AMERICAN CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS:
THE PERSISTENCE OF EVIL IN HITCHCOCK'S SHADOW OF A DOUBT
Hitchcock from London to Hollywood
On March 1, 1939, Alfred Hitchcock—accompanied by his wife and daughter, a personal assistant, a cook, and a maid—boarded the Queen Mary in Southampton in order to set sail for New York. Britain would never again be home for the London-born Hitchcock. Allowing for numerous international trips, he remained in the United States for the rest of his life, residing in California, making movies in Hollywood, and eventually taking American citizenship1. He thus became one of those modern artists, like Henry James, T. S. Eliot, or W. H. Auden, who cannot be described as unambiguously either British or American. Like them, he was neither or, more accurately, both. Also like them—and unlike such more extreme instances of cultural “extraterritoriality” (George Steiner’s term)2 as Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, or Samuel Beckett—Hitchcock crossed no linguistic barriers and instead went on to engage, in his work, the Shavian (or pseudo-Shavian) paradox that Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language. From 1939 onwards, the relation between the culture of his original homeland and that of his adopted one is a frequent presence in Hitchcock’s cinema.
In the following pages, I will examine Shadow of a Doubt (1943) as registering a crucial moment in the process of Hitchcock’s Americanization.3 It is, I maintain, the first film in which he emerges as predominantly an American filmmaker and creates a major work deeply rooted in the American cultural tradition. Like many of his great American precursors, Hitchcock takes as his central concern the persistence of evil in American civilization.
Yet, before examining the American character of the film, it is important to make clear that Hitchcock’s roots in the culture of late-Victorian Britain are by no means effaced in Shadow of a Doubt. On the contrary, the film is built on a theme that was a prominent component of the British culture into which Hitchcock was born in 1899: namely, the theme of the half-good and half-evil double, presented here through the juxtaposition and interaction of the benevolent, virginal teenage girl Charlie Newton (played by Teresa Wright, and hereafter referred to as Young Charlie) and her murderously sinister uncle, Charlie Oakley (played by Joseph Cotten, and hereafter referred to as Uncle Charlie), after whom Young Charlie is named. In addition to numerous other works now mostly forgotten, this motif is central, for instance, to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). These authors—Wilde most overtly—were in revolt against the stark ethical dichotomies of an earlier Victorian moralism: and their insistence that good and evil are more implicated in one another than Britain’s quasi-official moral guardians were inclined to allow struck a responsive chord with the reading public of the United Kingdom. These works were popular during Hitchcock’s formative years, and the young Hitchcock is known to have read both Jekyll and Hyde and Dorian Gray multiple times before embarking on his filmmaking career. Shadow of a Doubt continues the main theme of such texts, the ethically divided double.
It is not just a matter of formal or mathematical doubling. In their 1957 book on Hitchcock—one of the foundational texts of Hitchcock studies—Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol flatly declare (explicitly following the suggestion of François Truffaut) that “Shadow of a Doubt is based on the number two.”4 The first example they give has become one of the most widely discussed formal elements of the film: the way that the two Charlies are introduced in “rhyming” shots that show each of them, on opposite sides of the country (Uncle Charlie in Philadelphia, Young Charlie in her hometown of Santa Rosa, California), stretched out fully clothed on a bed. Rohmer and Chabrol offer many further instances of such duality, to which later commentators have added still more, and which any attentive viewer can multiply almost indefinitely. Thus, for example, Uncle Charlie is one of two suspects that the police are investigating in the Merry Widow Murders, and both are ultimately killed, accidentally, by two transportation machines (Uncle Charlie by a train, his unnamed counterpart by an airplane propeller). Two police detectives turn up at the Newton residence to investigate the crimes. Young Charlie’s father, Joe Newton (Henry Travers), and his neighbor Herbie Hawkins (Hume Cronyn) make up an informal club of two devoted to the rather Hitchcockian hobby of wittily inventing various ways to murder one another. In the relatively late scene where the two Charlies confront one another—Young Charlie having figured out her uncle’s murderous ways—the bar in which they sit is called the ‘Til-Two; and Uncle Charlie orders a double brandy from a waitress who, it turns out, has been on the job for two weeks. The search for such instances of doubling can continue almost indefinitely, and it might well be difficult to name another movie in which the number two is more prominently featured.
But to say that the film is based on the number two may be subtly misleading: for it might be taken to reduce the structure of Shadow of a Doubt to the sort of quantitative formalism that, though certainly at work within the film, is only incidental to Hitchcock’s main purpose. As with his Victorian predecessors, Hitchcock’s interest in doubling is fundamentally moral, not just mathematical.5 For him as for Stevenson or Stoker, the ethical duality of good and evil is a genuine dialectic, not a mere dichotomy; or, to put the matter another way, the binary opposition of good to evil, which is fundamental to all ethical thought, can always be deconstructed, as Nietzsche showed, in order to demonstrate that neither term is genuinely independent of the other, or even opposed to the other in any completely simple way. Good and evil always “interinanimate” (Donne’s brilliant coinage) one another.
In Stevenson’s novella, for example, it should be remembered that Dr. Jekyll undertakes his pharmacological experiments because he is uncomfortably aware of the way that virtuous and vicious impulses co-exist and mingle within his own moral being. He hopes to purify himself as Dr. Jekyll by chemically creating (or releasing) a separate personality, Mr. Hyde, in whom all his evil tendencies can be concentrated (and enjoyed). The experiment ultimately fails precisely because evil cannot, in fact, be so neatly separated from its dialectical antithesis. Mr. Hyde refuses to play the subordinate and strictly limited role assigned to him, becoming the dominant personality within the Jekyll/Hyde double; and the drug Dr. Jekyll has concocted to release Mr. Hyde loses its power to restore Jekyll. In the end, Dr. Jekyll is rid of his evil twin only when both are annihilated through Hyde’s suicide.
Shadow of a Doubt is only very slightly inflected by the Gothic mode that dominates Stevenson’s novella (as well as the novels by Wilde and Stoker): so that Hitchcock’s two Charlies are not the same person in the precisely literal sense that applies to Jekyll and Hyde. But the connection between them is weirdly and unnaturally close. In Young Charlie’s first lines of dialogue, she begins by expressing some typically teenage boredom and dissatisfaction with her family’s conventional middle-class existence: but then soon hits on an idea that she feels certain will solve everything. She determines to send a telegram to Uncle Charlie, explicitly casting him as a savior whose mere presence among the Newton family will somehow make life exciting and worthwhile. Exactly how Uncle Charlie can accomplish such “miracles” (Young Charlie’s own term) is left unclear—it seems an almost magical belief on his niece’s part—but, upon finding that Uncle Charlie has already sent a telegram of his own, announcing his imminent arrival, Young Charlie concludes that the two of them must be bonded by mental telepathy. Shortly after Uncle Charlie’s arrival in the Newton home, Young Charlie tells him that she’s glad that her mother (Uncle Charlie’s older sister) named her after Uncle Charlie and that her mother thinks the two Charlies are “both alike.” “I think we are too. I know it,” Young Charlie adds, going on to maintain that the two are not just uncle and niece but “something else” and “sort of like twins”—a chillingly bizarre line (for how can two people of different generations be twins?) that Uncle Charlie will quote back to his niece during the tense scene at the ‘Til-Two.
The extraordinary affinity between the Charlies—so deep that it seems to verge on actual identity, as the constant iteration of the name itself keeps reminding us—means that no simple dichotomy is tenable between the cheerful, beneficent Young Charlie and her cynical, misogynistic, multiply murderous uncle. On one level, the implication of each Charlie in the other is figured in their (symbolic) incestuous sexual union. It is not just that the strange intensity of the mutual attraction, especially on Young Charlie’s side, necessarily conveys an erotic connotation. The latter is also suggested in one visual turn after another. The introduction of the Charlies lying on their respective beds—a double shot that will be repeated later in the film—naturally invokes the possibility of their being in bed together; and it is no accident that, when Uncle Charlie arrives at the Newton home, Young Charlie’s bed and bedroom are, at her own insistence, assigned to him (though she temporarily moves in with her younger sister). In the scene where Young Charlie, along with her father, sister, and brother, pick up Uncle Charlie at the Santa Rosa train station, the meeting of niece and uncle is shown in a cinematographic turn nearly always used in Hollywood film to represent the reunion of lovers: the camera switches from one to the other as each is shown rushing toward the other, both faces beaming with joy and anticipation. During the first extended tête-à-tête conversation between uncle and niece, Uncle Charlie takes Young Charlie’s hand and slips a ring on her finger, like a suitor formalizing his engagement to be married to his beloved.
The ring turns out to have belonged to one of the rich widows that Uncle Charlie has romanced, robbed, and murdered. Young Charlie’s acceptance of it, together with her (barely) unconscious but intense sexual desire for her uncle, thus establishes the fresh-faced teenage virgin as not only in symbolic violation of the incest taboo so fundamental to the moral order of nearly all civilizations but also as an unwitting accomplice to Uncle Charlie’s career as a serial killer, the loot from which she agrees to share. Like Dr. Jekyll, the formally upright and virtuous Young Charlie cannot be wholly acquitted of moral responsibility for the actions of her evil “twin.” And, just as Dr. Jekyll is ultimately destroyed by Mr. Hyde, so Young Charlie only barely escapes several attempts on her life by Uncle Charlie.
In fact, as the plot of Shadow of a Doubt plays out, Young Charlie eventually shows herself willing to become an accomplice (after the fact) to her uncle’s murders in a straightforward, fully conscious, and perhaps legally culpable sense. Despite her strong attraction to her uncle, Young Charlie soon begins to sense that there is something wrong about him: an insight possibly enabled by their strange affinity. She is taken into the partial confidence of one of the police detectives (who will become her fiancé by film’s end), but also undertakes some shrewd research on her own (Young Charlie, as her father proudly notes, was the smartest girl in her class at the high school from which she has recently graduated). Before long, she has concluded with near certainty that her uncle is the Merry Widow Murderer. Though horrified, she nonetheless decides to withhold some of what she knows from the detectives and to advise Uncle Charlie to leave town. She is thus prepared to help him perhaps to escape justice and perhaps to kill again. One can, to be sure, feel sympathy for Young Charlie here. Awareness of Uncle Charlie’s terrible crimes cannot instantly cancel her powerful affection for him; and, moreover, Young Charlie is worried that learning the truth may literally kill her mother, who has always adored and idolized her younger brother. Young Charlie is trapped in the classic Antigone position (the paradigmatically tragic situation, according to Hegel), caught between the demands of personal and familial feeling, on the one hand, and the transpersonal requirements of her society’s ethical and legal order on the other. Yet this is, in a way, precisely the point. In the theme of the dialectical twinship of good and evil that Hitchcock has carried on from Stevenson, Wilde, Stoker, and other late-Victorian storytellers, the twin poles of ethics are always more involved with one another than superficially appears; and choosing between them is therefore by no means the simple task that the earnest moralists maintain it to be.
The Americanization of Alfred
In Shadow of a Doubt, then, Hitchcock appears as the heir—perhaps the last heir of major artistic stature—to a narrative tradition rooted in the late-Victorian Britain into which he was born. But the further project of the film is thoroughly to Americanize this tradition and, in so doing, to set not only this particular movie but also Hitchcock himself in a profoundly American intellectual and artistic line. If the auteur of the film is still British, he is also, and even more deeply, already American.
Though Hitchcock made important films right after moving from London to Hollywood, the culture of his new homeland is not immediately registered, to any great extent, in his work. Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941) offer British stories with British settings, and are in many ways the direct successors to such masterpieces of Hitchcock’s London period as Murder! (1930), The 39 Steps (1935), and The Lady Vanishes (1938). Rebecca, in particular, proclaims its British roots partly by giving a starring role to the deeply English Laurence Olivier, the pre-eminent actor on the London stage of his (and Hitchcock’s) era. Foreign Correspondent (1940)—perhaps one of the most underrated films in the Hitchcock oeuvre—is a somewhat different case, since it begins in New York and stars the quintessentially American actor Joel McCrea. Yet, as the title suggests, the film is not strongly tied to any particular place. The espionage plot moves from one locale to another, and much of the action is set in London, Amsterdam, the Dutch countryside, and even in the Atlantic Ocean. Saboteur (1942) has an American setting and cast, but, as William Rothman has pointed out, is best understood as “an Americanized remake of The 39 Steps.”6 Despite its veneer of pro-American war propaganda—and its somewhat ostentatious visual use of such American landmarks as Boulder Dam, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Radio City Music Hall, and, above all, the Statue of Liberty—the project of Saboteur is, as Rothman suggests, more to parody than seriously to engage America. It is only with Shadow of a Doubt that Hitchcock first seems not only fully comfortable with his American surroundings but determined to establish himself as a genuinely American artist rather than just a British artist living in the United States.
The moment in Shadow of a Doubt that most clearly stresses the newly American quality of Hitchcockian cinema—the most overt signal of Americanization—concerns a ruse that the two police detectives employ in order to gain access to the Newton home in their investigation of Uncle Charlie. They pose as researchers for something called the “National Public Survey,” and proclaim themselves interested in interviewing and taking photographs of the Newtons, who have purportedly been found to constitute the “typical American family.”7 The claim seems plausible enough, for the Newtons live in a modest but ample suburban house and consist of a father who works at a mid-level position in the local bank, a stay-at-home mother who manages the housekeeping and child-rearing, and three lively children. Mrs. Newton (Patricia Collinge), who is pleased for her family to be thought so normal, looks the perfect American housewife and mother as she poses for the camera while making a cake. It is quite true that, as Jonathan Freedman and Richard Millington have observed, this “normativeness is being demonstrated to be wholly simulacral, both a pose for and the creation of the media who ostensibly record it."8 Indeed, the American typicality of the Newton family is a double simulacrum, since the “National Public Survey” that constructs it is itself a simulacrum constructed in order to conceal the detectives’ true motives. But then, as Hitchcock in Hollywood (the world capital of simulation) was surely well aware, the simulacral construction of reality, especially cultural reality, is itself as American as apple pie (or as maple cake, one of Mrs. Newton’s specialties). The very defining characteristic of American national identity is that it is, as Benedict Anderson demonstrates in his influential study of nationalism, the original and paradigmatic “imagined community,” whose felt cultural integrity was deliberately and synthetically constructed.9
Hitchcock also takes pains to make Shadow of a Doubt emphatically American on levels more fundamental, if less explicit, than the signal sent by the “National Public Survey.” In casting, for example, the point is not just that the stars Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten are in fact American actors. The pretty but fairly ordinary-looking brunette Wright is allowed no glamorous clothes or make-up, and is presented, in both appearance and manner, as the bright, perky all-American girl. She radiates a girl-next-door kind of attractiveness that contrasts with the spectacular beauty of the “cool blondes” (Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelley, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, Janet Leigh, and Tippi Hedren, inter alia) who would become Hitchcock’s most famous leading ladies—and who often seem at least vaguely European and “un-American,” even when actually meant to be of US nationality.
As for Cotten, he too appears more as pleasant-looking in a mundane American way than as stunningly handsome. It is worth noting that, in Cotten’s most important roles prior to Shadow of a Doubt, Orson Welles had used him to portray deeply sympathetic American types. In Citizen Kane (1941), Cotten is the amiable, honest drama critic—and hero’s best friend—Jedediah Leland; in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), he plays the kindly inventor and businessman Eugene Morgan; and in each case the likeability of Cotten’s character is emphasized by being contrasted with a much less sympathetic sort, namely the ruthless tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Welles) and the spoiled, mean-spirited aristocrat George Minafer (Tim Holt), respectively. Hitchcock, in effect, inherits from Welles the persona of Cotten-as-American-good-guy, and keeps this persona superficially intact while also revealing the character to be, just below the surface, a sociopathic serial murderer. Of course, Wright-as-all-American-girl is, as we have seen, not so innocent as she may initially appear either.
Much the same pattern—of evil hidden beneath attractive all-American surfaces—appears on the all-important level of setting. Prior to the shot that introduces Uncle Charlie lying on his bed, the camera shows us his Philadelphia surroundings: hobos eating lunch underneath a large suspension bridge; smokestacks belching black pollution into the air; rusted-out cars in a junkyard; children playing ball in the street; lines of row houses; and, later, desolate vacant lots and more piles of junk. This is, of course, a version of America, specifically the urban America as featured in the film noir that, as Hitchcock was making Shadow of a Doubt, was just beginning to emerge as one of the major genres in the Hollywood repertoire (and a genre to which Hitchcock would, of course, later make important contributions of his own with such films as Rear Window  and Vertigo ). Yet, despite the occasional popularity of a few urban aesthetic forms like film noir (and jazz), the main cultural temper of America has always been essentially anti-urban: and the noir-like dreary bleakness with which Uncle Charlie’s Philadelphia is portrayed ratifies the dominant ideological notion that a big city cannot be regarded as truly American in the strongest and most eulogistic sense.
Accordingly, Hitchcock’s camera soon moves to the other side of the North American continent, not only to introduce Young Charlie lying on her bed but also to show us the far more agreeable and more “authentically” American locale of Santa Rosa (near which Hitchcock himself actually bought a house while Shadow of a Doubt was in production). If Uncle Charlie’s Philadelphia resembles the settings of film noir, the move out west to California necessarily recalls the Western genre, which in the 1940s was still the bedrock not only of Hollywood cinema but of American popular culture as a whole. Indeed, as Robin Wood has pointed out, Hitchcock’s Santa Rosa “can be seen as the frontier town [of the Western] seventy or so years on.”10 In the seven intervening decades, the town has progressed beyond the roughness and danger associated with Western films and now seems not only quintessentially American, as in the Western, but also virtually idyllic.
Before meeting Young Charlie, we see, first, an aerial view of Santa Rosa as a whole, carpeted with abundant green trees and nestled among the foothills of some mountains in the background. Then the camera moves in to show such details as attractive, relatively compact downtown buildings; a smiling policeman directing traffic and allowing pedestrians to cross a bustling but not excessively crowded street; and then the quieter residential street on which the Newtons live, with a large leafy oak in the foreground and a small bus going past, its bell cheerfully ringing. The camera zooms in to show the Newton’s own residence, a well-maintained two-story white frame house, with bay windows and the kind of big front porch on which small-town Americans are stereotypically wont to relax and socialize with their neighbors. It would be difficult to imagine a more profoundly and seductively American setting: and this initial impression is confirmed and deepened as the movie progresses and we see that Santa Rosa includes such further American icons of the period as a telegraph office, a railroad station, a diner, a clock tower, and a free public library.
Now, since evil, in the person of Uncle Charlie, invades Santa Rosa from the big city of Philadelphia—he comes ostensibly for a friendly family visit but actually, of course, in order to elude the police—the film’s apparent preference for the small town, and its concomitant endorsement of American anti-urban ideology, do carry some genuine weight. The visual attractiveness of Santa Rosa in contrast to the desolation of Philadelphia is real enough. Murder is fairly routine in the urban metropolis, as both film noir and Uncle Charlie’s career as a serial killer make evident, while Santa Rosa appears to be nearly crime-free: jaywalking is the most serious offense with which we see the local police (as opposed to the detectives from back east who are following Uncle Charlie) having to deal. Furthermore, and with particular ingenuity, a clear contrast is conveyed between the interest in murder on the part of the small-town denizens Joe Newton and Herbie Hawkins—an interest that is harmless, humorous, basically literary, and implicitly presented as very much like Hitchcock’s own cinematic interest in the subject—and the actual practice of multiple cold-blooded murder by the urban (and comparatively urbane) Uncle Charlie.
Yet the matter is, of course, also more complicated than that. Just as the two Charlies cannot be so easily differentiated or divided from one another—morally, erotically, and otherwise—so no simple ethical dichotomy can be sustained between small-town innocence and big-city corruption in America. Just as Young Charlie connives in—indeed, enthusiastically welcomes—Uncle Charlie’s evil presence in her home, and even to some degree connives in his capital crimes, so Santa Rosa is not exactly innocent of the monster in the town’s midst: for it is the town as a whole, not just his niece, that enthusiastically welcomes Uncle Charlie. Joe Newton’s bank is naturally more than happy to accept the $40,000 that Uncle Charlie deposits, all of it presumably stolen from the widows he has murdered. Beyond that, there is something about Uncle Charlie that almost everyone in Santa Rosa finds tremendously exciting and enthralling. A local civic association begs him to deliver a lecture about his travels (“We don’t get many American speakers,” as one member significantly comments), and is thrilled by his performance. With almost unbearable irony, a local affluent, attractive widow thinks that Uncle Charlie might be a good match for her. After his death, the town gives him a hero’s send-off, with the funeral procession rolling down the main downtown streets, big crowds of Santa Rosans in attendance, and a deep-voiced clergyman recalling Uncle Charlie’s presumed virtues at interminable length. The deep evil of American society that Uncle Charlie represents cannot be confined to the mean urban streets of Philadelphia but also infects the more “truly” American village of Santa Rosa as well. In an interesting twist, the characters in Shadow of a Doubt who are least implicated in what Uncle Charlie stands for are the two detectives: outsiders in Santa Rosa like Uncle Charlie himself, who belong to the same metropolitan world from which he has emerged.
Hawthorne to Hitchcock and Beyond
That Hitchcock, in his most American film to that point, should thus find evil in the most deeply American of settings and characters—in a way that somewhat contrasts with the comparative benignity of British society assumed in many of the films of his London period—might well be thought to derive, at least in part, from the cold eye of the outsider. Paradoxically, however, it is in his insistence on occluded but powerfully persistent American evil that Hitchcock really shows himself to be working in the American grain.
The most obvious American connection is to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938). Hitchcock admired the representation of small-town American life in Wilder’s play and recruited Wilder to work on the script for Shadow of a Doubt. Yet the link between Wilder’s stage drama and Hitchcock’s film is more tenuous than might initially appear. For one thing, though Hitchcock and Wilder spent some friendly time together planning the movie, and though Hitchcock included in the introductory credits an unusual slide reading, “We wish to acknowledge the contribution of Mr. Thornton Wilder to the preparation of this production,” it is unclear how much—if any—of the actual writing Wilder did.11 More important, the two small towns—the Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, of Wilder and the Santa Rosa, California, of Hitchcock—are fundamentally different in more than just geographic (and chronological) ways. Though Grover’s Corners is not necessarily just the innocuous slice of wholesome Americana that countless high-school and community-theater productions have taken it to be—death, after all, is the central theme of Our Town, which strongly hints at a certain existential futility in all human endeavor—Wilder’s town is almost entirely innocent of actual evil. The darkness in Our Town is caused, rather, by human limitation in an ultimately indifferent universe. In Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock does not copy Grover’s Corners. He produces a roughly comparable American small town and shows it to be, unlike Grover’s Corners, infected with the terrifying evil of serial murder.
In so doing, Hitchcock demonstrates himself to be at one with American storytellers greater—and more centrally American—than Wilder. Though there is no space here for more than a few notes in substantiation, it seems clear that the chief foundational figure of the tradition to which Shadow of a Doubt belongs is Nathaniel Hawthorne. In “Young Goodman Brown” (1835), for instance—perhaps as deeply typical a product of Hawthorne’s genius as any particular work that one could name—the society of Salem, Massachusetts, which understands itself to be a theocracy of strict virtue, is shown to be secretly brimming with diabolical evil in something like the literal sense. Whether the extended sequence in the forest be read as hallucination or as actual revelation of Satanic worship, Hawthorne clearly exposes and condemns such vicious practices as the mass murder of Indians and the persecution of Quakers (the latter something for which the author’s seventeenth-century ancestor, Major William Hathorne, was particularly known). A subtler exposure is enacted in “The Minister’s Black Veil” (1836), in which the Puritan divine of the title takes to wearing a black veil that obscures most of his face and that he refuses to remove under any circumstances. The garment does wonders for his stature as a clergyman, because he soon acquires an awesome reputation for special insight into veiled evil, into secret sin. But the story itself suggests that the real evil is hidden in plain view: i.e., the minister’s own spiritual pride that cuts him off, for life, from all real human contact, including with the young woman to whom he had been engaged before taking the veil.
The tale thus somewhat foreshadows Hawthorne’s greatest treatment of evil hidden within America’s New England foundations, The Scarlet Letter (1850). While the dominant religious ideology of seventeenth-century Boston takes the adulterous love of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale to be damnable and (on Hester’s side) open sin, the novel demonstrates at length the actual, if occluded, evil to be the Bostonians’ own self-righteousness—the latter condensed in the cold-blooded determination with which Roger Chillingworth (who is secretly Hester’s husband) slowly tortures Dimmesdale to death. Though their killing methods are different, the cynical misanthrope and misogynist Chillingworth is a direct ancestor of Uncle Charlie.
Hawthorne’s (qualified) admirer Edgar Allan Poe ought also to be mentioned in connection with the American tradition in which Shadow of a Doubt places itself. Whereas little is known of Hitchcock’s reading of Hawthorne, the filmmaker spoke quite openly about Poe’s importance for him. In a 1961 essay, Hitchcock explicitly credits Poe with inspiring him to make movies, noting that, like the American short-story writer, his method was to try to create “a completely unbelievable story told. . .with such a spellbinding logic that you get the impression that the same thing could happen to you tomorrow."12 Though Poe’s settings are often nominally (but only nominally) European, he is as American as Hawthorne in his excavations of evil at work beneath society’s smooth surfaces: and it seems all but certain that this aspect of Poe’s fiction had its impact on Hitchcock.
In “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), for example, unspecified and presumably trivial insults lead one friend to murder another in a particularly grotesque way, chaining him up alive behind a brick wall; and, as in “The Black Cat” (1843) and “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), the realization of evil is deepened by Poe’s telling the story from the viewpoint of the murderer, who in all three cases is a monomaniacal sociopath somewhat like Uncle Charlie. In “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), evil is manifest in the form of an imaginary disease clearly based on the bubonic plague but meant to be even more horrifying; and the red death demonstrates its ability to penetrate into even the most apparently secure locations. In “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), as in Shadow of a Doubt, sociopathic murder within a family is shown to be a concrete possibility. Poe frequently insists that evil can strike anywhere, that there are no safe havens; and this structure of feeling is integral not only to Shadow of a Doubt but also to Hitchcock’s depiction of American civilization in such varied later films as Rear Window, The Wrong Man (1956), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963).
Even to mention the other major writers that might be placed alongside Hawthorne and Poe in this tradition would be to revisit much, probably most, of American literary history. William Faulkner, America’s pre-eminent twentieth-century novelist (and an almost exact contemporary of Hitchcock’s), devoted his career to undermining the moonlight-and-magnolias self-image of the American South and exposing a legacy of evil marked by slavery, war, poverty, ignorance, racism, and violence. Arthur Miller, arguably the nation’s finest playwright, was no less astringently critical, and, in The Crucible (1952), Miller returns to Hawthorne’s Salem in order to examine the origins of American corruption. The literary impulse to excavate evil beneath the apparently innocuous appearances of American society is crucial to current writers as various as Cormac McCarthy (perhaps the most critically respected American novelist at work today) and Stephen King (perhaps the most commercially popular). This is the American tradition that Hitchcock joins with Shadow of a Doubt and to which, as noted above, he continues to contribute in many of his best later films. Poe would have instantly recognized a mild-mannered motel clerk who turns out to be a matricide and serial killer, and Miller would have perfectly understood how America’s much-praised justice system imprisons those innocent of any crime. Hawthorne would not have been the least bit surprised by an apparently normal American husband who, observed closely from one’s rear window, is seen to have murdered his wife. The greatest American storytellers have generally been most American in their radical discontent with American civilization; and the fact that it is with Shadow of a Doubt that Hitchcock joins this company may not be the least reason that he counted it as his own favorite among his films.13