Shadow of a Doubt

Shadow of a Doubt ★★★★★

I can totally see why Hitchcock considers this his favorite. In the broadest sense, Alfred Hitchcock had a career built on thrillers. Still, no one could accuse Hitch of not being dynamic. And yet, Shadow of a Doubt remains wonderfully distinctive. It's as suspenseful and perfectly constructed as any Hitchcock film, its approach to character and performance is unparalleled, and sneaks in so much more than one might expect from a film of its era.

Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten are phenomenal leads, playing a young woman being groomed and manipulated by her vampiric uncle, both named Charlie. Hitchcock is no stranger to the ways in which women are pawns in the schemes or obsessions of men. And yet, Shadow of a Doubt is so much more chilling than we often see in Hitchcock's films. We know from the get-go that there's something up with Cotten, and yet, we're won over by him immediately, almost as much as his family is. And to see the image of a loved one curdle before one's eyes is always heartbreaking.

It's odd to watch this in a post MeToo world. More than anything, Shadow of a Doubt shows us that nothing has changed. These dynamics have always existed. Even someone as, well, notorious for their cruelty towards women as Hitchcock isn't unaware of this in his films. Yet, here we are, 80 years later, still reckoning with abusive men wielding their charisma and menace over women, and bringing in anyone they can to dismantle the notion that they could ever be anything but kind and gregarious. And even in a best case scenario, nobody wins.

As heavy as the subject matter is, Shadow of a Doubt is maybe Hitchock's funniest movie. It's almost farcical in its depiction of American suburbia--something Hitch almost never depicts. Santa Rosa is so boringly idyllic you can't help but laugh at how regimented and unburdened the community is. Then, you have the two precocious children Emmy and Roger, who act as a kind of Greek chorus. Emmy is a know-it-all bookworm, while Roger has maybe the best reactions to a given scenario.

Best of all is a hilarious subplot between Cotten's brother-in-law Joe (Henry Travers) and Joe's friend Herb (Hume Cronyn). It's a sort of riff on a Lubitsch or Sturgess exchange where they discuss ways to commit a perfect murder. Perhaps gag is a bit on the nose, especially as it reflects the conflict between the Charlies, but a laugh is a laugh, and I got plenty out of the bit. What's so striking is how Hitchcock can have such a broad, morbid device in his film, that he can make room for so many jokes and clever jabs, without derailing the film. Shadow of a Doubt is predominately a thriller, but with the savory comes a sweet kick that meshes perfectly.

Right now, I believe I have Shadow of a Doubt as my highest-rated Hitchcock. Even though I've seen some of his films multiple times, it may be time for a rewatch, just to make sure. Yet, as light as Shadow of a Doubt is, it might also be Hitchcock's darkest and most intense work, which is no small feat from a man with no shortage of remarkable films under his belt.

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