Hitchcock gives us a crime drama wrapped in a family reunion. Charles Oakley, played by Joseph Cotten, is being investigated by the police in the northeast United States as one of two suspects in the “Merry Widow” murders. Three wealthy widows were strangled by an acquaintance. Charles sends a telegram to his married sister, Emma Newton in California saying he wants to come visit her and her family. Emma is married to Joseph Newton and they live with their three children Charlotte (Charlie), Ann and Roger. Emma dotes on her baby brother and in her eyes, he can do no wrong. Her husband Joseph (played by Henry Travers) works at the local bank and is a quiet man who, along with his neighbor Herbie Hawkins (played by Hume Cronyn) enjoys reading and discussing the murders committed in detective novels. Ann and Roger are small children who intersect with the main story only obliquely. But Charlie is a high school graduate who feels stifled living in the small town of Santa Rosa. She is named after her mother’s brother, the legendary Uncle Charlie. And right before word of Uncle Charlie’s arrival reaches them, she has been bemoaning the boredom that is their life and has decided to send a telegram to Uncle Charlie and ask him to visit them.
When Charlie hears that her uncle is coming to stay with them, she is overjoyed. She takes the coincidence of his plans and hers as fate and is sure that his presence will add excitement and life to her stultified family. But strange things begin happening and Uncle Charlie’s presence becomes a strange mystery for Charlie to solve. He surreptitiously rips a page out of the family’s copy of the newspaper and when she tells him that she knows he did it he reacts violently and wrenches the paper from her hand, hurting her in the process. When the next day two men request and get permission from Mrs. Newton to interview and photograph the family as part of some national survey, Uncle Charlie berates her for her foolishness and tells her that he refuses to be interviewed or photographed.
The survey takers are actually police detectives Jack Graham and Fred Saunders attempting to get a photo of Uncle Charlie to allow witnesses to identify him. Jack asks Charlie if she would show him around town as part of his survey and she agrees. During their walk Jack reveals to Charlie what they are really doing and that if the identification is positive, they will arrest Uncle Charlie. Charlie is in a panic. She doesn’t know what to believe but all the strange behavior of her uncle leads her to believe that it could be true. She runs to the library and finds the newspaper article her uncle was hiding. It is a description of the Merry Widow murder case. One of the women who was murdered turns out to have the same initials as the inscription in a ring that Uncle Charlie had recently given her.
She confronts him and tells Uncle Charlie that the police are getting ready to arrest him. She reveals what she found out about the ring and throws it back at him. Uncle Charlie begs her to let him escape and spare her mother the shock of knowing her brother is a murderer. She agrees. But before anything else can happen news comes that the other suspect in the murders was killed trying to escape capture. Now the detectives are no longer after Uncle Charlie. We also learn that Jack Graham is in love with Charlie and tells her that he will return to ask her to marry him.
Uncle Charlie decides that he will stay in Santa Rosa but now he comes to the conclusion that Charlie knows too much about him. He plans to have her die by an apparent accident. In the first event she almost breaks her neck when an outdoor stair step breaks off under her foot and she barely catches hold of the handrail. Later on, she finds that the step had been sawn almost through. Next, Uncle Charlie arranges for her to go into a garage where a running car motor had filled the building with exhaust fumes and the key was removed from the ignition so the engine could not be stopped. And just as she tried to exit the garage the door slammed shut and was jammed tight so she couldn’t escape. Luckily Herbie Hawkins happened by and heard her cries and allowed for her rescue by, of all people, Uncle Charlie. He deftly kicked the shim from the jammed door and put the key in the ignition as he turned it off. Then he carried the unconscious Charlie into the fresh air where she revived.
Now convinced that she had to get Uncle Charlie to leave she used her uncle’s absence at a party to find the ring in his room. Seeing it on her finger Uncle Charlie announces that he would be leaving the next day for San Francisco. But while seeing him off at the train Charlie is maneuvered by him onto the departing train and by sheer brute strength, he drags her over to an open door on the end of a train car and prepared to throw her off the train as soon as its speed is sufficient to kill her. But at the last second Charlie wrenches herself free and in doing so causes Uncle Charlie to lose his balance and fall off the train directly onto the tracks of an oncoming train.
In the next scene Uncle Charlie’s funeral is going on in the church and Charlie is outside explaining to Jack Graham why she didn’t turn her uncle in to the police. They both agree that they will keep Uncle Charlie’s secret away from the people of Santa Rosa.
Most critics think that Shadow of a Doubt is one of Hitchcock’s best works. I tend to agree. Allowing Charles Oakley to give his feelings about society in general and about his victims at the family dinner table and during a fraught conversation with his niece at a seedy dive bar hits the right notes in this strange juxtaposition of normal family life and antisocial psychosis. The tension between Charlie’s desire to spare her mother and even in a sense her uncle from the consequences of his crimes and her horror at what he actually was see-saws the movie right to the end. There are many nice touches from the supporting cast. I especially enjoy Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers arguing over the advantages and disadvantages of poisoned mushrooms over blunt force trauma as a murder weapon. It shows that Hitchcock had already embraced his reputation for graveyard humor and didn’t mind letting the audience in on the joke.
And it was fun to see Joseph Cotton as a psychotic killer. Cotton always seems to show up as the honest, likable hero. It must have been a relief for him to get to play a monster for once. He was very good.
If you are a fan of Hitchcock and haven’t seen Shadow of a Doubt do yourself a favor and see it. And even if you’ve never seen a Hitchcock film, I can highly recommend this one.