One of Hitchcock’s favorite subjects was The Innocent Man Wrongly Accused. In “Shadow of a Doubt,” there’s no possibility of innocence. It’s clear from the outset that Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) is the notorious “Merry Widow Killer,” and more than once Hitchcock cuts to nightmarish fantasies of merry widows waltzing. We first see Charlie lying on top of his bed, smoking a cigar, when told by his landlady two men had been asking for him. He sees them standing on the corner downstairs, packs a bag with cash, leaves the house and boldly walks right past them. This demonstrates they don’t know what he looks like, but not why they wouldn’t be interested inanyman leaving the boarding house. The incompetence, and apparently unlimited expense account, of these two cops is one reason the action can span several weeks.
Charlie’s peppy niece Charlotte (Teresa Wright), nicknamed “Young Charlie” after her uncle, has idolized him for years, and complains to her family that life wouldn’t be so dull if he paid them a visit. Amazingly, that day they receive a telegram telling them to expect him. In a well-known shot Hitchcock shows Charlie’s train arriving beneath an ominous cloud of black smoke. He has arrived in Santa Rosa, California, a paragon of small towns that could have modeled for Norman Rockwell’sSaturday Evening Postcovers.
The town and the Newton family play major roles in the film, and may reveal Hitchcock’s own inner feelings. He shot in late 1941 and early1942, at the outset of World War II, at a time when he was unable to visit his dying mother in London because of wartime restrictions. He later credited the friendliness of the town for making this the most pleasant of all his film locations. Hitchcock was a master of the classical Hollywood compositional style. It is possible to recognize one of his films after a minute or so entirely because of the camera placement. He used well-known camera language just a little more elegantly. See here how he zooms slowly into faces to show dawning recognition or fear. Watch him use tilt shots to show us things that are not as they should be. He uses contrasting lighted and shadowed areas within the frame to make moral statements, sometimes in anticipation before they are indicated.
Until tomorrow: He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind.