Santa Rosa, California had a population of roughly 13,000 people in 1942, a fraction of its current citizen count. But when Alfred Hitchcock began production of his classic 1943 thriller, Shadow of a Doubt, the small San Francisco Bay area community conveyed just the right atmosphere of Everytown, USA that he was looking for. As Hitchcock's camera pans across the downtown Santa Rosa street scape, we see a friendly cherub-like policeman, whistle between his lips, directing easy flowing traffic. We witness a bustling but laid back burg, while liltingly pleasant music plays in the background. In later scenes, a J.C. Penney department store and an ivy covered library are further evidence that the viewer could be in any average hamlet in the land. The famed director used this placid setting to illustrate that evil can penetrate anywhere, even the peaceful, civilized confines of small town America.
The evil found in Hitchcock's Santa Rosa shows up in the form of Joseph Cotten, playing one of the best roles of his career, "Uncle" Charlie Oakley, the deranged "Merry Widow Murderer," who on the lamb from the law, escapes to the homespun security of his sister's family in the pleasant California town. Waiting for him with open arms is his teen aged niece and namesake played by Teresa Wright who is top billed. Niece Charley relishes the visit from her charming and urbane uncle, hoping his presence will shake up her family's drab, humdrum existence. He doesn't disappoint. The detectives who have been chasing him across the country, find their suspect on the west coast. One of them (Macdonald Carey) befriends and confides in young Charley, the sins of her uncle. Devastated and confused, she comes to realize that what the detective has told her is true. When another man who is also strongly suspected to be the murderer is killed while being pursued on the east coast, the case is closed and Uncle Charlie is cleared, but his niece now knows that he is indeed the guilty party and she begins to experience a series of "accidents."
Joseph Cotten's Uncle Charlie is both charismatic and menacing. A particularly effective moment has him at the dinner table describing his vision of rich widows as "fat, lazy women" who squander all that their late husbands had worked for all their lives. As he thinks aloud his disturbing diatribe, the camera goes in for a slow, steady close up of his profiled face. By the time he is interrupted by a rebuttal from his niece, the camera is dead on his eyes and he turns his head to give a chilling stare directly into the lens.
Wright does her share of fine acting as well, with this role following on the heels of her successes in The Little Foxes (1941) and Mrs. Miniver (1942). She goes from adoring and doting teenager to troubled and anxious young woman without missing a beat. Like her characters uncle, she too can be menacing, when the occasion arises. Perfect example: When she and Uncle Charlie get the news from her detective boyfriend that the Merry Widow suspect in the east was killed while trying to escape, Cotten, ready to celebrate his freedom, strides up the staircase like a schoolboy on holiday. Suddenly, he stops dead in his tracks, just shy of the top of the stairs and slowly turns around to see his niece standing sullenly and accusingly in the doorway below, her shadow stretched out before her, as she gives him a cold stare of disgust.
As the senior Charlie's sister and female Charley's mother is Patricia Collinge, a stage actress who co-starred with Wright in The Little Foxes. As Emma Newton in this film, she shows the right amount of naivete and a fluttery quality as mama of her brood and even comes off as a somewhat surrogate mother to her visiting younger brother. Well into middle age, it seems odd that she and Henry Travers, as her murder mystery buff, bank clerk husband would be cast as the parents of such young children (besides Charley, their clan consists of Ann and Roger, both under 12). Hume Cronyn in his film debut, does quite a fine job as Travers cohort in crime novel critique, each devising plan after plan for the perfect fictional murder.
To help him capture the quality of small town values required for his setting, Hitchcock retained none other than playwrite Thorton Wilder to collaborate on the screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt. Wilder's play "Our Town" was the epitome of everyday life. The film was Oscar nominated for Best Writing and Best Original Story. Hitchcock claimed that Doubt was one of his personal favorites of his films, though he told Francois Truffaut in a famous interview, that it was not his very favorite. Regardless, it is a genuine Hitchcock gem that is often overlooked when traditional Hitchcock is discussed and revered, a true treasure that should be remembered and viewed often.