Shadow of a Doubt has been let down by its own legacy.
This week marks what would have been Alfred Hitchcock’s 117th birthday and as such it only makes sense to revisit what he considered the best of his own films: Shadow of a Doubt. Hitchcock’s 1943 thriller starring Joseph Cotten as the villainous Uncle Charlie and Teresa Wright as the heroine, young Charlie, flies relatively under the radar for a Hitchcock classic, particularly one that is so universally beloved. This is particularly odd because Shadow of a Doubt’s influence exceeds its quality; revered film critic Richard Schickel even speculated in Keepers, his 2015 book of criticism, that it could have been the first true example of film noir.
The reason that Shadow of a Doubt hasn’t received the same amount of attention as Psycho, Vertigo, The Birds, Rear Window, or even Strangers on a Train and Rebecca has more to do with the films that it inspired rather than Shadow of a Doubt itself. While all of those other films individually inspired numerous classics, Shadow of a Doubt’s legacy is less illustrious. At its core, Shadow of a Doubt is a woman-in-peril film, a genre that has since proven problematic for a multitude of reasons.
The woman-in-peril genre was borne of and is sustained by the archaic idea that women are more vulnerable than men and thus experiencing their peril is a more exhilarating cinematic experience than watching a man fight off psychotic or supernatural forces. This was particularly true during the genre’s genesis in the 1940s.
Though other Hitchcock films involve women that happen to be in peril, Shadow of a Doubt is one of his only films where the concept of feminine vulnerability is the nucleus of the film. Shadow of a Doubt revolves around the relationship between a young woman and the uncle she was named after as he visits her and her family following a long absence. The audience quickly learns that both uncle and niece are linked by more than name. In fact, it’s suggested that they have a psychic link. However, Uncle Charlie is an evil man, a murderer, and young Charlie finds herself and her family in peril.
Shadow of a Doubt’s Uncle Charlie is an incredibly interesting, multi-faceted villain and young Charlie is a realistic, beguiling mix of strong heroine and silly teenager. Beyond that, Hitchcock adds in layer upon layer of nuance, contrasting young, dynamic Charlie with her traditional, trapped-in-the-kitchen mother, her studies-devoted younger sister and her banker father. Though Cotten shares top billing, Wright is the film’s star, and Hitchcock lets her shine as the younger Charlie. One moment she’s brilliant and tough and the next she’s doing something teenaged and stupid, but she’s always real and relatable.
While some of films Shadow of a Doubt influenced are classics like Silence of the Lambs, Alien and even the Nightmare on Elm Street series, the trouble with the film’s legacy is that the woman-in-peril genre is, as was previously mentioned, fairly problematic. The most common issues with the genre now are sexism, exploitation and incoherence of plot, all elements absent from Hitchcock’s film.
When young Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt makes a stupid mistake, Hitchcock is sure to show the audience that this is because she is a naïve teenager and not just inexplicably dense, as far too many female characters are written in thrillers and horror films. While young Charlie is beautiful, she’s not exploited. And this isn’t just a result of censorship, as Hitchcock’s resume is full of occasions where he found his way around restrictions to show skin when he felt it necessary. Finally, Shadow of a Doubt is smartly written, with a villain that is evil without being a caricature and a heroine who makes mistakes without seeming completely idiotic, or worse, unbelievable. Young Charlie is a heroine afforded much better and more realistic writing than nearly all of the cinematic women-in-peril audiences meet today.
Shadow of a Doubt has been let down by its own legacy. It has not received the respect it deserves and that is because Hollywood continues to make movies that are more exploitative of and disrespectful to women than Shadow of a Doubt is. It is both appalling and heartening that a heroine from 1943 was more realistic, intelligent and inspiring than those in films being released over 70 years later.