Even before “Vertigo” got named the greatest movie ever made by Sight and Sound earlier this month, I was still planning to talk about another of Hitchcock’s films, and I’m not going to be stopped. Over the summer I actually got a chance to see two of his earlier films: “The 39 Steps” and “Shadow of a Doubt”. Both of them were excellent, but I really loved “Shadow of a Doubt”. I remember learning about Hitchcock’s technique in high school, how he used familiar settings to create suspense: if an audience sees something frightening happening somewhere or to someone they recognize, it heightens the suspense. And “Shadow of a Doubt” is a perfect example of that.
The film starts with a man named Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotton) being followed out of town by two suspicious-looking characters. Charlie is heading to Santa Rosa, California, to see some relatives he hasn’t seen in a while, his sister, her wife, and her three children. The oldest of her children is teenage Charlotte Newton (Teresa Wright in what I call her best performance), nicknamed “Charlie” after her uncle, who she admires very much. She complains to her parents (Henry Travers and Patricia Collinge) about her family being a typical American family, having nothing about them that makes them stand out or be important.
Then Uncle Charlie shows up, and her world starts looking up again. He comes and gives her a gift: an emerald ring with initials engraved on them. Charlie notices these and asks, but her uncle claims that he was ripped off. But Charlie doesn’t mind, and she is just happy to see her uncle again. And then one day, Uncle Charlie starts acting suspicious when the two men who followed him before come to the Newton’s door and claim to Mrs. Newton that they are working on a survey about the average American family. After a few days of figuring out a time to interview them, one of the men (Macdonald Carey) starts getting closer to Charlie.
One night, Charlie and the man actually go out on a date, and the man reveals himself to be a detective named Jack Graham. He tells Charlie that he and his partner are actually there to investigate on her uncle, who is one of two men suspected of being a killer. And once Charlie notices this, she starts getting more and more suspicious of her uncle. But one day, word gets out that the killer has apparently been found by the police and was killing while trying to get away, which relieves Uncle Charlie. However, when he remembers that his niece knows his secret (and is the only one around who does, now that Graham and his partner have left), he starts trying to fix it so that Charlie may be killed on accident.
Uncle Charlie even goes so far as to get Charlie on his train that will take him home after his visit, so that he can push her out and get rid of his secret. And in the film’s climax, Charlie and her uncle struggle on the train, until Uncle Charlie falls out of the car and hits an oncoming train. His funeral is held in Santa Rosa, but only Charlie and Graham (who has returned to marry Charlie, whom he has fallen in love with) know the truth about Uncle Charlie—though they decide not to make it known.
In “Shadow of a Doubt”, Charlie Newton starts out complaining that she is part of a typical, average, ho-hum family with nothing special about it at all. But as she finds out more and more about her uncle’s past and his crimes, she realizes that this may not be true after all. And having grown up in the United States, I feel like a lot of times I have taken my family and my life her for granted many times—especially once I’ve come back from mission trips to Peru and Ecuador and seen how different some families live.
In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans in the New Testament, he urges them that the Christian life is not an ordinary one: God wants us to live an extraordinary lifestyle! “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (12:1-2)
I don’t know about you, but offering my body as a living sacrifice to God does not sound like the typical thing to do. Most of us in the United States have safe, comfortable lives, and we want to keep it that way. But we all know deep down that it shouldn’t be that way. In “Shadow of a Doubt”, Hitchcock takes this idea one way and says, “You think you’re a typical American, but nope—your uncle is actually a murderer.” God, praise His name, takes that the other way and says: “You think you’re a typical American, but nope—you’re my child, and I want you to serve Me with every part of yourself.” My prayer for you this week is that you will rise to that command and offer yourself as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to the Lord.