Shadow of a Doubt
seen online via YouTube
When I lived in Columbus, I got to see a local production of Our Town. I had heard about the play for years but this was the first time I saw it. In some ways, it was what I expected - a portrait of small-town life from a bygone, highly romanticized era in American history. I thought the play was alright, even if it's not the sort of setting I'm likely to get nostalgic about. It was performed in a neighborhood that's not too far removed from the fictitious Grover's Corners, although much more modern, of course.
I thought of this when I saw that Our Town playwright Thornton Wilder co-wrote Shadow of a Doubt, a film that kinda subverts the Norman Rockwell world depicted in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play. You've got the typical nuclear family in a typical small town, where everyone knows everyone else, cops direct traffic, people live in big, beautiful homes on tree-lined streets, everyone goes to the same church, et cetera. Beloved family member comes by for an unexpected visit and everyone is just SO THRILLED to have him there, and none of them are aware of the big secret he's carrying around with him - and that he's nowhere near as nice a guy as they all think he is.
Shadow was made during World War 2, not that it's all that obvious. Santa Rosa, while not completely cut off from the war (one can see "buy war bonds" signs here and there), still seems like an oasis from the conflict - or any conflict, really, which makes it all the more unsettling when Joseph Cotten's Uncle Charlie arrives amidst his estranged relations.
What I find most fascinating about this movie is the overriding need to preserve the sanctity of this environment, come what may. When Teresa Wright's Charlie, Uncle Charlie's namesake as well as his niece, discovers who and what he's running away from, part of the reason she feels trapped is because she's convinced Mom mustn't know the truth. Mom idolizes Uncle Charlie, her little brother, at least as much as Charlie does, and it's presumed that knowing the truth would "kill" her. Everybody is bowled over by Uncle Charlie's charm and charisma, and even after he meets his fate in the end, the truth about him remains unknown - and Charlie chooses to keep it that way. Everyone's peace of mind proves to be more important than the truth, and I wonder if Wilder meant for us to be left with that message.