Shadow of a Doubt is one of the prime reasons Alfred Hitchock is considered the “master of suspense.” It’s odd, though, because the movie is an anti-mystery. In the opening scene we hear the “Merry Widow Waltz” being played and we see Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten) acting very cagey as he avoids two men coming to see him. It only takes a few minutes for the viewers to realize that Charles is the merry widow murderer. This knowledge never prevents the movie from being suspenseful, because all that matters for the suspense is that his niece Charlie Oakley (Theresa Wright) doesn’t know what we know.
Charlie idolizes her uncle. I don’t mean that in a normal, healthy way that many kids and teens look up to elders as role models. I mean that she believes the world revolves around her uncle. When she experiences a crisis, she thinks that he is the only one who can make things right. She has expectations of him that no person could live up to. When she thinks her family is stuck in a rut, she turns to him assuming that he can single-handedly get them out and bring new life to the family. She has very literally made him her idol.
Charlie’s sick beliefs about her uncle were inherited from her mother Emma who is played by Patricia Collinge with so much vulnerability, compassion, tenderness, and naive trust, that we can see how her life has been shaped by her devotion to her brother and that when others say that an investigation on Charles for murder would kill her, we believe it. Emma made sure that Charlie, her first child, was named after her beloved brother. She made sure that her daughter’s life was as shaped by her idolatry of her brother as her own has been.
Charlie is a teenager and hasn’t had the time to become quite as overcome by Charles’ deception as her mother has, but she’s definitely blinded to the possibility that he has committed unspeakable evils. After repeated viewings of Shadow of a Doubt, it becomes obvious that those who do not know Charles, including Charlie’s much-younger siblings, have a lot of suspicion about Charles when he comes to “visit” (he’s actually hiding and plotting his next murder/robbery). Charlie is a very smart girl, much smarter than some of the characters who had instant suspicion that turned out to be right. The movie shows how when deception takes over in people’s lives, smart people can believe very stupid things. This was the case with her mother for years, and has become the case for Charlie throughout her whole life.
Uncle Charles’ visit includes many twists and turns where he wonders how much Charlie knows. Her life depends on how she handles the information she discovers. The suspense in the movie comes from whether or not she will be willing to face the truth as she is confronted with it that shakes the core of who she is. If she’s willing to face it, it means her own life is at risk. If she’s not willing to face it, it means many other lives are at risk.
Joseph Cotten plays the villain with such a cold, calculated demeanor that a smile or a look from him can be terrifying. He represents all the things we believe in life that are not as they seem. The character is written in such a way to reflect the reality that when trust is misplaced, the results are always disappointing and sometimes devastating for the one who chose to trust the one unworthy. Because of the idolatry shown of two family members toward Charles, there is a strong spiritual dimension to that theme of trust. As Charlie learns the truth about her uncle, she is faced with the choice of whether she will renounce her worship of him and treat him as the murderous criminal he is by cooperating the police or protect him, refusing to let go of her nearly-divine opinion of him. Whether she will be a hero, a victim, or a co-conspiriator in her uncle’s crimes is the question we ask throughout the movie. So much for every character depends on Charlie’s decisions. All the suspense that Hitchcock brought so brilliantly depends on this question. Is Charlie too completely lost in her idolatry of her uncle to help others, or does she still have enough conscience to make sure that his next plans do not succeed?