‘Shadow of a Doubt’: Hitchcock’s Disquieting Little Subversive Masterpiece

Alfred Hitchcock directs actors Teresa Wright, Edna May Wonacott, Henry Travers, and Charles Bates on location in Santa Rose, California, during the filming of Shadow of a Doubt © Universal Studios

By Sven Mikulec

One of the most subversive films Alfred Hitchcock ever made is a disquieting little masterpiece called Shadow of a Doubt that was brought to life back in 1943, in the very midst of the Second World War. It’s somewhat surprising, some would even say remarkable, that at this very point in history Hollywood produced a film like this, as it portrays a typical American small town polished on the surface, seemingly full of innocent, kindhearted people, one of those ideal communities where everybody knows each other’s names, unexpectedly bring over apple pies and smile gently and warmly at each other in front of the church before the Sunday mass. But underneath this sugarcoated surface a psychopathic serial killer walks the streets, inhabits their dinner parties and sleeps in their rooms. To make things worse, a teenage niece of the killer becomes suspicious of her uncle’s activities, but keeps her findings, as brutally dark as they are, to herself in order to save her family from destruction.

As many have pointed out, there are some elements of the plot that, in hindsight, seem implausible, stretched and unconvincing. It is to Hitchcock’s enormous credit that these objections are deemed unimportant, because as you watch the film, immersed in the story and paralyzed by its suspense, you probably do not notice or care about these trifling details. Shadow of a Doubt was written by no less than six people, four of whom received credit for the screenplay. Born as a story called ‘Uncle Charlie,’ the theme was developed by Gordon McDonnell, husband of the head of David Selznick’s story department Margaret McDonnell. His 9-page outline was then sent to Thornton Wilder, whom Hitchcock admired for his play ‘Our Town.’ Wilder and Hitchcock labored over the story, developing the whole skeleton of the film, and ultimately Sally Benson, a New Yorker writer, came on board to add some comedic elements. Actress Patricia Collinge wrote at least one scene, and Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville reportedly had an immense contribution, as she often did on her husband’s movies, but Shadow of a Doubt remains one of the few pictures for which she was given official credit. The sixth author was, of course, Hitchcock himself, who once said that in order to make a great film you need three things—the script, the script, the script. And what these talented people produced was an intriguing, subversive story obviously toying around with the concept of sexual abuse and incest, intelligently disguised but shockingly evident for a film made seventy years ago. Shot by the Oscar-winning cinematographer Joseph A. Valentine, embellished by the legendary Dimitri Tiomkin’s music, carried on the shoulders of Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright’s impeccable career performances, Shadow of a Doubt is a psychological thriller that manages to stand out even in a record sheet as impressive as Hitchcock’s.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson & Alma Reville’s screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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In the fall of 1962, whilst The Birds was in post-production, François Truffaut carried out extensive interviews with Alfred Hitchcock at his offices at Universal Studios. The interviews were recorded to audio tape and the content eventually edited down into the ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’ book. Buy ‘Hitchcock by François Truffaut’ from Amazon. Hitchcock/Truffaut documentary explores the art and influence of Hitchcock through his famed 1962 interview with François Truffaut. Available on HBO NOW and HBO GO.

I take it that of all the pictures you’ve made, Shadow of a Doubt is the one you prefer. And yet it gives a rather distorted idea of the Hitchcock touch. I feel that the film which pro­vides the most accurate image of the ensemble of your work, as well as of your style, is Noto­rious.
I wouldn’t say that Shadow of a Doubt is my favorite picture; if I’ve given that impres­sion, it’s probably because I feel that here is something that our friends, the plausibles and logicians, cannot complain about.

What about the psychologists?
That’s right, the psychologists as well! In a sense, it reveals a weakness. On the one hand I claim to dismiss the plausibles, and on the other I’m worried about them. After all, I’m only human! But that impression is also due to my very pleasant memories of working on it with Thornton Wilder. In England I’d always had the collaboration of top stars and the finest writers, but in America things were quite differ­ent. I was turned down by many stars and by writers who looked down their noses at the genre I work in. That’s why it was so gratifying for me to find out that one of America’s most eminent playwrights was willing to work with me and, indeed, that he took the whole thing quite seriously.

Did you select Thornton Wilder or did someone suggest him to you?
I wanted him. Let’s go back a little into the history of the picture. A woman called Mar­garet MacDonell, who was head of Selznick’s story department, had a husband who was a novelist. One day she told me her husband had an idea for a story but he hadn’t written it down yet. So we went to lunch at the Brown Derby and they told me the story, which we elaborated together as we were eating. Then I told him to go home and type it up. In this way we got the skeleton of the story into a nine-page draft that was sent to Thornton Wil­der. He came right here, to this studio we are now in, to work on it. We worked together in the morning, and he would work on his own in the afternoon, writing by hand in a school note­book. He never worked consecutively, but jumped about from one scene to another ac­cording to his fancy. I might add that the reason I wanted Wilder is that he had written a won­derful play called ‘Own Town.’

I saw Sam Wood’s screen version of that play.
When the script was finished, Wilder enlisted in the Psychological Warfare Depart­ment of the U.S. Army. But I felt there was still something lacking in our screenplay, and I wanted someone who could inject some com­edy highlights that would counterpoint the drama. Thornton Wilder had recommended an M-G-M writer, Robert Audrey, but he struck me as being more inclined toward serious drama, so Sally Benson was brought in. Before the writing, Wilder and I went to great pains to be realistic about the town, the people, and the decor. We chose a town and we went there to search for the right house. We found one, but Wilder felt that it was too big for a bank clerk. Upon investigation it turned out that the man who lived there was in the same financial bracket as our character, so Wilder agreed to use it. But when we came back, two weeks prior to the shooting, the owner was so pleased that his house was going to be in a picture that he had had it completely repainted. So we had to go in and get his permission to paint it dirty again. And when we were through, naturally, we had it done all over again with bright, new colors.

The acknowledgment to Thornton Wilder in the main credits of Shadow of a Doubt is rather unusual.
It was an emotional gesture; I was touched by his qualities.

In that case, why didn’t you work with him on other screenplays?
Because he went off to war and I didn’t see him for several years after that.

I was wondering where you got the idea of illustrating the tune of “The Merry Widow” with dancing couples. It’s an image that reappears several times.
I even used it as a background for the credits.

Was it a stock shot?
No, I made it up especially for the pic­ture. I can’t remember now whether Uncle Charlie is the one who first had the idea of whistling a few bars of “The Merry Widow” or whether it was the girl.

At first you showed the dancing couples and the air is played by an orchestra. Then the mother hums the opening bars and every­one at the table is trying to remember the title of the song. Joseph Cotten, who’s a little dis­turbed, says that it’s the “Blue Danube,” and his niece then says, “That’s right… Oh no, it’s The Merry…” Whereupon Cotten spills his glass to create a diversion.
Yes, because it’s too close to the truth. It’s also another indication of the telepathy be­tween Uncle Charlie and his niece.

Psycho is the only other picture in which your central figure is a villain; the char­acter in Shadow of a Doubt even has the public’s sympathy, probably because you never actually show him in the act of killing the widows.
That may be one reason, but aside from that, he’s a killer with an ideal; he’s one of those murderers who feel that they have a mis­sion to destroy. It’s quite possible that those widows deserved what they got, but it certainly wasn’t his job to do it. There is a moral judg­ment in the film. He’s destroyed at the end, isn’t he? The niece accidentally kills her uncle. What it boils down to is that villains are not all black and heroes are not all white; there are grays everywhere. Uncle Charlie loved his niece, but not as much as she loved him. And yet she has to destroy him. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: “You destroy the thing you love.”

I’m puzzled by one detail of the pic­ture. In the first scene at the station, when the train carrying Uncle Charlie is coming in, there’s a heavy cloud of black smoke coming out of the engine’s smokestack, and as the train comes close, it darkens the whole station. I have the feeling that this was done deliberately be­cause when the train is leaving the station, at the end of the picture, there’s simply a small puff of light smoke.
That’s right; I asked for lots of black smoke for the first scene. It’s one of those ideas for which you go to a lot of trouble, although it’s seldom noticed. But here, we were lucky. The position of the sun created a beautiful shadow over the whole station.

The black smoke implies that the devil was coming to town.
Exactly. There’s a similar detail in The Birds when Jessica Tandy, in a state of shock after having discovered the farmer’s body, takes off in her car. To sustain that emotion, I had them put smoke in the truck’s exhaust and we also made the road dusty. It also served to estab­lish a contrast with the peaceful mood of her arrival at the farm. For that scene we had the road slightly dampened and there was no smoke coming out of the truck.

With the exception of the detective, the casting is excellent, and I imagine you were very pleased with the performances of Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright. Her portrait of a young American girl was outstanding; she had a lovely face, a nice shape, and her way of walking was particularly graceful.
Teresa Wright was under contract to Goldwyn and we got her on loan. All the irony of the situation stemmed from her deep love for her uncle.

In the final scene the girl and her de­tective sweetheart are standing in front of the church. From the background we hear the min­ister’s tribute to Uncle Charlie, describing him as an exceptional person. Meanwhile, the girl and the detective are planning their future to­gether, and she makes a rather ambiguous com­ment, something to the effect that they are the only ones to know the truth.
I don’t remember the exact wording, but that’s the general meaning; the girl will be in love with her Uncle Charlie for the rest of her life.



Documentary about the making of Shadow of a Doubt. This documentary appears on all Universal DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film.



Pre-production drawings by Dorothea Holt for Shadow of a Doubt.



Hitchcock’s cameo in Shadow of a Doubt occurs about 16 minutes into the film, where he appears playing cards on the train carrying Uncle Charlie to Santa Rosa. Courtesy of the Hitchcock Zone.

He has a straight flush of spades.

Below: two page photo spread from the May 1943 edition of Vogue, with Edna May Wonacott and Alfred Hitchcock. The photographer was Gjon Mili.



Hitchcock: Shadow of a Genius aka Dial H for Hitchcock (1999) is a fascinating look at the cinematic genius of Alfred Hitchcock. Briefly covering much of his early British works, the film primarily focuses on his American classics, such as Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds. The documentary also covers his television years and neatly examines the Hitchcock signature touches, from his inevitable brief cameos to his famous “MacGuffin.” Kevin Spacey narrates, and there are interviews with his delightful daughter Pat as well as such film directors as Brian De Palma, Jonathan Demme, Curtis Hanson, Robert Altman, Ronald Neame and Peter Bogdanovich, along with cast and crew members Tippi Hedren, Joseph Stefano, Norman Lloyd, Robert F. Boyle, Teresa Wright and Janet Leigh. This documentary has not been officially released on DVD.

For further relevant information about this film, see also…

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt © Universal Studios.

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