlie’. From this moment on – before Charlie is even introduced – the pair are conjoined in an unexplainable pact that holds connotations of perverse romance, power and duality.
When we first see her, Charlie is reclining on her bed – pensive, and deep in thought about the emptiness of everyday life. We meet Ann (Edna May Wonacott), her younger sister, a recognisable Hitchcockian girl who is coded as knowledgeable with her glasses and interest in books. Like her older sibling, she also has ‘so much to keep on my mind, unnumerable things’. Thus, the energy of the Newton household is coded as immediately female, and as events unfold they will ultimately look not to their male counterparts but to one other for solidarity. When their father Joseph (Henry Travers) arrives, and asks after Charlie, Ann remarks that she is ‘out’ before correcting herself, an implicit allusion of her sister’s wish to be somewhere else.
In conversation, Charlie and her father communicate at cross paths: while he talks of money his daughter confides that it is ‘souls’ she is worried about. This functions as a meditation on the theme of vampirism in the film but it also demonstrates a psychic ability on Charlie’s behalf about the future of her own soul. It is often argued that over the course of Shadow of a Doubt, Charlie moves from a state of purity to awareness, but in this early scene she declares how she ‘doesn’t trust good intentions anymore.’ For this young woman, the cracks of the real world are already beginning to show.
Notably, Joseph doesn’t cross the boundary of the bedroom door when engaging with Charlie. Instead, he remains on the outside, symbolic of their distance and his inability to understand his daughter. When Emma arrives however, she comes into the room and sits down next to Charlie – their closeness is natural and immediate. Charlie insists upon more respect for her mother when she asks her not to wear an old hat and questions why Ann speaks to her the way she does. In response, Emma shrugs this off, highlighting that while there is a loving bond between them there are also differences, namely that there are some things that Emma is willing to tolerate that Charlie is not.
Although Charlie is often seen with her uncle and later, Detective Graham (Macdonald Graham), undeniably the relationship with her mother Emma is equally central, as it is to her mother she continually returns, quite literally but also (most predominantly) through the power of thought. Charlie’s relationship with her mother is pure in love and sentiment, but it also comes with a sense of fear and trepidation: in speaking with her father, she laments how her mother ‘works like dog’ but most tellingly of all how she is ‘not just a mother’. This expansion of the definition of womanhood is vital to Charlie who does not wish Emma to be seen simply ‘as a mother’ but as a whole person. But what Charlie is also doing here is telegraphing anxieties about her place in her future world. It may be too late for her mother, but it is not too late for Charlie.
A Saviour Comes to Stay – Uncle Charlie as Christ
When Charlie decides to invite her uncle to stay, he takes on a Christ-like status in her mind as both: ‘the person to save us’ and ‘the miracle’ the family needs. She knows that by bringing in an outside energy, this will inject excitement into the otherwise dreary Newton household. However, it is not just Charlie’s eyes that light up at the mention of Uncle Charlie, but her mother’s too. For both women, there is an underlying attachment of desire for Charles. As his sister, Emma’s is anchored in the past, in the woman she was before marriage and the happiness of their childhood. Charlie’s desire however is focused on the future and how the presence of her uncle can change this. What the yearning of mother and daughter for Charles also evidences, is a discontent with their current situation and a longing for more than a life of cooking, cleaning and catering to other people. There are many triangular patterns in the relationships of Hitchcock’s films, but while the obvious one may seem to be that of Charlie, her uncle and Detective Graham, I would argue that the real triangle is that of Charlie, her mother and her uncle. Both women are infatuated with him and taken in by his power, although one will come to a state of realisation while the other will remain in ignorance.
Ahead of sending the telegram to her uncle Charlie discovers that he has, in fact, already sent one himself, announcing his arrival to Emma. Such connectivity seeks to place an importance on the unspoken, psychic link they share. This news lifts Charlie’s mood instantly and she becomes euphoric as we see the first in a series of repeated scenes of her walking through the town. At the station, Charles dismounts the train and he and Charlie meet in a manner reminiscent of lovers, embracing and equal in their elation at seeing one another. This small moment offers readings around sexuality and incest that run throughout the film, but it also serves to align Charlie closely with her mother. The same scene will be replicated between brother and sister at the Newton household where they are romantically reunited. When Uncle Charlie is shown into his nieces room where he will sleep, he promptly nips the head off a rose, symbolising not only the occupation of an intimate space but towards him destroying all that is bright, beautiful and alive. Furthermore this gesture also has connotations of deflowering, and in pinning it to his breast Charles is parading his perceived ownership of Charlie.
Charlie’s wish for a better quality of life for her mother is reflected in the present giving scene during the first family dinner. Charles bestows a gift of a fur stole upon his siter: ‘its exactly right, its what you should have, it’s what you deserve’ her daughter remarks. Hitchcock would mirror this scene some twenty-one years later in Marnie when a similar gift is given to a mother, not by a lover but by her daughter. Perhaps in this moment, what excites and arouses Charlie is the notion of being able to provide for her mother herself. The doubling of her and Charles is heightened considerably in this reading as she is effectively placing herself in his shoes. Furthermore, it is notable that the gifts given to both Emma and Charlie (a stole and a ring) are also romantically coded in representing items a lover would give to their partner.
In private conversation with her uncle, Charlie admits how they are both alike. Intuitively, she senses that there is a secret inside of him that she will discover. After dishing out his gifts, of which Charlie refuses (an unconscious wish against establishing any ties with him?) the sinister romanticism continues as he takes her by the hand, placing the ring on her finger. Although charmed, Charlie proves her aptitude for observation as she instantly notes an engravement. When she points this out, he becomes cagey. However, in another moment where Charlie seems to be able to forecast the necessity of hidden information, she declares that ‘I like it this way’, almost as though some part of her knows that this will later provide her with vital evidence.
An Eye for Detail
As her uncle embeds himself deeper into family life, Charlie manages to turn a shortcoming into a virtue. Because she is so invested in her uncle, Charlie can always be seen watching him, her eyes constantly fixated with hypnotic admiration. Initially it is her hero-worship of him that he identifies as a weakness which he is set upon exploiting: however what he doesn’t account for is that it is precisely this watchfulness that means she can read beneath the surface as her engrossment transforms into surveillance. This compulsion for watching and observing is a meditation on the ever-present Hitchcockian theme of voyeurism and looking. True to his subversive nature, Hitchcock shows Charlie as not just someone who enjoys looking, but who enjoys being looked at as we see when she is out walking in the town with her uncle.
Charlie and her mother are further linked during the first dinner by the tune of the Merry Widow Waltz that ‘jumps from head-to-head’. This tune begins in Charlie’s head and she is unable to identify it at first, unaware that this ties directly to her uncle’s crimes. Again this speaks to their psychic bond, for there is no explainable reason why she should hum it at this moment. Hitchcock also plays with his audience here too, fully cognizant that we will recognise the waltz from the opening titles. At the table, Charlie remembers the name of the waltz but is cut off by her uncle before she can finish. Later, once Charlie is armed with evidence, Emma begins to hum the tune as the pair make dinner, almost as though this information is being passed between daughter and mother in an effort to share knowledge.
Newspapers, Libraries and the (Female) Detective
It is a truth to say that watching leads to gaining knowledge and knowledge cannot be gained without watching. As such, the action and result are bound together in unison; it is because she looks that Charlie gains information, such as when she spots the incriminating newspaper page in her uncle’s pocket. If Charlie had not seen him making a house out of the remainder of the newspaper earlier, this moment would hold no meaning. At this point however, despite knowing that he is trying to conceal something, she cannot dare to dream that it is anything so heinous as murder and the lightness of her attitude supports this. It is notable too that she brings her uncle (a man whom she has deemed as a saviour) water, as though aware that he is in need of cleansing and healing. ‘I know something about you you can’t hide’ she teases with a playful shyness before revealing the paper.
Charlie’s mirroring of her mother also spills over into the domestic sphere which Emma dominates in her role as housekeeper, wife and mother. When detectives Graham and Saunders (Wallace Ford) arrive – posing as researchers conducting a survey on the American family – Charlie tells them the house is ‘not looking its best’, echoing her mother’s earlier comments about their home ‘not being quite ready’. However, while these two statements reflect a dissatisfaction with appearances, they also signify an underlying lack of content in their role as women. When detectives Graham and Saunders profess to have chosen the Newtons for their survey because they are ‘the average American family’, Emma remarks ‘I told him we’re not the average American family’ and indeed this proves to be true. Being ‘average’ or ‘ordinary’ is repellent for Charlie too, which she confesses to Detective Graham. He is shown to be an unfit match for her in asserting that there is nothing wrong with average, which suggests that if Charlie were to enter into a relationship with him she would likely be moulded into the home-keeper she is so desperately afraid of becoming.
Graham soon invites Charlie for dinner and they go on a ‘respectable’ date. This will contrast with the faux-date that Charlie will later share with her uncle. As they converse after dinner, Charlie proves her ability to uncover the truth and read those around her, deducing that Graham is a detective. Once again, Charlie has been hoodwinked (albeit temporarily) by a man and Graham’s dishonesty removes any potential for him as a romantic hero. If anything, this discovery aligns him with Uncle Charlie through a form of doubling in that both men have entered Charlie’s life under an umbrella of lies and dishonesty. The words she directs at him – ‘I know what you are really. What do you want from us? You’ve done nothing but lie’ – could just as easily apply to Charles as they do to Graham.
Graham probes Charlie about her uncle, explaining that he is a murder suspect although the police are also looking into a man in the east. He describes himself and Charlie as ‘about the same, two ordinary people’, a reverberation of Charlie’s earlier comment of she and Charles being ‘the same’. What he doesn’t realise it that, for young Charlie, sameness not only equates to the increasingly fearsome and ambiguous Charles, but it represents the very thing she is attempting to push away from. The usually soft and smiling Graham also reveals a more coercive side when he tells her to ‘keep your mouth shut’. Now that she is aware her uncle has been targeted, Charlie’s loyalty begins to split between her family and the law, as she at once denies that her uncle could do such a thing whilst simultaneously confirming that she will not disclose what Graham has told her. In a moral conundrum, Charlie leaves their meeting convinced of her uncle’s innocence: ‘it’s going to be funny when you find out you’re wrong’ she utters. Again, this holds a dual meaning as while Charlie is referring to her uncle, she may also be hinting that what Graham is ‘wrong about’ is the certainty of a future relationship with her.
However hard she tries to suppress her doubts, arriving back home Charlie is clearly a changed woman who will never be able to shake off her suspicions. Henceforth, she will always look at Uncle Charlie in a different light as proven by her avoidance of him. Settling into Ann’s bedroom, she takes out the newspaper page she saved which is torn into pieces. She lays it out on the bed attempting to piece the parts of the mystery together. In an act of sisterly solidarity, Ann informs her that the library stocks newspapers. Charlie’s response is buoyant and determined as she marches energetically in the direction of the library. This scene is a repeat of her earlier euphoric walk to send the telegram to Uncle Charlie, only this time it is coated in danger and the promise of an unwanted revelation. Once inside, she scans the papers whispering a comment clearly aimed at Graham: ‘it can’t be anything really awful, I’ll prove to him that it isn’t.’ In one suspense-loaded moment, she stops and holds (as does the camera) and we fix on a headline reading The Merry Widow Strangler (confirming the earlier tune that occupied Charlie’s head to be a chilling premonition), revealing that there is a nationwide search following the murder of several rich women. Reading on, Charlie learns that the latest victim has the same initials as those engraved on the ring given to her by her uncle. At this moment, the camera pulls back and rises high to convey how small and insignificant she feels and how isolated she is in arriving at this knowledge.
Back at the Newton home, not only is Charlie manifesting doubts but this appears to have extended to Ann who is also attempting to place distance between herself and their guest. Requesting to change seats at the table, expressing a wish to sit next to her mother instead of Charles, this speaks to her link to Charlie and to the compulsion of the Newton women to gravitate towards one another for support. Serving dinner, Charlie describes having ‘perfect nightmares’. This oxymoronic description reveals a dual combination of fear and desire in Charlie’s subconscious. Her nightmare, however, also acts as another example of her unexplained psychic potential as she describes seeing Charles leaving on a train, a foreshadowing of what is to come.
Sensing he is in a tight spot, Uncle Charlie launches into an uncontrollable speech, this time about women who are left money by their husbands who he claims are ‘silly, useless, faded, fat greedy women’. This shifts the tone into even more uncomfortable territory, but Charlie does not remain silent, retorting ‘they are alive, they’re human beings’. To add to this, Emma joins in, warning him against speaking in this way at her club where he is due to deliver a lecture. Mother and daughter stand united in denouncing this malicious outburst against women, indicating that Charles’s favour is falling now that the veil has been lifted on his charismatic exterior, making way to expose him as a misogynist.
This pivotal scene rounds off with an interesting detail that is easy to overlook: in discussion at the side-lines of this debate, Joseph and Herb (Hume Cronyn) discuss using poisoned mushrooms as a method of murder. Herb describes gathering a basket of ordinary mushrooms, placing two or three poisonous ones amongst them. Hearing this, Joseph replies ‘no, the innocent party might get the poisonous ones’. This discussion acts as a metaphor for the small town of Santa Rose being infected by the lethal poison of Uncle Charlie.
‘Something’s Come Between Us’
Unable to remain at the table, Charlie walks the streets (for a third time) fuelled by anger and an inability to reveal the truth. Dutifully offering to follow his niece and manage the situation, her uncle comes in hot pursuit, eventually taking her into the Till Two Bar, coded as the seedy underbelly of the town. ‘I’ve never been to a place like this’ Charlie gasps as the last vestiges of her innocence are corrupted. This is compounded by a reaction from the waitress Louise (one of Charlie’s classmates, played by Janet Shaw) who remarks upon how she is surprised to see her. The Till Two Bar is an unfamiliar and unsettling place for Charlie who, in opposition to the hardened worldliness of her classmate, appears like a rabbit caught in headlights.
Ordering a double brandy, Uncle Charlie starts in on his coercion: ‘something’s come between us, we’re like Twins’ he insists. But Charlie now finds the man who once delighted her and whom she was exhilarated to be seen with disgusting and abhorrent. Trying a different tact he calls her ‘a woman of the world’, affirming that ‘you’re the head of the family and I’m not so old’, a comment insinuating a perverse union or marriage. Charlie promptly returns the ring as Louise admires it, saying how she would ‘die for a ring like that’ – a possible telegraphing that she too could have ended up as one of Uncle Charlie’s victims. Interestingly, despite being able to handle herself in an after hours bar, Louise does not possess the same powers of observation as Charlie, as she fails to spot the engraving on the ring.
Switching gears once more, and unable to contain his resentment, Uncle Charlie issues a statement that he knows will upset her: ‘You’re an ordinary girl in an ordinary town’ as (unlike Graham) he carries an astute awareness that this is what she despises above all else. Coupled with this is the potential that what Charles in fact craves (even if he is unable to admit it) is an ordinary life that he knows is no longer open to him. The theme of sleeping and waking interwoven throughout Shadow of a Doubt also becomes an important part of this conversation, with him speaking of the ‘nightmares’ he has brought her and how she ‘lives in a dream, sleepwalking blind’. As he concludes by delivering another of his hateful and nihilistic speeches about the horror of the world we watch the life and the optimism drain from young Charlie’s face as though her very lifeforce were being sucked away.
Exorcising Evil: Uncle Charlie as the Devil
They return home, but before going inside he begs her for a chance to leave undiscovered. With his fate resting in Charlie’s hands this is a significant moment and while Charlie grants him a few days, her underlying motive for doing so is to protect her family. Always the observer, stood outside the Newton family home, she listens and watches as he ingratiates himself into her family unit with sounds of laughter, joy and warmth echoing from within the house. Charlie is now the complete outsider (she is ‘out’, as Anne says at the beginning of the film) not only literally but the burden of knowledge places her utterly alone.
A short while later, Detective Saunders reveals to her that they believe Uncle Charlie to be their man and are willing to give her two hours to get him away, allowing for him to be arrested out of view from the Newtons. This is a weighty responsibility for young Charlie and although pressed by the detectives she agrees to their plan. However, her refusal to spy on him and share information about where he is heading signifies that she is neither on the side of her uncle or the law, but caught in the middle as an innocent. It is also worth noting that both male oppressors cannot reach their goal without her help – Charlie’s uncle needs her to keep his crimes a secret and the law needs her to expose them.
Soon after she has agreed to this, Graham pays her a visit and advises all arrangements will be called off following the pursuit of the other suspect who has died in the process. The pair have a private discussion in the Newton garage where he becomes forceful again, professing his love, expecting the same affections in return. It is clear these feelings are not shared by Charlie who says she ‘would like to be friends, I just don’t know yet’. When he speaks of how her mother might soon lose her, she replies firmly ‘mothers don’t’ loose daughters, they gain sons’. She also maintains a physical distance from him for much of this scene, showing her eagerness to leave the confines of the garage when she first moves to open the door.
With the walls closing in on Uncle Charlie, he can no longer play his cards close to his chest and makes attempts upon Charlie’s life. This begins with her falling down the outside stairs as he watches furtively from the side lines. Despite the second suspect being captured, Charlie’s attitude towards her uncle is unchanged as she asks ‘when are you leaving?’. Uncle Charlie meets this question with threats about how his sister will take the news of his departure and the effect it would have upon Joseph’s career at the bank through their association. In a moment of wicked gaslighting, he taunts her that the only evidence she has is a waltz song running through her head and a ring with initials that is no longer in her possession. Charlie proves how serious she is when (uncharacteristically) she threatens to murder him.
As the Newtons prepare to leave for Uncle Charlie’s lecture at Emma’s club he insists that he and Charlie go alone in the car together, offering to phone a taxi for the others. At this Charlie turns to her mother, imploring her to ‘please ride with me.’ When Charlie goes to the garage to start the car (for she is, unlike the other members in her family – including her father – the only person who can drive: a symbol of her independence), she finds that the exhaust has been left running and she is locked inside. However Joseph’s friend Herb alerts them to this and Uncle Charlie willingly steps into the role of rescuer, carrying her out of the garage in his arms, making him appear as a hero to all. Almost as though guided by intuition Emma expresses a wish to stay with her daughter, but with her obligations at the club she has no choice but to leave in the taxi. However as it pulls away her mind pushes to put things together: ‘I don’t understand, first the stairs and then…’ but regrettably, she is not quite able to make sense of everything.
Remaining at home whilst everyone attends the lecture, Charlie finds the ring in her room. The party arrives back full of merriment and showering ‘that very good fellow’ Uncle Charlie with praises. As they are about to raise a toast in his honour, Charlie descends the stairs with the ring on full show for the murderer to see. While he is being admired and this ought to be his cue to announce his intention to stay, the sight of the ring evokes a renewed fear and prompts a farewell toast instead. Announcing his imminent departure, Emma is positively (arguably inappropriately) heartbroken: ‘its just the idea of us being so close again’, she laments as the company around her gaze on in confusion at this display of emotion. However, it is the line that follows that is most revealing of all she has spoken throughout the film and which evidences that she herself harbours a desire for more: ‘you know how it is, you sort of forget you’re you, when you’re your husband’s wife’. In Uncle Charlie then, rightly or wrongly, Emma had found part of herself again and perhaps her tears are as much about the anxieties of losing this as they are about being separated once more from her brother.
A Future with Doubtful Promise
Returning as he came at the train station, Uncle Charlie bids his sister goodbye and Charlie comes aboard the train to watch over Ann and Roger (Charles Bates) as they also say their farewells. Addressing Charlie, at first he seems full of conviction and humility – ‘I think you were right to make me leave’ – but this is an obvious ploy designed to keep her on the train as it begins moving and she realises that the rest of her family have disembarked. He launches into another long speech and holds her tightly before dragging her to a doorway. There is no ambiguity as he confirms his commitment to the deed in hand while also admitting his guilt: ‘I’ve got to do this Charlie, so long as you know what you do about me’. Attempting to throw her overboard when the train is in motion, the two engage in a struggle which results in Uncle Charlie’s plan become inverted as he falls from the carriage rather than Charlie.
In the film’s final scenes, Uncle Charlie is memorialized with a large and lavish funeral, ever remembered as a hero and a pillar of the community. In an echo of Graham’s earlier comment about sons, we hear a minister say of the deceased murderer that ‘Santa Rosa has gained and lost a son’. Charlie is left bound to the only person who knows the truth: Graham. With only a secret to keep them together, their relationship is essentially built on a foundation of lies (not withstanding Graham’s earlier deception) that cannot lead to a promising future. She may have saved her family from heartache and suffering, but the cost to herself has been dear indeed.
In her final moments, Charlie looks empty and hollow. Will she become another Emma Newton whose wings are clipped by her future husband (assumedly Graham), or will she find a way out? Evil may have been purged, but the truth remains unknown and Charlie has been left changed forever. To quote Uncle Charlie she has had a hard lesson in coming to know ‘what the world is really like’.
© Rebecca McCallum
Enjoyed this article? Check out more Rebecca’s articles on Hitchcock’s Women, or listen to her deep dive analysis of Psycho.