Wednesday 15 August 2012
The horror genre has travelled from the gothic castles of Transylvania in Dracula to the threat from outer space in The Thing from Another World and Invasion of the Body Snatchers until Hitchcock brought it back inside the home with Psycho in 1960.
Yet it could be argued that it had been hiding there all along, behind closed doors, since Shadow of a Doubt in 1943.
Young Charlie (played by Teresa Wright) lives with her "average American family" in the small town of Santa Rosa. The type of place where people leave their front doors unlocked and everyone knows everyone. Life is pretty quiet but excitement arrives when successful, enigmatic relative Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) comes to stay.
Young Charlie's idolisation of her uncle slowly turns to suspicion as she gets the feeling that there might be a secret behind his smile. Hitchcock keeps proceedings deliberately ambiguous, spoon-feeding us clues: a missing newspaper clipping here, a recurring hummed tune there …
The film's best scene takes place around the dinner table where Uncle Charlie tells the family what he thinks about women, specifically rich widows. Seen from young Charlie's point of view, the camera slowly creeps in on his face as he describes them as "horrible, fat, fading women". "But they're alive, they're human beings," she replies. Uncle Charlie turns and looks directly down the camera lens: "Are they?"
One of Hitchcock's first American films, it was a rather personal project (several characters are named after Hitchcock's family members and various details, such as the book Ivanhoe and a childhood bicycle accident, are drawn from his own life) – however, it features many of the elements that would define his film-making style: his obligatory cameo, carefully deployed black humour (two crime-novel-obsessed characters plot various ways to kill each other, blissfully unaware a murderer may be living under their roof) and the way he would shoot and frame staircases to make them relevant story devices.
Like the more famous Psycho, Shadow of a Doubt has a lasting ability to shatter the illusion of safety within our homes, with Uncle Charlie forever responsible for a sense of unease every time our own "fun uncle" comes to visit.