Shadow of a Doubt: Be Careful What You Read
[Really cool image that I failed to upload]
(Shadow of a Doubt, 9 min. 47seconds)
Within the first ten minutes of Shadow of a Doubt Hitchcock delivers a warning about the very real possibility of personal, physical harm that can come from reading. Of course, it is only a joking aside from a father (Joseph Newton, played by Henry Travers) to his daughter Ann (Edna May Wonacott). But, this hilarious joke takes a different shape as the film continues. Prior to this comment, Ann is criticizing her father for reading mystery novels. Prior to that, Ann is on the receiving end of a telephone call notifying the family of a telegram they received. In a joking manor Hitchcock has quickly established communication, reading, and discovery as threads that inform the entire movie. Books communicate to their readers; Telephones communicate across the community; telegrams communicate across the nation; telepathy communicates between people at any distance. Each character involves themselves in communication, reading, and discovery. Within the small town this communication is uninterrupted and valued (“That’s Daddy’s newspaper!”) except when it comes to talking to one another. The communication between characters is constantly interrupted and overlapping. The result is that the suspicions some of the family members have about Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) never get communicated to one another. For instance, the father is clearly suspicious when Uncle Charlie deposits $40,000 at the bank (using a random and probably reliable inflation converter that is around $600,000 today). The mother (Patricia Collinge) seems suspicious when Charlie (Teresa Wright) asks her to ride with her to the lecture. Charlie is suspicious almost from the moment she sees the ring’s engraving. These characters are independently suspicious but because they do not communicate to one another they never can connect the dots. Uncle Charlie, of course, covers things nicely and is able to withhold information and maintain a communication breakdown within the family.
Yet, this moment is more complex than that; Hitchcock implicates himself in the joke and the message. He draws our attention to the mystery genre, his constructed world, and the laying out of clues for us to read. We can collect more information than any of the single characters; we are afforded the communication that the characters cannot achieve. He uses Joseph and Herbie (Hume Cronyn) to make the point even clearer. It’s as if he says, “this isn’t a Sherlock Holmes novel—this is a movie, and I’m going to lay this across multiple characters… but be careful what you read”. In some ways this movie is a meditation on the mystery genre. It simultaneously includes us in the very first warning and excludes us. It lets us play along and find the clues; it excludes us from the material harm that is nearly brought on the chief detective—Young Charlie.
In this way the original warning “don’t read too much. You’ll ruin your eyes” alerts us to the dangers that may come to those individuals in the film that are searching for the truth about Uncle Charlie. Truly, material harm will come to those that read too much. And yet, I can’t help but feel like this is a message to us too. The difference is that we willingly and joyfully subject ourselves to feelings of suspense and horror. Still, it cannot be ignored that all of this happens in a playful, but loaded line. Harm is unlikely to come to us, but it playfully raises the stakes for us as readers while connecting us to the readers in the film.