She handily dispenses with a dangerous villain and makes The World A Safer Place. (Get this: She does so while wearing classic leather pumps and tailored outfits.)
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is Hitchcock’s attempt to scare the pants off cozy, middle-class America – if such a thing existed during WWII. The film is about a psychopath (Joseph Cotten) who hides from federal agents by staying at his sister’s home in a small California town. The family is enamoured with Cotten because he brings them expensive presents and always finds flattering things to say.
Wright plays Cotten’s niece, a smart young women with an affinity for her uncle. They both have the name “Charlie”, along with a peculiar bond that is best left unanalyzed. Additionally, Wright is convinced she has a telepathic ability to communicate with her uncle.
Unhappily for Cotten, this nearly proves to be true.
When he first arrives at the family’s home, Cotten’s odd behaviour stirs Wright’s curiosity, but she pushes these feelings aside lest they taint her admiration. However, when a handsome law enforcement agent (Macdonald Carey) tells her Cotten is a murder suspect, she starts researching her mysterious uncle. She’s determined to prove the agent wrong, but evidence to the contrary soon becomes overwhelming.
Shadow of a Doubt has a top-notch cast, including Patricia Collinge, Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn. Joseph Cotten gives one of his best performances as the evil Uncle Charlie, complete with chilling stares and menace-laced taunts.
Some say this is Cotten’s film, but we disagree. We feel this film rests squarely on Wright and her transformation from adoring niece to fed-up adversary.
Wright has an extremely expressive face; it’s almost as though we can read every thought that enters – and leaves – her mind. This is crucial when a character like hers undergoes such a fundamental shift in worldview.
Not only that, Wright holds her own against Cotten, the acting veteran. He’s charismatic and compelling, but she doesn’t shrink in his presence. Even after he’s cajoled and insulted and threatened her, and she’s collapsed in tears, she remains a stubborn, defiant presence on screen.
A good example of this is when Cotten learns he’s no longer considered a murder suspect. Look at his smugness now! He has the condescending confidence of a man who can’t lose. Even though the law enforcement agents have left town – and left Wright to fear for her life – she still accuses Cotten with every withering glance. In these scenes, Cotten does most of the talking, as if to conquer her accusatory silence.
Finally she snaps and puts a stop to his endless crowing: “Go away, or I’ll kill you myself.”
That’s exactly what happens, in the end, although the film portrays this incident as an accident.
If you haven’t seen Shadow of a Doubt, you’re in for a real treat. All the performances are riveting, but none more so than Teresa Wright’s.
Shadow of a Doubt: starring Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, MacDonald Carey. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Written by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, Alma Reville. Universal Pictures Company, Inc., 1943, B&W, 108 mins.