Shadow of a Doubt
Alfred Hitchcock: The True Merry Widow Murderer
Murder is a common theme in Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Given its frequent appearance, some might even say it is a necessary aspect of his narratives. In Rear Window (1954), a crippled man accidentally witnesses a murder from the rear window of his apartment. In Rope (1948), two men throw a party over the remains of the man they have just strangled to death. In Shadow of a Doubt (1943), an innocent young girl, Charlie, discovers that her namesake, an uncle she idolizes, is in fact a serial killer known as the “Merry Widow Murderer.” In his discussion of the comic duo Herb and Joe from Shadow of a Doubt, William Rothman raises a series of questions that delve into the relationship between Hitchcock and his viewers and suggest a parallel between the director and his murderers. One such question is: “Are we [the viewers] Hitchcock’s designated victims (Rothman 205)?” A great deal of Hitchcock’s public image stems from his careful precision and desire for control in his filmmaking techniques so it should come as no surprise that Hitchcock attempts to control his audiences in addition to his films. In a quote about his film Psycho (1960) taken from his book-length interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock states, “I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them like an organ (Truffaut 269).” How far does this direction go? Is he, in fact, directing his viewers to identify with, and ultimately perish with, his murderer’s victims as Rothman suggests? In an early sequence from Shadow of Doubt the relationship between Hitchcock and viewer, murderer and victim, lends itself to the exploration Hitchcock’s motives.
The sequence begins with Young Charlie ascending the stairs to her uncle’s bedroom. Long vertical shadows are cast from the banister and fill the frame as Young Charlie approaches the door. Holding a tray in one hand, Charlie knocks lightly. The camera remains stationary as from off-screen Uncle Charlie calls in a soothing yet authoritative tone, “Come in.” The camera cuts to a shot from the inside of the room as Young Charlie opens the door. The camera is positioned over Uncle Charlie’s shoulder where he sits shining his shoes. This shot reveals the long distance between Uncle Charlie and his niece entering the door. Young Charlie has brought him a pitcher of water. As she turns to leave, her eyes glance down and the camera cuts to a close-up from her point of view of a newspaper folded up in Uncle Charlie’s jacket pocket. We are then shown a medium shot of Young Charlie as she shuts the door and playfully explains that she knows Uncle Charlie’s secret. As they discuss the secret that Young Charlie claims to know, the camera cuts between the medium shot of Young Charlie and a long shot of Uncle Charlie sitting in his chair from his niece’s point of view. When Young Charlie reaches down and proudly pulls out the newspaper, Uncle Charlie stands and aggressively approaches his niece, clearly upset by the occurrence. He grabs her wrists and she cries out in pain. He then attempts to convince her that he was just playing and that he meant her no harm, yet the skeptical look on her face reveals that she is not entirely convinced.
In many of his films, Hitchcock can easily be identified with his murderers. In Shadow of a Doubt, it is Uncle Charlie in whom Hitchcock can be seen. Like a director, Uncle Charlie has control of every room he occupies. He stages events and sets up games in which the other characters are forced to participate. Upon arriving in Santa Rosa, his extended family welcomes him into their lives as a father figure, replacing the incompetent Joe Newton. While Joe physically remains in the family, the respect each individual would pay to the head of the household is directed towards Uncle Charlie. In the scene described above, Young Charlie is bringing a pitcher of water to Uncle Charlie’s bedroom, a gesture of not only friendship but also respect for her elders. After entering the room, Young Charlie remains next to the door, the furthest point from Uncle Charlie, indicating his position as an authority figure rather than a childhood friend. Throughout their conversation, he continues to survey her from afar as a director might survey his actors from behind the camera.
During their conversation, Young Charlie points to an earlier instance in which Uncle Charlie also controlled those around him. In a previous scene Uncle Charlie calls Ann Newton over to the couch where he is sitting to show her how to make a paper house. Despite Ann’s protests, Uncle Charlie proceeds to tear apart Joe’s newspaper for the paper house, concealing his effort to hide an article that implicates him in a string of murders. It is significant that Uncle Charlie plays this game with Ann, rather than Young Charlie, because Ann is an avid reader. By controlling what can be read in the family, Uncle Charlie is manipulating Ann’s source of knowledge and entertainment. In a way, he is directing her life. While Young Charlie takes note of this suspicious activity during her later conversation with her uncle, she does not fully understand the extent of his authority over her family. He directs not only their attention but also their knowledge and actions.
It is also worth noting that Hitchcock knowingly places himself in parallel to the Merry Widow Murderer in his playful cameo earlier in the film. On the train to Santa Rosa, Uncle Charlie pretends to be ill in an attempt to stay out of sight. A woman playing poker asks the doctor sitting next to her take a look at the sick man. Hitchcock is sitting across from the couple holding a hand of cards. After refusing to help, the doctor looks at Hitchcock and says, “Well, you don’t look very well either.” At this point the camera cuts to reveal a close-up of Hitchcock’s unfortunate poker hand. Hitchcock and Uncle Charlie are shown in a parallel state of health. Despite the light-hearted nature of his cameo, Hitchcock is in fact comparing himself with the film’s murderer.
While Hitchcock can be seen through Uncle Charlie, throughout the film the viewer is called to sympathize with his niece. Shadow of a Doubt follows the path of Young Charlie as she becomes a victim of Uncle Charlie’s control. By the end of the film, Young Charlie has visually transformed into the image of a jaded widow whom Uncle Charlie then attempts to murder. He begins to act aggressively towards her as early as the conversation in his bedroom. When Young Charlie reaches for the newspaper, Uncle Charlie stands and advances towards her, painfully grabbing her wrists and causing her to let it go.
Even though there are only two people in the room, the audience is never shown Uncle Charlie’s point of view. We come close with the medium shots of Young Charlie as they are from the correct angle, but unfortunately they are at the wrong scale to be from Uncle Charlie’s perspective. Given the physical distance between the two characters, Young Charlie would have to be framed in a long shot for the framing to be equivalent to Uncle Charlie’s point of view.
Yet we are privy to Young Charlie’s point of view on multiple occasions, a framing that makes the viewer a victim through their relationship to both Young Charlie and Uncle Charlie. Not only are the shots of Uncle Charlie framed from the correct angle, but he is also shown in a long shot, the correct scale for the distance between the two characters. During their entire conversation, this is the framing in which we see Uncle Charlie. The viewer is seeing him through his victim’s eyes. When Young Charlie upsets her Uncle and he aggressively approaches her, the camera remains from her point of view. Because the camera stands in Young Charlie’s position, it appears that Uncle Charlie is advancing towards the audience, as if to break through the fourth wall. This is the first time in the film that we see Uncle Charlie act on his aggressive nature and the viewer is conveniently placed in the position of his prey.
Yet at the moment when Uncle Charlie reaches his niece, the exact moment he would have broken through the fourth wall, the camera cuts to a new angle. First there is a close up of Uncle Charlie grabbing his niece’s hands and then there is a two shot of the pair in profile as they struggle with one another. At the moment when the audience is in the most danger from the murderer, Hitchcock cuts away from the victim’s perspective and places the audience back in the position of a third-party viewer.
Hitchcock does not go so far as to destroy his viewers, despite the comparisons that are drawn between him and his murderers. He is content with frightening and disturbing them. This tactic is characteristic of the one who calls himself the “Master of Suspense.” Hitchcock himself claims, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Not only is it impossible for Joseph Cotton, a man who passed away in 1994, to physically escape the screen and attack the audience, but it would also be less effective. By this point in the film, Uncle Charlie’s suspicious behavior has convinced the audience that he is the murderer even though Young Charlie does not yet see it. The audience anticipates Uncle Charlie’s violent actions towards his niece but does not know when they will come to full fruition. This is the first of many moments in the film in which we wonder how far Uncle Charlie will go to keep his secret. Will he go so far as to exit the film and invade the viewer’s reality? Despite the viewer’s apparent position as victim and Hitchcock’s murderous tendencies, it is too early in the film for Hitchcock to give us “the bang.” Even at the end of the film, after Uncle Charlie’s “accidental” death, his legacy lives on in his niece. There is a sense that even though the climax of the film may have been the murderer’s death, it may not be the bang to which Hitchcock refers. A sense of death has infected the viewer and we will always have time to anticipate it.
Hitchcock, Alfred, dir. Shadow of a Doubt. Perf. Joseph Cotton, Teresa Wright. Skirball Productions, 1942. DVD.
Rothman, William. Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze. Albany: New York Press, 1982. pp. 181-254.
Truffaut, Francois. Hitchcock. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.