Synopsis: When Uncle Charlie comes to visit his relatives in the sleepy town of Santa Rosa, the foundation is laid for one of his most engaging and suspenseful excursions. Joseph Cotton stars as the charming Uncle Charlie, a beguiling killer who travels from Philadelphia to California just one step ahead of the law.
But soon his unknowing niece and namesake, “Young Charlie” (Teresa Wright), begins to suspect her uncle of being the Merry Widow murderer, and a deadly game of cat-and-mouse begins. As his niece draws closer to the truth, the psychopathic killer has no choice but to plot the death of his favorite relative in one of Hitchcock’s most riveting psychological thrillers.
A small-town girl, looking forward to the visit of her favourite uncle, discovers that he may not be all that he claims to be. Slowly unravelling the web of lies surrounding uncle Charlie, and unable to disclose any of this information to her family, which would be destroyed by the truth, she finds herself in a psychological and emotional tug of war between the law and a ruthless criminal on the run.
Aside form the obvious pop classics, like ‘Psycho’ and ‘The Birds’, this was one of my first Hitchcock films. Quite seriously, it still engages me after all this time.
While some of the techniques utilized by the “Master of Suspense”, which seem a bit forced in this day and age, were a little bit jarring, I really enjoyed his ability to build up the tension. One notable example is when Joseph Cotton makes a speech about his contempt for rich widows in close-up, fully imposing himself and his message on the audience, and then turns to speak to an off-camera character – thereby looking straight at us, with his cold, menacing eyes. It’s not something that would be done nowadays, being a bit theatrical, but it really worked.
Also an appealing element of this film, and particular to Hitchcock (who made his part o his reputation with this) is a knack for very black humour. In the most prominent example of this, the father and his best friend, both amateurs of crime stories, intensely discuss the best way to murder someone – in effect, each other. There are at least 4-5 scenes in which they return to their dialogue with their latest, most ingenious way to commit murder, and it’s hard to not laugh – it is, after all, an absurd exchange, meant to poke fun at the audience’s discomfort and release some of the tension that is built up around the rest of the film.
On top of this, the acting is good, for the period, and the story develops pretty smoothly (although it does take a couple of unfortunate shortcuts for expediency’s sake), so I think that it still holds up very very well. It may not be Hitchcock’s best work, but it certainly is memorable – not just as a stand-alone film, but in his overall oeuvre. In fact, it has even been said that Hitch frequently referred to it as his favourite film of his.
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, ‘Shadow of a doubt’ is a must-see film.