An Alfred Hitchcock different presentation of women in Shadow of Doubt

The character Little Charlie rehabilitates women through her strongness and way of dealing with a man which she desacralizes the egoistical social function.   

Films are media that inform us, drive us into ideas and places, and get us used to new ways of life. Filmmakers expose viewers to their own experience and to those of others, including novelists and screenwriters. It happens that many of those experiences reach us with their antagonistic characteristics as it is the case in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) by Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980).

In this film, Hitchcock shares with us the frustration and tenacity of a female adolescent facing life’s heard reality. Young Charly has no alternative to her boring life in her family home unless a miracle would supervene. Justly, kind of a miracle will happen with her beloved uncle Charles visits the family at Santa Rosa, in California. But her happiness will be short-lived.

Her frustration will even worsen since she will discover that Uncle Charly is a very wanted serial killer of widows, whom she then wants to get rid of. Although the film may display traditional values of the mid-20th century’s American society with women in the position of “passivity and submission” for the benefit of men characterized by their “egoistic dominance[1],” Young Charlie challenging her uncle emerges as a testimony of women suggesting a new gender-based social interaction.

The Plot

Charles Oakley, Uncle Charlie, is laying face up and thinking when his landlady enters his room to let him know that two friends have been looking for him. In fact, he does not know these two men who have been posted outside. He gets out, lets them see him and disappears. Through his wandering, he sends a telegram, announcing his sister that he will visit her family in Santa Rosa for a while.

At the same time, Charlotte Newton, Young Charlie, his sister’s older daughter, also laying face up, is thinking about her boring life in the family home. She says waiting for only a miracle to embellish her everyday life. The first solution she grasps is to invite her beloved Uncle Charlie, whose name she bears. But while being in the post office to send a telegram to the uncle she learns excitedly about the announce of the latter’s future visit.

Certainly, Uncle Charlie brings light into Young Charlie’s life only with his presence. But the enthusiasm is even higher with gifts he came with for everybody. However, the visit of two officers in the family and Young Charlie’s talks with one of them call her attention on her uncle’s suspicious attitudes since the beginning of his stay in her home. Thus, Young Charlie opens a personal investigation, which leads her to find out that Uncle Charlie is a very wanted serial (the merry widow) killer.

She confronts him, constraints him to confess and promises not to denounce him provided he leaves the town. Meanwhile, Uncle Charlie get friends in the area, particularly in his brother-in-law’s bank where he saved $ 40 000. Before leaving, these friends organize a party to his honor. But, while his train starts moving forward, he retains Young Charlie who came to see the room he is lodging in. He catches her and tries to strangle her. While the young woman is struggling under his grip, Uncle Charlie falls under a train that has been coming in the opposite sense.

Women in Hitchcock other movies: the cases of The 39 Steps and North by Northwest.

To argue our thesis requires that we have a look over Alfred Hitchcock’s use of women in his other movies. For that reason, we purposedly chose The 39 Steps (1935) and North by Northwest (1959), which Shadow of a Doubt was released in between (Rebecca also, 1940). In both films women feature sometimes as victims sometimes as bait. With men always at the wand, female characters, deprived from their humanity, act as tools manipulated throughout chase operations most of them will fail at the end for having initiated on the wrong basis.

In The 39 Steps, Anabelle Smith, who intended to stop a criminal organization from spying the government, dies in Richard Hannay’s London apartment. As Hannay becomes a very wanted man for the murder he has not committed, he is on the run. In a train to Scotland, he gives an unwanted kiss to a solely woman as a way of dissimulating his face since policemen are after him. On the farm “Alt-na-Shellach“, a farmer’s young wife suddenly finds herself in deceitful situation against her husband as she uses several subterfuges to protect the young chase. Later, another woman, Pamela, will be constraint to get involved in the chase operation to help conspirators to locate and then arrest Hannay with whom she will be handcuffed despite her fright of the supposed criminal.

Women have a similar feature in North by Northwest. At Lester Townsend’s home, a woman is used to lie to police to protect a criminal organization, which attempted to kill Roger Thornhill mistakenly targeted. Moreover, Eva Kendall is shared between the criminal organization’s leader Phillip Vandamm and the runaway Richard Hannay. She met and hid the latter in her 20th Century Limited train’s room to Chicago despite she knew that he is a very wanted man. As Hanny has fell in love, the woman, to get rid of him, organizes his assassination, which will fail. Kendall will find herself in an inglorious situation when Hanny discovers, during an art auction, that she has been working with Vandanm. Ultimately, it is shown that Eva Kendall was a woman manipulated by a government agency to serve as a mistress for a criminal organization’s chief so they can get him under arrest. 

In both The 39 Steps and North by Northwest, women act unwillingly. They are in use by men who impose the game rules at their own advantage or at that of organizations or agencies they belong to. In the worst case, women must die. In the evoked films, women star as traitorous people at the service of men’s whim. This is different in Shadow of a Doubt, which can be understood as a quest for rehabilitation in the person of Young Charlie having unmasked and challenged her precious uncle. In fact, every woman in this film enjoys their freedom of action and movement without being dictated by men.

Women depicted differently from Hitchcock other movies

By traditional value we mean ways of being, acting and thinking that people or social groups recognize as ideal, and which have a compelling character to them. It happens that set of values confers to some a social position viewed as superiors. In the case of the American society, men have always been privileged at the detriment of women to which one attributes the role of taking care of house, children, and husband. As a proof, women got the right to vote more than one century (1920) after the independence.

In such a situation, men have egoistically kept all the prerogatives for themselves. Sort of a social relationship has crossed the history of the country and framed every sphere and activity, including the cultural realm. Thus, it is like normal that a social practice wherein female actress is instrumentalized to allow male actors to attain their purpose or seduce and even induce the male in trouble was commonplace in movie, including those of Alfred Hitchcock. The case of Shadow of a Doubt is different since women are depicted with their total dignity, even Uncle Charlie’s victims as viewers do not see them.

Certainly, Emmy Newton is a housewife in Shadow of a Doubt. She is very quick to duty. As Litlle Charly resumes it while lying in her bed addressing her father, her mother’s daily life is summed at cooking and eating, though she admits that Emmy is a nice mother. Moreover, Little Charlie, being aware of men’s power in society and family, asks her father to do something. Certainly, Joseph Newton has never displayed a reprehensible behavior towards Emmy, but the women has been educated to be just a devoted wife and a nice mother.

However, the role of the two first women showed in the film contrasts with Emmy’s. Uncle Charly’s landlady parades as an honest businessperson who cares about her client’s welfare. As an entrepreneur she knows how important a customer is. She bends down and picks up Uncle Charlie’s bills strewed over the floor, puts them in the right place and pull down the curtain before moving away. No man is showed around her.   

Furthermore, well before Uncle Charlie’s visit, Young Charlie and her little sister, Ann, rejected women’s function, similar that of their mother, in the American households. Ann, as a kid, projects the future generation of women. Instead of playing with toys, she sticks to adults’ books and cares about feeding her mind. Yet she considers as an outrage that Uncle Charlie clips out the newspaper, a proof that she knows the power of information for her father and for herself. 

Young Charlie’s tenacity, cleverness, and self-control

Young Charlie remains attentive even by accepting being cajoling by her uncle whom she warns that she will uncover whether he has been hidden something. Not just women, everybody likes being respected. Uncle Charlie’s presence was enough for his niece, but this does not refrain her from enjoying his fondness and generosity, like when he slides a ring down her finger. Is it not her cleverness that leads her to note and relate a person’s initial on the ring to that she saw on the piece of newspapers her uncle hid in his coat’s pocket?

In addition to being intelligent, Young Charlie shows self-control when she distances herself from officer Jack Graham’s warning about her uncle possible odd business. Before braving Uncle Charlie, she makes sure she conducts her own and secret investigation. She comes to land to the library at night to compare information she holds with those in newspapers. Then comes the dinner during which Uncle Charlie will pour out his hatred against rich widows, which moment furnishes a great element of confirmation of Uncle Charlie’s involvement in criminal activities. “They are alive! They are human being”, she cries, about widows her uncle came to depict as animals. This is the beginning of the quarrel between the two.

Through the character Little/Young Charlie, Alfred Hitchcock let talk women in his immediate surrounding, such as his wife Alma Reville that has been involved in many of his films’ screenplays, including Shadow of a Doubt’s. This would be normal. He released the film in war time where men were absent to the camps or battlefield. At that period, women gained in responsibilities and decision making. Such a trend would impact on the society and come out even from art works as movie. It is perhaps why Hitchcock considers Shadow of a Doubt as his best work. Another aspect not to neglect about this film is it would be a tribute to Hitchcock’s mother, very sick, who died during its making.

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