P.O.V. No.28 - Good Guy / Bad Guy

Uncle Charlie, the smooth arch-villain

Jacques Lefebvre-Linetzky

On many occasions, Alfred Hitchcock stated that Shadow of a Doubt (1943) was his favorite film. It is a dark film, with nihilistic overtones, a departure from the comedy thrillers that made his success during his "British period." It was Hitchcock's first truly American film with an American cast in a typical American environment. He brought into this film what made the stuff of his inspiration, steeped as it was in the frustrations and anxieties of his Victorian upbringing. At the same time, without relinquishing his own culture, he absorbed the moral and cultural realities of mainstream America in the 1940s. The scenario, based on an idea by Gordon McDonnell, was written by Thornton Wilder, the acclaimed author of Our Town. Wilder's contribution brought to the film a very special flavor which captured the essence of small town America.

The somber tale of the Merry-Widow Murderer takes place in the fairy-tale town of Santa Rosa, California. Hitchcock was fascinated by this discrepancy, which also fed his life-long interest in the theme of the double. For Hitchcock, appearances are deceitful and there is no such thing as innocence, evil is always on the prowl.

Yet it is also an endearing film, with light-hearted family scenes that are reminiscent of the films directed by Frank Capra in the 1930s. The cast is an ideal one: Joseph Cotten plays the bad guy, Charles Oakley; Teresa Wright is his radiant "twin niece"; Patricia Collinge is the naïve and affectionate mother; the little sister, Ann (Ednae Mae Wonacott), coached by Patricia Hitchcock, is astounding and so are the father (Henry Travers) and his neighbor (Hume Cronyn) as they discuss which method to use in order to kill each other. In many interviews Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell dwells upon the creative intensity which presided over the preparation and the actual shooting of the film. Strangely enough, the fact that the film was shot during World War II at a time which also coincided with Hitchcock's mother's death, is very often overlooked.

Charles Oakley, as portrayed by Joseph Cotten, is one of Hitchcock's most disturbing villains. [1] He is first shown in a grubby room in Philadelphia, lying supine, lost in thoughts and toying with his cigar. There is a stack of dollar bills on the bedside table and some other bills are strewn on the rug. A vampire-like figure, stretched on his bed, he seems to be indifferent to the world until his landlady informs him about the visit of two "friends." He suddenly comes to life and brushes past his two pursuers as if to taunt them. Such a shift in mood and attitude is typical of Charles Oakley. Later on, on arriving at Santa Rosa, a frail and sick figure, he will instantly become a sprightly and vibrant Uncle Charlie. [2] He is unpredictable and hence elusive. His evil nature lies in his smoothness. He is urbane, charming, "polished" but, beneath the smooth surface, there lurks a brutal and a cynical killer. The spectator is meant to be seduced by the charming villain so as to be shocked by his evil deeds and yet, by allowing this seduction to take place, the spectator is compelled to accept and recognize the evil that lies within any human being. Uncle Charlie is a seducer. His main "activity" implies seduction. His dress code is impeccable and he is never seen wearing anything drab. His elegance matches the evil in him. He is also a threatening shadow, framed in the entrance hall or an imposing figure on the landing. On various occasions, the camera focuses on his hands, the tools of his trade. A few gestures, the compulsive tightening of his fingers, the shredding of a newspaper, the clenching of a fist, all suggest an underlying fierceness. But those manicured hands are only seen "at work" in the climactic scene on the train, a gruesome and almost obscene visual representation of his pathological urge to kill. [3] These hands are also a variation on the theme of the double, thematically and visually speaking.

To the world, Charles Oakley is a faceless figure and he must remain so. He dreads being photographed and the only picture one sees of him is the one taken for Christmas, just before his accident, a testimony to his long-lost innocence. Hitchcock constantly contrasts the villain's wish for physical transparency with his overwhelming presence on screen.

Uncle Charlie's presence is not only a corporeal one. What essentially characterizes his presence is his voice. First and foremost, it is a cinematic voice, the voice whose magic inflexions shaped such films as Citizen Kane, Orson Welles (1941) and even more so, The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles (1942). In Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock uses Joseph Cotten's voice so as to convey the complexity of the villain's personality. Uncle Charlie is a talker, a charmer and a convincing one whether it be with his sister, Emma, or with Mrs. Potter, the flirtatious widow. He needs to have an audience, not only to seduce those who are listening to him, but also to be in command, to control the situation. His replacing Joe at the head of the dinner table is a clear statement. The status of his voice varies according to his mood shifts. One clear example is the speech he makes about middle-aged widows:

... the cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands dead, husband who've spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. Then they die and leave their money to their wives. Their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money. Proud of their jewelry but of nothing else. Horrible faded, fat, greedy women.

The speech as such is a monologue, a theatrical revelation of the villain's evil nature. It ends with an arresting visual device. When his niece objects to his assessment by saying "They're alive! They're human beings!", Charles turns toward the camera in huge close-up and declares chillingly: "Are they?" It is one of the most memorable shots in the film and one of the most disturbing as young Charlie is the only one who really understands the meaning of her uncle's words.

The more attractive the villain is, the more disturbing the process of identification becomes. In Shadow of a Doubt, the process of identification is all the more complex as the villain is presented alongside with his own double, his niece Charlie, named after him. Young Charlie is first seen on the screen lying in the same supine position as her uncle. Vacantly lost in thoughts, she ponders over the emptiness of her life until she decides to send a telegram to the one and only person who can "shake up" the family, Uncle Charlie. By juxtaposing two similar scenes, the narrative establishes a visual parallel whose imprint will be ubiquitous. The two "Charlies" are indeed alike and share the same blood. The relationship is an incestuous one as the gift of the ring clearly exemplifies. It is an engagement ring and, at the same time, as it belongs to one of Uncle Charlie's victims, it testifies to his criminal activity. Uncle Charlie will attempt to kill young Charlie on three occasions, yet it is not her status as a victim that Hitchcock wishes to focus on. Young Charlie is the only one in the family who clearly recognizes Uncle Charlie's evil nature but she must keep her discovery to herself in order to save her family and her mother in particular. She is therefore doomed to seek out the truth and conceal it from those she loves. By sharing the secret with the villain, she is contaminated by his evil nature. It is indeed most disturbing as the spectator is also forced to confront those dark forces and accept them as being part of human nature. Young Charlie eventually shares the secret with Jack Graham, the police detective she falls in love with, but the weight of her discovery and the loss it entails will not be eradicated. [4] As Jack Graham declares at the end of the film: "… the world needs a lot of watching."

The contamination of evil is obviously what Shadow of a Doubt is about. This accounts for the ambiguous status of the "Merry Widow" tune which occurs at regular intervals in the film. It is first seen and heard during the opening credits but it may not be attributed to any of the protagonists as they have not appeared on screen yet. This very first instance is meant to be memorized by the audience and will operate as a signal throughout the film. Not once does the image of the waltzing couples suggest what is going on in Uncle Charlie's head and yet the tune mysteriously "jumps from head to head," as young Charlie says later on in the film. It is a clear illustration of the contamination of evil but, at the same time, it confirms a telepathic relation between the two Charlies.

Shot in the midst of the Second World War, the film may also be read as a metaphor for the evil forces that were bringing chaos and spreading their despicable message to the world.

Uncle Charlie is eventually killed by his own niece, almost by accident, as he loses his balance and is killed by an oncoming train. She thus fulfills an earlier promise that she would kill him herself. The image of his death dissolves to the "Merry Widow" sequence for a final occurrence. Uncle Charlie's evil deeds will never be revealed and the final words uttered by the priest during his funeral are an ironic counterpoint:

Santa Rosa has gained and lost a son. A son that she can be proud of. Brave, generous, kindly. (…) He came into our community and our lives were finer and richer for it. For you who loved him most, for you who knew him best. For you, his beloved family… Let this thought… in this sad hour of grief… that no true love ever dies… The beauty of their souls, the sweetness of their characters, live on with us forever.

1 He was modelled after Earle Leonard Nelson who was hanged in 1928 and was known as The Gorilla Killer or The Dark Strangler.

2 In MEDIUM COOLMedium Coolby Fritz Lang, the murderer likes to be called " uncle " by his victims.

3 Hitchcock is obviously fascinated by the act of strangulation, a simple and a silent method favored by such villains as Bruno Anthony in Medium Cool (1951) and Bob Rusk in Medium Cool (1972).

4 The ending of Medium Cool is not a classic Hollywood happy ending.

to the top of the page