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Shadow of a Doubt
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by MP Bartley

"It was Hitchcock's own personal favourite. Who are we to disagree?"
4 stars

I'm sure we've all had a favourite uncle who all we look forward to seeing whenever they come to visit. Usually because they come bearing gifts or with great stories about what they've been up to. Not Hitchcock though. Oh no, in a Hitchcock film the favourite uncle comes back to town with a dark little secret and a willingness to protect it at any cost...

Charlie (Teresa Wright) can't wait for her favourite uncle and namesake Charlie Snr (Joseph Cotten) to come and visit her and liven her life up. She's at home with her parents and in a small town like Santa Rosa there's just not that much to do. She's so close to her uncle that she thinks of him as more like her twin, but she isn't really expecting him to bring the trouble that comes along with him. There's two strangers sniffing around him, very interested in his behaviour and whereabouts, while Charlie himself seems very keen to distract all attention away from where he's been and what he's been up to recently.

It's perhaps surprising that Hitchcock chose this film as his favourite out of all the ones that he made. It's certainly not as well regarded as 'Psycho' or 'North By Northwest', and has little of the themes that you usually associate with him. Where's the ice-cool blondes and the deep sexual perversion? 'Vertigo' this is not.

But when you consider that a large part of Hitchcock's skill was finding the darkness and terror in the smallest and most hum-drum of things, it starts to make more sense. After all, what could be more comforting than the return home of a favourite relative? Yet Hitchcock turns this simple concept on its head and turns it into a slow-burning thriller that creeps you out slowly but surely.

'Shadow of a Doubt' also shows just how Hitchcock knows the perfect tone for the material. At no point does Hitchcock turn this into a predecessor of 'The Stepfather' and have Cotten running after Wright with a knife, it's much more subtle than that. It moves along at its own sedate pace, patiently drawing you a portrayal of sleepy suburban America, before ripping back the curtains and letting you see just what exactly dwells there. If David Lynch's 'Blue Velvet' showed you the deep well of perversions that lie behind the picket-fences and apple pie of cheerful small-town life, than Hitchcock took equal pleasure at portraying the dark secrets that can hide in many families, and playing on the innate distrust that some children have of adults.

Uncle Charlie is much more insidious than a stereotypical psychotic would be, instead worming his way into the families affections and only showing hints of the true blackness inside him with casual asides in conversation at dinnertime. This is not to say this is an overly talky thriller; while Charlie's true character may be mainly shown in these moments of unguarded conversation, Hitchcock remembers to throw in regular shocks of action such as Charlie Jr finding out her uncle's secret and Cotten's reaction to this. It's a thriller that may appear deceptively slow on the surface, but it's what's going on below that's important.

Cotten gives a pitch -perfect performance as uncle Charlie. Playing against his matinee idol good looks, he may not be as memorable as Norman Bates or Bruno Anthony, but he convinces thoroughly, hinting at the oceans of rage that lie within him, through little darting glances of his eyes and his permanent crooked smile. But above all he's a charming rogue, making it almost impossible to believe that he could be up to no good. Wright also gives an excellent performance as Charlie, with a mixture of childish naivety and burgeoning maturity. It's a mixed-up, confused character but Wright plays her with assurance, making her tough but still vulnerable.

If the climax of the film does feel a little undercooked, then it's to be remembered that this is Hitchcock at his lightest. 'Shadow of a Doubt' is a film that depends on a subtle touch, and Hitchcock never wavers throughout.

This is not Hitchcock at his most cinematic, or perverse best, or most deeply thrilling, and the sedate pace will put some off. More fool them however, as this is one of his films that resonates and continues to chill afterwards. Hitchcock claimed that this films intention was to " bring violence back into the home, where it belongs" and he does that admirably, making uncle Charlie someone you'd happily invite to dinner, but hide your daughter from after he had a few drinks and started talking. I'll remain a firm 'Strangers on a Train' fan, and still choose that as my favourite Hitchcock film, but do you honestly think he would care about what just one internet critic thinks? The man himself said that this was favourite, and that's more than enough for the rest of us.

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originally posted: 04/19/05 23:05:42
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User Comments

2/13/17 morris campbell one of Hitchcocks best IMO 4 stars
6/24/12 matthew thompson dalldorf This is what 'Suspension' should have been 5 stars
4/03/12 Teresa Wright Hitchcock at his very best - Cotton at his most attractive. 5 stars
7/10/11 The Big D Similar to Deception with Hugh Jackman; here it's the uncle (not the friend) who is suspect 4 stars
4/23/10 Chelsea Incest, murder, and insanity in a neat little package. Cotten is awesome! 5 stars
12/09/09 Josie Cotton is a goddess I am in agreement with Hitchcock, this is one of his best 5 stars
10/26/05 Justin Not one of Hitchcock's best. The dialogue is particularly drab. 4 stars
9/02/05 Zack very very good movie in fact it was alfred's favorite movie he made 5 stars
5/02/05 Dorothy Malm still a great movie 5 stars
4/26/05 hp haha Sir hitchcock at his best - a grt example of useing relationships to creat thrill 4 stars
4/21/05 Colleen Goldrick Hitchcock is always worth watching 5 stars
3/28/04 john solid thriller - keeps you interessted all the way through 4 stars
1/22/03 Rich Cirivilleri Utterly great. This film works on so many levels. Cotten is flawless. The best of Hitch! 5 stars
5/31/01 A little research goes along way. 5 stars
1/07/01 R.W. Welch Good early Hitchcock effort, has you guessing most of the way. 4 stars
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  DVD: 07-Feb-2006



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