Despite being his sixth Hollywood production, Shadow of a Doubt is the picture where Alfred Hitchcock first discovered America, locating the mirror image for the ominous instability lurking barely an inch under the cozy surfaces of his native England. The doubling effect is appropriate, for this is a film of doppelgangers, full of the kind of tantalizing motifs and patterns that led the directors-in-waiting at Cahiers du Cinéma to prick through the director’s cheery façade to find the anguished Catholic dismayed at the world’s submerged dangers. Not that by 1943, with Hitler plowing through Europe, one needed Hitchcock’s anxious eyes to tremble at the horrors looming over Eden. The difference between Shadow of a Doubt and a hectoring good-versus-evil tract such as Watch on the Rhine that same year, however, lies in the way Hitch sees darkness as less an infiltrating outside force than as the repressed backside of normalcy.
The celebrated opening sequence finds the film’s moral yin-yang, chilly murderer Charlie (Joseph Cotten) and his young niece and namesake (Teresa Wright), at opposite ends of the country, he in New York City and she in Santa Rosa, yet both arranged in symmetrical poses, united telepathically. The opposing poles may suggest a Manichean vision of life, each safely in its corner, but the two are bound together from the beginning, the swirling pulse of the “Merry Widow” waltz under the opening credits subconsciously returning throughout the rest of the film, its circular motion serving to blur the rigidity of the absolutes. “We sleep and eat and that’s about it,” complains Wright at home, and her adolescent boredom practically wills her beloved Uncle Charlie to California, the phallic locomotive carrying him all but ramming through the screen amid voluptuous belches of black smoke.
Noticeably a template for Lynch’s Lumberton in Blue Velvet, Hitchcock’s Santa Rosa is a sedate idyll erected upon the solidity of the family, as befits a script co-written by Our Town author Thornton Wilder. The film’s affection for idealized Americana is authentic, yet, as filtered through the outsider director, there is a “Is that all there is?” feel to the sun-dappled parks and social meetings that clearly posits Wright’s burgeoning awareness as the film’s developing consciousness. The insulated perfection of Santa Rosa is questioned by Cotten’s intrusion, which calls attention not to how different he is from the rest of it but how much a part of it he remains—indeed, in his nostalgia for an illusory epoch (“Everybody was sweet and pretty then. A wonderful world. Not like the world today”), Uncle Charlie emerges as a virtual parody of the handsome-dandy image cherished by “normal” society. During one of the sudden slips to reveal the unsavory truth behind the character’s charming mask, he talks of his disgust for the kind of rich women he has killed in the past (“horrible, faded, fat, greedy women”), and Hitchcock dollies in for a close-up, subtly turning Cotten’s blandly pleasant facial features bestial. His sickness is cursorily explained as stemming from a childhood accident, but in a world as brimming with suppressed tensions as Hitchcock’s, it’s no accident that a Nietzschean killer has sprung out of a “typical American family.”
Just as darkness is shown to have a human face, so do the benign textures of wholesomeness rupture to reveal sinister depths. The heroine’s mother (Patricia Collinge) dotes on her baby brother with an incestuous intensity, the father (Henry Travers) plays morbid games with the mystery novel-obsessed neighbor (Hume Cronyn), and the feeling of safety is but a thin skin stretched over the entire world. A staircase step breaks off and a garage door seals in toxins—chaos is a step away, and in the middle of it all is Young Charlie, navigating treacherous waters of her own into womanhood. Taken by her uncle to a honky-tonk out of a noir mystery, she meets her reflection in the slattern waitress manning the tables, but the truth is that, for all her youth and openness, she’s far from immune to the violence simmering within the killer, her real “twin” (“Go away or I’ll kill you myself,” she hisses at him). Her innocence is tainted through her ordeal, yet Hitchcock sees the process as a necessary one—her snow globe of an existence mercilessly pried open, she is forced to acknowledge life’s potential for evil, as well as her being inescapably part of it.
Like Lynch’s fever-dream of transcendental perversity, Shadow of a Doubt is about awakening, the simultaneous darkening and enlarging of the world; the difference is that, where Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont is able to tap into his own dark reserves, Wright’s Young Charlie must muffle her knowledge as to not disturb the order of things. What was uncorked must be covered again, thus a killer is given a lavish hero’s funeral while the heroine watches from afar, next to the ineffectual bearer-of-justice (detective Macdonald Carey). Hitch’s habit of taking us to the edge of the abyss and then returning us with a wink, so often resulting in unconvincing happy endings, here seals one of his most pitiless visions of a monstrous cosmos admitted only to be denied.