Shadow of a Doubt — Where the West meets the City

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

The 1940s in American cinema were dominated by two genres: the western and film noir. The western is a genre of tradition reaffirming the beliefs of Americans (conquest of the wilderness, the right of manifest destiny) while film noir explores the pessimism of a growing society. Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is nestled between the height of the western and the beginnings of film noir. It is Hitchcock’s first film to explore the fully American temperament of anti-urbanism. Uncle Charlie represents the city (i.e. film noir, the other) and his arrival to Santa Rosa (West) demonstrates a clash between both settings. Uncle Charlie moving west is a definite homage to the Western as Wood argues that Santa Rosa is “a frontier town seventy or so years on” (Wood 293). Shadow of a Doubt examines the transference of the city into the West and how evil can lurk beneath an American surface.

The character of Uncle Charlie is first presented lying on his back in a run-down Philadelphia apartment. The camera shows us his surroundings: rusted cars in a junkyard, unsupervised children playing in the street, pollution spewing into the air, and lines of linked housing. This version of America in the early 40s was beginning to emerge as the genre of film noir. Hitchcock argues that the big city cannot be truly regarded as American because it is not representative of the most intrinsic American beliefs: progress, equality, and optimism. The city, through Hitchcock’s lens, is completely void of these. It has become impersonal and even dangerous. Shadow of a Doubt very briefly shows us this setting with Uncle Charlie being the embodiment of the big city. All of the pessimism, distrust, and danger that define the city can be internalized. Hitchcock demonstrates in the opening scene through various insert shots of the environment and by evading the detectives that Uncle Charlie and the city are synonymous.

The town of Santa Rosa is shown from an aerial view before meeting Young Charlie. Various trees and foliage line the foothills with mountains in the distance. The camera then proceeds to illustrate the picturesque Santa Rosa: the quaint downtown with the policeman directing traffic and the quieter residential street that the Newton’s live on. The camera then zooms in on the town house showing the white frame and various windows. The Newtown house and Santa Rosa have a distinct homely quality. It is hard to imagine a more American setting and this is further reinforced in the film through various staples of the upstanding community: a railroad station, telegraph office, clock tower, and a public library.

There is a stark difference between the homely quality of Santa Rosa and the bleak Philadelphia further symbolizing the anti-urban trends of 1940s America. Murder is commonplace in the big city with Uncle Charlie being the infamous widow killer. Joe Newtown and Herbie Hawkins joke about murder throughout the narrative while Uncle Charlie actually commits it. The most serious offense in Santa Rosa is the act of jaywalking noted by the policeman to Young Charlie. Santa Rosa is crime free in comparison to Philadelphia.

The two environments are shown at odds and Uncle Charlie’s arrival complicates the relationship between the settings. There is an underside to even the most idyllic town. The bank willingly accepts $40,000 of hard cash that would invariably raise questions. An element of film noir creeps into Santa Rosa with the scene at the Til-Two Bar. A bar is commonly a place for men to woo women and this is what Uncle Charlie attempts with Young Charlie. Uncle Charlie holds her hands insistently asking her to keep the ring. Both the physical and figurative elements of film noir permeate Santa Rosa. The town honors Uncle Charlie (mysterious thereby celebrity) by asking him to lecture at the town hall and ultimately having a large funeral for him in the wake of his death. The deep evil of American society cannot be contained on the streets of Philadelphia as it seeps into Santa Rosa. The people of Santa Rosa are outside of the metropolitan sphere and cannot realize what he stands for.

Shadow of a Doubt was released in a period where films often stuck to genre conventions. It attempts to subvert the norm by transferring film noir (Philadelphia) into a setting that follows in the tradition of the western (Santa Rosa). Hitchcock orchestrates this by first showing the viewer the extreme differences of the settings and the repercussions that follow after combining them. Evil begins to stir under the surface of a seemingly upstanding town. As with any part of society, what appears normal on the surface is often false.