Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt is no less than a perfect example of film noir. Low-key lighting, dramatic shadow patterning, and camera angles are all expertly used to foreshadow and portray the emotions and psyche of the characters. Hitchcock uses sets and props to mirror scenes, creates characters that are remarkably similar but simultaneously conflicting, and emphasizes emotions that offer contradictions. The sense of duality and contradiction in the film demonstrates how darkness can take the form of humanity and seep into even the most innocent places and the purest hearts.
The mystery of the film is not what causes the suspense, but rather the anxiety that the audience feels stems from Hitchcock’s use of duality as a means to force the audience to face the fact that human contradiction comes from the discontinuity between natural impulses and intellect. He creates parallels that underline similarities and differences that occur simultaneously in society and individuals. Uncle Charlie comes back to his hometown of Santa Rosa, California to visit his sister and her family. There’s also “Little” Charlie Wright, who loves and adores her uncle.
As the movie progresses, Charlie discovers that her beloved uncle might not be what he seems to be—is he the notorious Merry Widow strangler that preys on old, rich women? Or is he an innocent man, wronged by the law? With clues such as the Merry Widow Waltz stuck in her head, the detectives that show up on her doorstep and the expensive but curious ring that her uncle presented her with, Charlie discovers that her uncle is in fact the sick man who believes that killing women is a good idea, and nothing like the man she believed him to be.
With her knowledge, Charlie is a liability to her uncle and his safety so he tries to kill her off by making her death seem accidental. When Uncle Charlie is leaving Santa Rosa to head back east, he lures Charlie onto the train and attempts to suffocate her and throw her off. However, Charlie is able to fight back and she ends up pushing her uncle off the moving train to his death. Shadow of a Doubt takes place in a quiet California town: it is innocent, sweet suburbia where the biggest scandal might be a controversy at a pie-eating contest; but, cynicism penetrates the walls of the town, and evil shows its human face.
Hitchcock begins by uses establishing shots of the protagonists’ homes to acclimate the audience with the safe place that will soon be violated. Film Scholar Kevin Hagopian once wrote that Hitchcock “made the home a place where exotic terror lives uneasily with domesticity” (Kevin Jack Hagopian; imagesjournal. com) referring to the introduction of Uncle Charlie, aka the Merry Widow Murderer, into a typical American family. Having the story take place in an idealistic town makes the drama that evolves all the more exciting.
The more happy-go-lucky the setting is the greater kick the audience gets out of the introduction of unexpected drama. However, Hitchcock does not create a stark contrast between the setting and the plot merely for the sake of entertainment purposes; it is the way things happen in real life. Tragic events and sinister crimes are not foreshadowed by the weather. There is never the confirmation that a catastrophe is coming and so the characters in the film (namely Little Charlie) are just as taken aback at the series of events that are unfold, as any other person would be if they were put in the same situation.
In this sense, the setting is chosen to create a false sense of security for the characters, because in reality, security is but a thin skin stretched over the whole world. Individual scenes also set up important comparisons and contrasts, either by foreshadowing scenes through repetition or with the use of props and staging. The opening scene of the movie foreshadows the funeral scene at the end. Uncle Charlie is reclining on his bed with his hands crossed over his chest. His spirit is dead, and later on he even suggests to his niece, Little Charlie that he had been considering suicide.
The train that causes his demise parallels the funeral procession through the town of Santa Rosa. The cars in the funeral procession move in a grim, single file line the same way the train cars speed down the railway. When Uncle Charlie arrives in Santa Rosa, the train belches black funeral smoke into the sky and a dark shadow is cast over everything to symbolize the arrival of evil in a clean and bright town. The scene in which Little Charlie and Detective Graham go out to dinner and discuss the case at hand parallels the scene in which Charlie’s uncle takes her into the cocktail lounge.
When Charlie is with Graham the world is untainted and safe. Graham even mentions that while at dinner they were like two normal people, having normal conversation and enjoying themselves. But when Charlie is escorted into the cocktail lounge by her once-beloved uncle, the bubble that she has lived in is popped and she is forced to accept the fact that the world is “a foul sty” and an evil place where even the most adored people are not always what they seem to be. The ring that Little Charlie accepts from her beloved uncle is not only onfirmation of his crimes, but it is also a symbolic object. Even though the film is in black and white, Hitchcock makes sure that viewers are conscious of the fact that the stone is an emerald. Emerald is a dualistic color according to Western culture. The color can either be a symbol for nature and the vibrancy of life or it can stand for the negative feelings of greed and jealousy. When Charlie receives the ring, and her uncle places it on her finger, it is representative of the strong bond between them and their almost incestuous relationship.
However, towards the end, that same ring is the only evidence that Little Charlie needs to convince herself that her uncle is in fact the killer. Ironically, the beautiful gift that Charles gave his niece is that same thing that severs the tie between them and eventually causes her to want nothing to do with him anymore. Hitchcock also conveys dualism through his characters. On the other side of the country, Little Charlie lies in her bed in practically the same position as her uncle. Her pose supports the indication that she resembles him tremendously.
This idea is reinforced again and again throughout the film through dialogue about Little Charlie’s telepathy and her belief that she and her uncle are like twins. When Uncle Charlie arrives at the Newton home and is standing in front of young Charlie’s photograph, his face is mirrored in the glass, and overlapped with her image. However, even though the characters resemble each other in relatively obvious ways, they do differ significantly. Uncle Charlie is a psychologically damaged and cynical killer while his niece is idealistic and pure.
Even as the viewer’s become conscious of the differences between the two Charlie’s, the winds change when Little Charlie is compelled to kill her uncle. It was by her hands that he fell to his death; she is the reason he fell off the train. This plot twist forces the audience to realize that not all heroes are pure white and villains a stark black, but instead accept that there are grays everywhere and things aren’t as clear as they seem. Uncle Charlie himself is an example of dualism within a person.
Hitchcock has represented him as a sort of dark angel. He believes that he is avenging the husbands of the greedy women who only care about the physical, material things in life. However, he refuses to see his own moral duplicity. When he is eating his breakfast in bed on the first morning of his stay in the Newton home, the camera shot is meant to make the headboard behind him imply black wings. As he smokes and puffs rings of smoke into the air, the smoke forms rings that rise and then disappear into thin air—his “halo” is a temporary cover up.
As he descends the stairs, the shadows in the window frames form an upside-down cross, and the low-angle shot portray him as a man who has strayed so far from the right path that he has been cast down from heaven by God. Despite this, he is still given a hero’s funeral and as the residents of Santa Rosa mourn the loss of a generous man, Detective Graham tells Charlie that her uncle really was not all bad, but just like the rest of the world, “[he needed] watching, that’s all”.
In the film, Hitchcock motivates the audience to acknowledge the discontinuities between their emotions and their intellect. Viewers subconsciously become anxious while watching the movie because it calls to attention the viewers’ emotional dualism. In Shadow of a Doubt, viewers are able to identify with the charismatic killer, Charles Oakley. Even though they know that what he has done/is doing is wrong, they still have a certain soft spot for him and cannot help but try to hold onto that romanticized vision of him that his niece had before she was exposed to his sinister secret.
For example, when Charlie informs her uncle of the fact that she knows his secret, the action is seen from the girl’s point of view when he grips her forearm and his face clouds over with menacing glare. The once-charming uncle suddenly turns mean and Charlie’s vision of him changes from admiration to hatred at the discovery of his guilt and she lets him know. However, for the audience, just the knowledge of Uncle Charlie’s evildoings is not enough to completely tarnish their view of him.
The viewer’s emotional response to Charlie is to forgive his actions because he is psychologically damaged, even though their brains are telling them that he deserves to be punished because of his heinous crimes. As film critic Vincent Canby (1980) stated, “Hitchcock transform[s] things given into things unknown, the commonplace experience into the exotic breakthrough. The world just outside the Hitchcock frame, and sometimes inside it, is dark indeed, and this awareness fuels not despair but an insatiable and amused curiosity about what else can possibly go wrong” (Vincent Canby; nytimes. om). By making the given unknown, Hitchcock invites viewers on a voyage of self-discovery. The movie stirs up aspects of them that they would rather keep buried and consequentially creates a feeling of unease and apprehension among the audience. Although Shadow of a Doubt seems very simple and straightforward on the surface; Hitchcock incites emotional discourse within it. By incorporating duality into the film, he forces the audience to recognize how humans contradict themselves.