Shadow of a Doubt is a 1943 thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock and written by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville. The Newton family lead a quiet life in the North California town of Santa Rosa. The Newton’s eldest daughter, ‘young Charlie’, decides that things need brightening up and resolves to contact her Uncle Charlie. However, upon the arrival of two detectives, one of whom becomes very close to young Charlie, and a series of unusual clues concerning the mysterious ‘Merry Widow Murderer’, her Uncle Charlie’s behavior begins to change. Young Charlie starts to suspect that the man she once idolized is not what he seems and as her world shatters, she realizes that her life may be in danger.
The complete screenplay Wilder wrote for Alfred Hitchcock’s film Shadow of a Doubt is available in Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays & Writings on Theater.
by Matthew Angelo
After the 1943 premiere of Shadow of a Doubt, Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times, “Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville have drawn a graphic and affectionate outline of a small-town American family […] and Mr. Hitchcock has manifest completely in his naturalistic style.”1 Since its debut there has been contention over who deserves the credit for the story’s complex and masterful composition. Due to the employ of two other writers and the renown of Hitchcock as director and storyteller, “historians have for decades speculated as to how much of Thornton Wilder remained in the completed…film.”2 That is, until recently.
With the publication of Wilder’s original script in 2007, questions as to the influence of Wilder on the film have been answered. As Max Alvarez writes, “An analysis of [Wilder’s screenplay] and the released film itself can finally put to rest any doubts about Thornton Wilder earning the special credit he received in the opening titles.”3 Alvarez is referring to the very unusual credit that appears just before the director: “We wish to acknowledge the contribution of MR. THORNTON WILDER to the preparation of this production.”4 For some Wilder critics this late validation is unnecessary; a careful examination of the plot has already proven it the work of Wilder.
The story is set mostly in Santa Rosa, California, in the home of the Newtons, whom we are led to believe are an “average” American family in an “average” American town. We arrive in Santa Rosa after following Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten) as he eludes the capture of detectives or crooks—we are unsure which. Electing to visit his sister, Emma Newton (Patricia Collinge), he boards a train using a fake name.
In Santa Rosa, no one is more excited to see Uncle Charlie than his young niece Charlie (Teresa Wright), who believes that his presence will break her melancholy mood and “shake us all up.”5 Fearing a mundane fate, Young Charlie welcomes her uncle with unbridled excitement, for his very existence offers proof of an alternative to small-town living. This vision of a life outside Santa Rosa and its exotic possibilities slowly crumbles as Charlie begins to understand the nature of her uncle and the truth behind his unexpected visit.
Young Charlie’s doubts about her charming uncle start with her “date” with detective Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), who has posed as a pollster. He tells her that a dangerous man is being hunted and that Uncle Charlie is one of two suspects. Although immediately resistant to the idea, her interest is piqued and she goes to the library to read a newspaper article she saw her uncle tear out of her father’s paper. The article is about the “Merry Widow Murder,” a man who has strangled and robbed three widows.
Although Uncle Charlie commits many suspicious acts, it is his assertions of a nihilistic worldview that really expose him as a man capable of anything. At the dinner table, he bemoans the uselessness of widows. Young Charlie protests, “But they’re alive. They’re human beings!” To this, Uncle Charlie responds: “Are they? Are they Charlie? Are they human or are they fat, wheezing, animals?”6 Echoing this sentiment later in the story, Uncle Charlie tells Young Charlie, “The world’s a hell…what does it matter what happens in it.”7
Her concept of her uncle and what he stood for shattered, Young Charlie agrees to help the detectives lure Uncle Charlie out of town so he can be privately apprehended. Ironically, Young Charlie has become the protector of a family and way of life she originally resented.
Once Uncle Charlie realizes his niece suspects what he has done, he tries to kill her in ways that will seem like an accident—first loosening the step of a dangerous staircase, and then luring her into a smoke-filled garage. After two close calls, Young Charlie produces the engraved ring her uncle had given her—an incriminating piece of evidence. She uses this to blackmail Uncle Charlie into leaving town. A final confrontation occurs on the train. As he tries to throw her from the moving passenger car, it is Uncle Charlie who falls and is crushed by an oncoming train.
This defeat of the villainous Uncle Charlie, whose relativistic morality undermined traditional American values, suggests that the conventional culture will prevail. However, due to an ambiguous ending—we never know if Young Charlie marries Jack Graham, who has professed his love—the security of such a culture is questioned. Nevertheless, this examination of the American family and state of society in the face of a violent modernity is characteristic of Wilder’s works and has allowed many critics to reexamine the film as a major Wilder work of some import.
It is nearly impossible to discuss Shadow of a Doubt without first mentioning Our Town. After all, it was this very play, which Hitchcock admired so much, that prompted his interest in Wilder as a writer of the screenplay.8 While many critics have suggested it is precisely the “dark side” of Our Town that is represented in the film, none express it better than Donna Kornhaber who, after quoting Emily’s “We don’t have time to look at one another,” points out that Hitchcock and Wilder bring to life what “darkness we might find beneath the surface of our everyday world if we actually do closely examine its details.”9
The real action of the film is Young Charlie’s loss of innocence as she begins to understand the world as it really is. While some critics, like Martin Blank, assert, “Uncle Charlie has […] corrupted Young Charlie’s innocence forever,”10 this analysis is incomplete. As the opening sequence suggests, Young Charlie was already discontent with her life in her family and hometown; thus her fall was inevitable. As Young Charlie begins to understand Uncle Charlie’s true nature—he is not a savior but rather a “charming psychopath”11—her idealism about life outside of Santa Rosa starts to crumble. In the end of the film, she is presented with potentially bleak choices: marry the detective, live inconsolably with her family, or risk a violent solitary life, like her uncle. Because she has already expressed her discontent with an “average” life in a small town, the marriage or life with her family would inevitably be oppressive, but the alternative is unfathomable. Her living in the house with Uncle Charlie as he tries to kill her is only a physical manifestation of this internal struggle.
This reality—preserving the status quo or engaging in violent rebellion—has caused some critics, like James McLaughlin, to see the film as exposing the violent tension inherent in traditional family dynamics, especially for young women. To him, Uncle Charlie’s rage regarding widows is simply a fear of independent powerful women: “[rich widows] are regarded as inhuman and unnatural, unhinging both the social and natural orders.”12 Because she never agrees to marry Jack Graham, Young Charlie may “really [be] after the independence and power of the ‘merry widows’” whom Uncle Charlie targets. Thus, he attempts to kill Young Charlie because she too threatens to disturb the “natural order.”
One question that critics raise is what does Uncle Charlie represent: a defender of the old order, preserving it through violence, or a psychopath who has lost faith in traditional morality? His nostalgic recollections of the past suggest the former. When staring at a picture of his parents he says, “everybody was sweet and pretty then, the whole world, a wonderful world. Not like the world today. Not like the world now.” However, this is perhaps a bit too simplistic. Were he simply rebelling against deplorable values in a fallen world, he would have limits to his conduct and as far as we can tell in the film, he has none.
It may be more likely that Uncle Charlie represents the psychopath. Having lost all faith in humanity, he merely acts out of self-interest and impulse, a fact that is proven by his attempting to kill Young Charlie. It is this interpretation that allows Lincoln Konkle to claim that Wilder “prophesizes that such exceptions to the American and human norms as Uncle Charlie and Hitler will eventually fall and the world will continue on the right track.”13 In this vein, and in light of America (and Wilder’s) involvement in World War II, some critics see the story as even more didactic: “The film may be a morality play, a fable on the insidiousness of evil, and the need for the community to practice vigilance in protecting its citizens.”14 The final exchange between Jack Graham and Young Charlie seems to confirm this analysis. Jack reassures Charlie that the world is generally good but “sometimes it needs a lot of watching; seems to go crazy every now and then, like your Uncle Charlie.”
While there is no clear consensus on the meaning of much of the action, it is clear that Shadow of a Doubt represents one of the best collaborations of Hitchcock and Wilder’s careers, one that some Hitchcock critics claim as developmental for the director. Donald Spoto writes, “[The film] marked a major shift in the director’s tone, from Shadow of a Doubt on, there is a moral cynicism about the human condition that pervades all his best work.” If this outlook was learned from Wilder, Hitchcock’s understanding was incomplete. For, with the death of Uncle Charlie, “the world as represented by the typical American family and the typical small town has been ritually affirmed.”15 While the film and much of Wilder’s works test the moral fiber of his characters, human progress is nonetheless upheld, leaving cynicism in its wake.
1Crowther, Bosley. Rev. of Shadow of a Doubt, dir. Alfred Hitchcock. New York Times 13 Jan. 1943: 18. Print.
2Alvarez, Max. “Wilder and Hitchcock: Writing and Re-writing Shadow of a Doubt.” The Thornton Wilder Society Newsletter, Vol. 2 #2 2007: 2, 5.
3Alvarez, Max. 2.
4Shadow of a Doubt. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Thornton Wilder. Sally Benson, and Alma Reville. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright. Skirball Productions and Universal Pictures, 1943. Film.
5Shadow of a Doubt. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock.
6Shadow of a Doubt. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock.
7Shadow of a Doubt. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock.
8Harrison. Gilbert A. The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder. New Haven, Conn.: Ticknor & Fields, 1983. 222.
9Kornhaber, Donna. “Hitchcock’s Diegetic Imagination: Thornton Wilder, Shadow of a Doubt, and Hitchcock’s Mise-en-Scène.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 31.1 (2013): 77.
10Blank, Martin. “Wilder, Hitchcock, and Shadow of a Doubt.” Thornton Wilder: New Essays. Ed. Martin Blank. West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press, 1999. 415.
11Blank, Martin. 413.
12McLaughlin, James. “All in the Family: Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.” A Hitchcock Reader. Ed. Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague. Ames : Iowa State University Press, 1986. 147.
13Konkle, Lincoln. Thornton Wilder and The Puritan Narrative Tradition. University of Missouri Press, 2006. 172.
14Blank, Martin. 415.
15Konkle, Lincoln. 173.
Alvarez, Max. “Wilder and Hitchcock: Writing and Re-writing Shadow of a Doubt.” The Thornton Wilder Society Newsletter, Vol. 2 #2 2007: 2, 5. Print.
Blank, Martin. “Wilder, Hitchcock, and Shadow of a Doubt.” Thornton Wilder: New Essays. Ed. Martin Blank. West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press, 1999. 409-416. Print.
Crowther, Bosley. “Shadow of a Doubt a Thriller, With Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotton, at Rivoli—‘Tennessee Johnson’ Is at the Astor.” Rev. of Shadow of a Doubt, dir. Alfred Hitchcock. New York Times 13 Jan. 1943: 18. Print.
Goldstone, Richard H. Thornton Wilder: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Saturday Review Press/E. P. Dutton, 1975. Print.
Harrison. Gilbert A. The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder. New Haven, Conn.: Ticknor & Fields, 1983. Print.
Hemmeter, Thomas. “Hitchcock the Feminist: Rereading Shadow of a Doubt. Framing Hitchcock: Selected Essays from the Hitchcock Annual. Ed. Sydney Gottlies and Christopher Brookhouse. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002. 222-233. Print.
Konkle, Lincoln. Thornton Wilder and The Puritan Narrative Tradition. University of Missouri Press, 2006. Print.
Kornhaber, Donna. “Hitchcock’s Diegetic Imagination: Thornton Wilder, Shadow of a Doubt, and Hitchcock’s Mise-en-Scène.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 31.1 (2013): 67-78. Print.
McLaughlin, James. “All in the Family: Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.” A Hitchcock Reader. Ed. Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague. Ames : Iowa State University Press, 1986. 141-150. Print.
Shadow of a Doubt. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Thornton Wilder. Sally Benson, and Alma Reville. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright. Skirball Productions and Universal Pictures, 1943. Film
Spoto, Donald. Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures. New York: Hopkins and Blake, 1976. Print.
Wilder, Thornton. “Shadow of a Doubt.” Collected Plays and Writings On Theater. Ed. J. D. McClatchy. New York: Library of America, 2007. 731-817.
The Power of the Dark Side: The Intelligence of Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt
by Alex Poulos
Wilder’s collective works contained a wide variety of characters, though only a few could be recognized as truly evil. One such character was Charles Oakley, the psychotic murderer from Shadow of a Doubt. At the time Young Charlie Newton, his niece, discovered his schemes he would “[…] be charged with the murder of three, and perhaps four, wealthy women. His victims have uniformly been widows of large means living in resort hotels and this fact has led to his being given the name of the ‘Merry Widow’ murderer” (Wilder 775). Given these crimes, it would not be unreasonable to assume Uncle Charlie was an uncontrollable madman. However, he was much more dangerous than that, because he possessed a great intellect. It was clear from his control over his public image and his ability to maximize the power of his stolen wealth that Uncle Charlie was an intelligent character.
Throughout the screenplay and film, Uncle Charlie controlled his public image by using disguises, charismatic charms, and preventing anyone from taking his picture. We saw his skill at disguise when he acted as the feeble “Mr. Otis” to elude police capture. As with Wilder’s nefarious character Uncle Pio in The Bridge over San Luis Rey, Uncle Charlie used his charismatic charm and wit to manipulate people. He used many ploys, such as the “[…] authoritarian father figure, suavely attentive escort, solicitous brother of her [Young Charlie’s] fragile mother […]” (Leitch 302). He also concealed his image by ensuring that no current photographs of his face existed. His sister, Mrs. Newton, held the only photo of Uncle Charlie known to the audience. Still, even this photograph would do little to help incriminate him. Uncle Charlie was only nine years old in the photo. By controlling his public image, he was able to continue his schemes and exhibited a gifted mind.
The most evident sign of Uncle Charlie’s scheming intellect was his ability to utilize his wealth to further his crimes. Money from previous murders was cleverly used to sustain his image as a fashionable and philanthropic gentleman. At the opening of the screenplay, Wilder describes Uncle Charlie’s clothing as ostentatious (Wilder 733). His attire was a tool to lure his next victim. By wearing clothing that would gain attention and appear fashionable, his wealthy victims would be quick to notice him while not suspecting he desired their money. His funds also enabled him to perform many charitable deeds, further displacing suspicion that he was a villain. For example, during his stay in Santa Rosa, Uncle Charlie’s philanthropic plans required his large fortune: making a large deposit in the Santa Rosa bank and his assurance to add more, his promise to rebuild the Newton’s kitchen, and paying the bill for the proposed children’s hospital playroom. Using his wealth to attract his next victim and muddle suspicion, Uncle Charlie displayed a brilliant mind.
In Wilder’s screenplay and Hitchcock’s final film, Uncle Charlie was presented as a character with a high degree of intelligence, despite his lunacy. He displayed his genius through a strong command over his public image and a calculating mind that used his fortune to both continue growth and divert suspicion. In the character of Uncle Charlie, Wilder showed that in our world the most gifted individual is not necessarily the one who is most deserving of the gifts.
Leitch, Thomas. The Encyclopedia of Alfred Hitchcock. New York: Checkmark Books, 2002.
Wilder, Thornton. “Shadow of a Doubt.” In Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays & Writings on Theater. Ed. J.D. McClatchy. New York: Literary Classics U.S., 2007. 731 – 817
For further discussions of Shadow of a Doubt, please visit the Bibliography.
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