In Don Siegel’s 1956 science fiction classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Wilma Lentz is convinced that her Uncle Ira is not her Uncle Ira. Thirteen years earlier, Charlie Newton, in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” discovered that her Uncle Charlie was not her Uncle Charlie. The difference between the two films is that Uncle Ira only ceased being Uncle Ira when aliens appropriated his body, while Uncle Charlie never was Uncle Charlie. “Shadow of a Doubt” is about the false identities people either assume or are forced upon them by others, and plays as a metaphor for the lies that conceal the dark side of the American character.
Uncle Charlie seems to be a kind, loving, and successful businessman, but is actually a murderer of wealthy widows. He is not the only member of the family who is not what he seems. His niece, the young Charlie, is accepted by her family as the more intelligent of two sisters, but is in fact an emotional romantic, a believer in superstition and magic, and denier of obvious facts, while her brilliant sister Ann is treated like a freak. Their parents are an odd couple. Joseph finds the meaning of life a game he plays with friend Herbie, in which they imagine perfect ways to murder each other, while Emma drifts along in an idealization of a past in which her brother Charlie is a beloved saint. Seeing the lack of a romantic connection between her and her husband, we can only imagine the true relationship she’s has had with her brother, who is obviously estranged from the family, although his sister’s sentimental idealization has been transferred to his niece.
Hitchcock opens his picture in the noirish shadows of a fugitive’s hide-out, then shifts to the evenly lit innocence of a small town when Uncle Charlie arrives by train to Santa Rosa, California, a place as seemingly idyllic as the Santa Mira of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Santa Mira was a fictional town, the name a possible variant on the Santa Maria, the ship upon which Columbus travelled to America. Santa Rosa., on the other hand, is a very real place, located North of San Francisco, that has experienced rapid growth, in spite of its native population being virtually exterminated by a Europe-borne smallpox epidemic by 1900. Like Uncle Charlie, the city of Santa Rosa feigns an innocence that is not real.
Charlie’s brother-in-law works at a bank, where the manager salivates at the size of the deposit Charlie makes upon deciding to start a new life in Santa Rosa. Understanding the avarice that is concealed behind the stuffy propriety of the bank’s veneer, Charlie feels justified in his outburst against the bank’s hypocrisy, even though his behavior embarrasses his niece. Hitchcock shares only enough of Charlie’s sociopathic attitude toward humanity to convey his point of view, but, unlike Chaplin’s “Monsieur Verdoux.” which was made four years later, not enough to ask the audience to sympathize with it.
The director’s contempt for the veneer of innocence that conceals the avarice propelling the rapid growth of small-town America is kept in check by Thornton Wilder’s suggestive script, which never loiters in the psychological recesses of its characters’ repressed natures. As a director, Hitchcock keeps his story moving along at a rapid clip, placing his insinuations in the margins of the plot, letting them emerge primarily in the contradictions between the inner and outer characteristics of personality. In the end, young Charlie can no longer deny the nature of her uncle, but she will continue to conceal it from the rest of her family, each member of which shall continue living on the bright surfaces of a cesspool.