Removing Doubt from Shadow of a Doubt:
How Alfred Hitchcock’s Film Challenges Conceptions About Early Film Noir
Born from the issues that the world was facing in the early forties, film noir quickly became a staple in cinema history. While the films of the genre often take place decades ago, modern audiences still revel in the twisted and seedy worlds and themes the films explore. The first era of film noir in the early 40’s was formulaic in its story and best described by Paul Schrader as, “The phase of the private eye and the lone wolf.” Even though many classics from this period exist such as This Gun for Hire (1942) or The Maltese Falcon (1941), they do not challenge the idea of what film noir is like Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). At face value, Shadow of a Doubt appears to be missing many classic features of early film noir such as a femme fatale or detective, though by analyzing the film’s narrative and formal elements, these features are just a little more hidden and twisted than its contemporaries.
By definition a femme fatale is an attractive woman who will bring disaster to any man that the femme fatale becomes involved with. In most noir films, this typically comes in the form of a seductive woman that, through her beauty, convinces the male protagonist to act differently and get into trouble. In Shadow of a Doubt, the film starts out in a large metropolitan city, and quickly shifts to the small town of Santa Rosa, California, where Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) hides out with his sister’s family after he commits a series of murders. Upon viewing the film, the femme fatale seems absent as the protagonist of the film is Uncle Charlie’s niece Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) who is a woman. However, due to the way Young Charlie is photographed in the film and the relationship she has with Uncle Charlie, it is understood that Young Charlie fits the classic femme fatale definition.
In film noir the femme fatale is meant to invoke a sense of mystique and desire, but while her danger is hinted at throughout the film, the true danger she brings to men is not revealed until the last act. As a result, throughout the first half of the film, the femme fatal is photographed in contrast to the male characters. In film noir, men’s faces are lit unevenly using low-key lighting setups to imply that there is something unclear about them. Conversely, women are lit evenly using high-key lighting in order to give them an angel like glow. In many shots within Shadow of a Doubt, Young Charlie is in the foreground without any shadows across her face, while in the background Uncle Charlie stands in the shadows and is silhouetted. After having this setup repeated multiple times in the film, the audience becomes aware that even though Young Charlie is the protagonist, she is also intended to represent the femme fatale.
In addition to fitting the look of the femme fatale, Young Charlie also carries out the actions of the femme fatale. Though Young Charlie and Uncle Charlie are related, there is an implied incestuous element in their relationship. Upon Uncle Charlie’s arrival, Young Charlie becomes giddy and excitable, as a schoolgirl would do around her crush. In addition, when talking to Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock describes Young Charlie’s love of Uncle Charlie as a “deep love” and that the story is something psychologists cannot complain about. With the inclusion of this incestuous element, Young Charlie acquires the needed sexual attribute necessary to being a femme fatale. This in conjunction with Young Charlie being the one to kill Uncle Charlie at the end of the film, results in her fully fitting the definition of the femme fatale.
The other common trope associated with noir films in the early forties is that there is a detective investigating a crime. Stemming from the crime novels many early noir films are based on, the films follow private investigators that are able to work outside the law to solve the mysteries for the underbelly of society. While other films during the early forties such as Double Indemnity (1944) twisted the role of the private investigator to an insurance agent, Shadow of a Doubt’s investigation is lead by a schoolgirl. While the others in her family are oblivious to the inconsistencies in the way Uncle Charlie acts, Young Charlie takes note and after finding an article about a murder Charlie tore out of a newspaper she takes on the role of the private investigator. Much like Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade would search nightclubs for information, Young Charlie heads to her local library to research newspaper articles on murders that could have been committed by Uncle Charlie. As the plot progresses, Young Charlie begins to be punished by Uncle Charlie for investigating him, much like other private investigators are in their story. Eventually, Young Charlie’s investigation concludes with Uncle Charlie admitting to her that he is one of the suspects in a string of homicides. At the same time, another suspect in the murder case dies, causing the police to give up their investigation into the killings. This shows that not only is Young Charlie able to force a confession from Uncle Charlie, but that she is a better detective than the police.
While strong arguments are made that older noir films are more formulaic than neo-noirs, Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt proves that there were noirs made during the period that question the genres conventions. Seemingly devoid of classic noir elements like the femme fatale or private investigator, Hitchcock does what he is known for by making the audience search his narrative to uncover classical noir elements. By knowing what to look for it is apparent that not only is Shadow of a Doubt’s protagonist, Charlotte, the film’s femme fatale but she is also the lead investigator of the film.
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