skip navigation
Shadow of a Doubt
Remind Me
,Shadow of a Doubt

Shadow of a Doubt

Alfred Hitchcock especially liked Shadow of a Doubt (1943), he once said, "because it was one of those rare occasions where you could combine character with suspense. Usually in a suspense story there isn't time to develop character." In this picture, it's the very nature of the relationship between two richly-drawn characters - Teresa Wright's "Charlie" and Joseph Cotten's "Uncle Charlie" - which creates suspense for the audience. The two share an almost telepathic connection, with Wright especially devoted to her beloved uncle, who has come to visit her family in Santa Rosa, California. What she doesn't know is that Uncle Charlie has come to town in order to throw the police off his trail, for he is really the "Merry Widow Murderer" and has been killing rich widows back east. Gradually, Charlie begins to suspect him.

Given its seamlessness, it's surprising that the screenplay was the product of at least six writers (four credited), including Hitchcock himself. The project began when the head of David Selznick's story department, Margaret McDonell, told Hitchcock that her husband Gordon had an interesting idea for a novel that she thought would make a good movie. His idea, called Uncle Charlie, was based on the true story of Earle Leonard Nelson, a mass murderer of the 1920s known as the Merry Widow Murderer. Hitchcock met with the couple over lunch at the Brown Derby restaurant, loved the pitch, and asked Gordon to type a 9-page outline. (McDonell would go on to earn an Oscar® nomination for Best Original Story.)

Outline in hand, Hitchcock put in a request for Thornton Wilder to write the script. He had admired Wilder's recent play Our Town and wanted to incorporate a similar sense of small-town American life into the movie. Furthermore, the director was eager to work with top writers. Hitchcock remembered, "In England I'd always had the collaboration of the finest writers, but in America - writers looked down their noses at the genre I work in. That's why it was so gratifying to find out that one of America's most eminent playwrights was willing to work with me and, indeed, that he took the whole thing quite seriously." As a matter of fact, Wilder at first wasn't terribly interested in the project. He knew he was about to receive military orders and took the job as a way to make some extra last-minute cash to help his ailing sister. But when he met Hitchcock in Los Angeles and felt the director's respect for his work, Wilder's enthusiasm rose greatly. Hitchcock recalled that they "worked together in the morning, and [Wilder] would work on his own in the afternoon, writing by hand in a school notebook. He never worked consecutively, but jumped about from one scene to another according to his fancy."

Wilder also gave input about other aspects of the production and even assisted Hitchcock in the location scouting, personally approving the town of Santa Rosa and the house in which the characters lived. After five weeks in California, Wilder was ordered to report for training at Army Air Intelligence in Florida. The script was largely but not totally complete, and Hitchcock accompanied Wilder back east on the Super Chief so they could finish their discussions.

Back in L.A., Sally Benson (who had just written the novel Meet Me in St. Louis) came on board to inject some comedic moments, and Hitchcock's wife Alma Reville also contributed to the script. Her influence on her husband's films cannot be overemphasized. She had her own career as a film editor when the two met and married in 1929, and she collaborated closely on all his movies - especially the scripts, usually uncredited. Shadow was one of the few titles for which she did receive a credit. One of the greatest compliments Hitchcock could ever give an actor or crewmember was, "Alma liked it." They were still married when Hitchcock died in 1980.

Actress Patricia Collinge, who plays Cotten's sister, also wrote at least one scene, the one between Teresa Wright and Macdonald Carey in a garage in which the couple talk about love and marriage.

But the final writer was Hitchcock himself. He devoted an unusual amount of time to the screenplay, even writing extensive dialogue - something he rarely did. The speech that Patricia Collinge delivers about what her brother Joseph Cotten was like as a boy, for instance, was drawn from Hitchcock's own life experience. And Collinge's character was named "Emma" after Hitchcock's own mother - "the last benevolent rendering of a mother figure in Hitchcock's films," wrote Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto. Indeed, after this picture, Hitchcock's films would be filled with possessive, tyrannical, deranged, or evil mothers. One reason for this is that during the writing of Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock's mother became seriously ill in England, and he was unable to visit her because of the difficulties of wartime traveling. She would die during production. According to Spoto, "Hitchcock poured his soul into the first spiritually autobiographical film of his career. Shadow of a Doubt would become a handbook of all the literary and cultural influences on his own life, and it would be as near as he would ever get to wearing his private heart on his public and professional sleeve."

Resulting from all these writers' hands was a remarkably subversive movie, something of a flip side to Our Town. The town in the film is sunny and pleasant on the surface, but underneath runs a river of uncertainty and anxiety. Considering it was made in the middle of WWII, to find such a dark and disturbing portrait of smalltown America in a major studio production was quite amazing.

Hitchcock assembled a perfect cast, borrowing Joseph Cotten from David O. Selznick and Teresa Wright from Samuel Goldwyn. Wright had just won an Oscar® for Mrs. Miniver (1942, and had been nominated twice before). Her Broadway career, ironically, had begun as an understudy to Dorothy McGuire in Our Town, and it's possible that Wilder suggested her to Hitchcock. Cotten's likable, easygoing persona makes him a sympathetic protagonist, at least at first, and it provided a nice contrast in the riveting scenes where his inner evil surfaces from deep within. Cotten recalled of Hitchcock, "He said I should dress as if I were a rich man going to a resort for a vacation. No director was ever easier to work with." Wright echoed Cotten, stating, "During the shooting he made us feel very relaxed. His direction never came across as instruction...He saw the film completely in his mind before we began - as if he had a little projection room in his head."

Shadow of a Doubt also features the screen debut of Hume Cronyn, who would go on to appear in Lifeboat (1944) and then collaborate with Hitchcock on the treatments of Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949). Wright's little sister Ann was played by the daughter of a local Santa Rosa grocer, whom Hitchcock discovered on a location shoot.

As always, Hitchcock paid great attention to every detail of the production, even arranging for the train that carries Cotten to Santa Rosa to belch black smoke when it pulls into town, "one of those ideas," he remarked, "for which you go to a lot of trouble although it's seldom noticed." Also on that train, look for the master himself in his cameo, playing poker.

Producer: Jack H. Skirball
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Sally Benson, Joan Harrison, Gordon McDonell, Alma Reville, Thornton Wilder
Cinematography: Joseph A. Valentine
Film Editing: Milton Carruth
Art Direction: John B. Goodman
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Joseph Cotten (Charlie Oakley), Teresa Wright (Young Charlie Newton), Macdonald Carey (Jack Graham), Henry Travers (Joseph Newton), Patricia Collinge (Emma Newton), Wallace Ford (Fred Saunders).
BW-108m. Closed Captioning.

by Jeremy Arnold