Deathly Americana; not as fun or spine-tingling as other Hitchcocks, but who's complaining? Hitch's favorite among his own films was based on the case of the real-life "Merry Widow Murderer," Earle Leonard Nelson, a mass strangler of the 1920s. The sly Hitchcock made this chiller all the
more frightening by having his crafty homicidal maniac intrude into the tranquility of a warm, middle-class family living in a small town, deeply developing his characters and drawing from the soft-spoken Joseph Cotten one of the actor's most remarkable and fascinating performances.
At the beginning of the film, Charlie (Cotten) is shown wooing and then murdering a woman for her riches. He barely escapes the police and then boards a train, having wired his sister Emma (Collinge) in Santa Rosa, California, that he is coming for an extended stay with the only family he has. (On
board the train, as a passenger in his cameo appearance, is director Hitchcock.) In Santa Rosa his niece, also named Charlie (Wright), is delighted to hear that her urbane, witty, and adventurous uncle will be visiting the family. She, her father (Travers), and her young brother and sister
(Wonacott and Bates) greet Uncle Charlie at the train station, but are shocked to see him limping on a cane, being helped by porters. He claims to be ill, and the family quickly takes him home, where Emma pampers him. Charlie stops at a bank and makes a scene while depositing $40,000, but his
strange behavior is explained as an idiosyncracy by his adoring niece. Gradually, though, Charlie's past comes to town to haunt him, especially when a detective (Carey) shows up. Battling the thought that her beloved uncle could be the mass killer the detective has suggested he is, Charlie tries
to get closer to her uncle, hoping to learn about his past and allay her fears.
This is Hitchcock's most penetrating analysis of a murderer--a masterful profile, aided by Cotten's superb performance, of a subtle killer who cannot escape his dark passions, despite a superior intellect. The film's construction is adroit and perfectly calculated, letting the viewer know early on
just what kind of man Cotton really is, but providing tension through Cotten's devious charade as a gentle, kind man deserving of his family's love--a tension which fuels the chilling cat-and-mouse game between Cotten and Wright that provides the film's suspenseful center.
Hitchcock took his time in making SHADOW OF A DOUBT, and the care shows. The director got Thornton Wilder to write the screenplay, assuming that the playwright who created "Our Town" would be the perfect scenarist to bring the right kind of ambience and characterization to the film's small,
close-knit Santa Rosa. After consulting briefly with Hitchcock, Wilder wandered about Hollywood with a notebook, writing bits and pieces of the screenplay when he could. He and the director took their time developing the intricate story, and Wilder had not finished the screenplay when he enlisted
to serve in the Psychological Warfare Division of the Army. To finish the script, Hitchcock boarded a cross-country train to Florida (where Wilder was to begin his training) with the writer, and patiently sat in the next compartment as Wilder periodically emerged to give him another few pages of
copy. The great playwright finished the last page of SHADOW OF A DOUBT just as the train was coming to his stop, and he used the train upon which he and Hitchcock traveled as his model in creating the setting for the gripping finale.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: Deathly Americana; not as fun or spine-tingling as other Hitchcocks, but who's complaining? Hitch's favorite among his own films was based on the case of the real-life "Merry Widow Murderer," Earle Leonard Nelson, a mass strangler of the 1920s. The sly Hit… (more)