Incest and Abuse in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Spoiler alert for the plot

Although by no means an intentionally feminist film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is a film that has a lot of interesting things to say about women, the family and patriarchy.

The film’s protagonist is Charlie, a young woman somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, who has an innocent crush on her Uncle Charlie, her mother’s younger brother for whom she was named.  This crush isn’t too surprising considering the awful boredom of the life that she’s living in a small town with her painfully “average” family, including a benign but emotionally absent and useless father, a drudge of a mother and two younger siblings.  Charlie is therefore ecstatic when her mysterious Uncle arrives for a visit, but it’s apparent from the outset that Uncle Charlie is not in the slightest bit innocent and that he’s exploiting his niece’s fixation on him for ends that are not immediately clear.  As the film progresses, it’s revealed that the FBI are on Uncle Charlie’s trail and that he may or may not be the psychopathic killer of several wealthy widows.

Shadow of a Doubt is unflinching in its representation of the dullness and drudgery of women’s lives in small-town America during the period in which it’s set.  Young Charlie is bored out of her brain, having graduated from high school with no prospect of going to college, she’s waiting around for someone to marry her so that she can embark on the same kind of life that has left her mother a hollowed-out, anxiety-ridden wreck.   Little wonder that she finds her handsome, well-travelled uncle so exciting.

For both Charlie and her mother, Uncle Charlie represents a chance to vicariously experience some glamour and freedom.  When young Charlie insists that she and her uncle are alike, and perhaps even share some kind of mystical connection, we feel that this is because he represents something that she desperately wants and is denied.   But as the story progresses young Charlie begins to have doubts about her uncle and to regret her unthinking allegiance to him, especially when an FBI Agent arrives and tells her that he may be the murderer they’ve been pursuing.

Shadow of a Doubt is a very dark film in which the narrative suspense is based on the ways in which patriarchy enables, supports and covers up for men like Uncle Charlie.   The shadow of incest hangs over the story and, as it progresses, the film becomes readable as an allegory about familial sexual abuse.  Charlie flirts with his niece and, initially, she rather welcomes the attention.  When her friends ogle him on the street, she’s happy to have him mistaken for a boyfriend rather than a relative.  But these advances soon take a more sinister turn, involving the gift of a valuable ring and a relationship that  becomes increasingly possessive and physically domineering.  The possibility that Uncle Charlie may be a sexual predator, as well as a murderer, is suggested by the fact that the widows were strangled, because strangulation can easily stand as a metaphor for rape.  The dehumanizing hatred of the widows that he expresses certainly goes well beyond a simple desire to steal their money.

With most of her family willingly taken in by the uncle, young Charlie finds herself combating a potential murderer with only her wits for support, for as he says to her, “Who would believe you?”  Then when she finds herself a suitor in one of the FBI Agents pursuing her uncle, he becomes actively murderous.  On the surface of the narrative, this is because he fears she may betray him to the FBI, but you can’t escape the feeling that he’s also angry at her disloyalty on quite another level.  While her family remain cheerfully oblivious to the danger in their midst, Charlie begins to realise that her life is in danger.

There was one scene that I found particularly chilling and difficult to watch. The family are going out to a lecture and her mother tells Charlie to go in the car with her uncle, while the rest of the family travel by taxi.  Charlie’s attempts to get out of being alone with her uncle in the car, without telling her mother what’s really wrong, are painfully recognizable to survivors of familial sexual abuse.  Uncle Charlie also threatens her with the idea that if anything happens to him, it will “kill her mother”.

Shadow of a Doubt is based on the assumption that women are expected to live through men, but are punished for making the “wrong” choices and for wanting more than they should have.  In one of the most telling scenes, Uncle Charlie takes his niece to a seedy bar to bully her, and there they meet one of her old schoolmates, a prematurely worn-down waitresses.  The friend is taken with the ring that Uncle Charlie gave his niece, repeatedly saying how much she would like a man to come and give her a ring like that.  Her desperation is pitiful, but young Charlie has learned that men’s gifts do not necessarily mean what her friend thinks they mean.  Rather than love and romance, the ring now stands for secrecy, abuse and possibly rape and murder.

The film ends with Uncle Charlie’s attempt to punish and murder his niece by pushing her from a moving train, but she manages to struggle free and pushes him to his death.  In the last scene, we see a chastened Charlie with her detective boyfriend, having learned her lesson about looking for excitement, and presumably about to embark on the same kind of limited life that her mother endures.   Ultimately, the film presents a world in which women cannot win: if they want excitement, they risk ending up with men like Charlie and may suffer the fate of the widows he murdered; if they want to avoid such risks, they have to settle for men like the dull but safe FBI agent for whom young Charlie has little passion, but who we know she will marry.  It’s also telling that Uncle Charlie is buried with his secrets and, ultimately, everyone covers up for him.

One of the things I find interesting about Hitchcock in general is his utter lack of faith in the family as a “safe” space and his propensity to represent its more sinister aspects.  So for me, the “doubt” at the heart of Shadow of a Doubt is not simply Charlie’s doubt about her uncle, but the more fearful doubt that her family is indeed an “average” family, in which case perhaps more “average” families contain horrors like Uncle Charlie.

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