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Hitchcock’s Average American Family

This is the second in our member-written series: My Favorite Crime Movie.

Alfred Hitchcock said several times that Shadow of a Doubt (1943) was his favorite of the films he directed. The film is set in Santa Rosa, California. If I tell you that the last time I was in California, I went in search of Santa Rosa, you'll have some idea how much I love this movie. As a Hitchcock fan, I love the movie as a psychological thriller. As an academic researcher who studies crime and American culture, I love its numerous themes – from gender roles and family life to consumerism and murder as entertainment.

Based on a short story, the movie script was a collaboration by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville. A debonair serial killer (Joseph Cotton) decides to shake off the police by visiting his sister and her family. The two police detectives who are pursuing him as one of two suspects in the “Merry Widow” murders, are close behind. They visit the family, posing as survey-takers sent out to interview "average American" families. Charlotte (Teresa Wright) the oldest daughter, soon realizes the men are detectives. Thus begins a tense battle of wits between "Uncle Charlie," the serial killer, and his niece and namesake, "Young Charlie."

When first seen, Charlie is stretched out on her bed in a pose that echoes that of her uncle, on the other side of the country. When her father comes upstairs to check on her, she tells him that their family is in a rut. They do nothing but eat, work, and sleep. She doesn't know what is going to become of them. Her father, a bank clerk, reminds her of his recent raise. Charlie demands to know how he can talk about money, when she is "talking about souls."

Having thought of "just the right person" to come and "shake us all up," she rushes downtown to send her uncle a wire. She learns that he – having read her mind – has sent a wire announcing his arrival. But she is puzzled when he is helped from the train by the porter and a passenger. As the train pulls away, he straightens and strides toward her. She tells him, "I thought you were sick." Of course, he is sick, mentally disturbed. The depth of his illness is revealed during his dinner table rant about wealthy widows as "faded, fat, greedy women."

But in spite of his proclaimed disdain for money, Uncle Charlie has come bearing gifts for his sister’s family. The ruby ring that he gives to Charlie has an engraving that convinces Charlie he is the killer. As her father and next door neighbor, Herb, both crime buffs, discuss how to commit the "perfect murder," Charlie tries to get her uncle out of town before he can destroy her family. Her problem: Uncle Charlie likes Santa Rosa and wants to settle down there. When the other suspect is identified as the killer, Uncle Charlie realizes she is the only one who can unmask him.

—Frankie Y. Bailey

Frankie Y. Bailey is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany (SUNY). Her areas of research are crime history, and crime and mass media/popular culture and material culture. She is the author of a number of non-fiction books, including local histories and books about crime fiction. Her mystery novels feature crime historian, Lizzie Stuart, and police detective, Hannah McCabe. She also has written several short stories. She is currently working on a nonfiction book about dress, appearance, and criminal justice and a historical thriller set in 1939. Frankie is a past executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime.

One Response

  1. Kate Showalter says:

    Ooh this movie is a classic. Thank you for writing about it! I love what Hitchcock is up to here, shining his dark light on the average American family and how complex and potentially self-destructive it can be, and that’s what makes for fascinating viewing (with some icky, incestuous undertones). Look at the the fact that Charlie’s mother named her daughter after her brother. The mother clearly idolizes her brother perhaps to the diminution of her marriage to Charlie’s milquetoast dad. By having her uncle as her namesake, Charlie is practically destined to worship him. And Uncle Charlie never connects with another mature woman outside of the family. He just engages in faux marriages for the sake of murder and profit! He’s still attached to his blood family, like a boy who never grows up.