Tonight: Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten in Alfred Hitchcock’s five-star thriller Shadow of A Doubt, Hitchcock’s favorite film. It is a tale of good and evil based on the real-life “Merry Widow Murderer” Earle Leonard Nelson, who strangled women for their money—and his pleasure.
The real Nelson seemed to be a prosperous, respected gentleman, but he was a psychotic serial killer. On one occasion, he travelled from New York to the small town of Hanford, California, on the pretext of visiting his sister and her family. In fact, he was fleeing from police searching for a mass murderer—him!
Eventually, he was arrested.
The 1938 newspaper accounts of the incident caught the attention of L.A. resident and aspiring playwright Gordon McDonnell. Since he was unemployed at the time—with time on his hands—McDonnell decided to drive to Hanford, where he talked to the town’s people for 12 days, making copious notes.
He thought there might be a play in the story or maybe a movie. But nothing came of it until 1942 when McDonnell’s wife, Margaret, mentioned the subject to Hitchcock.
Margaret McDonnell worked for David O. Selznick, who had recently put Hitchcock under contract and brought him to Hollywood to make Rebecca.
After Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent in 1940 and Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Suspicion in 1941, Hitchcock made Saboteur for Universal, on loan out from Selznick.
He was on the prowl for a new property when Margaret McDonnell told Hitchcock about her husband’s 1938 trip to Hanford, his random notes and his idea for a movie.
Over lunch at the Brown Derby, McDonnell told Hitchcock the story of the Merry Widow Murderer and his visit to Hanford.
For the screenplay, Hitchcock sought out the highly regarded three-time Pulitzer Prize winning writer Thornton Wilder.
“In England I’d always had the collaboration of top stars and the finest writers, but in America things were quite different,” Hitchcock recalled in 1966. “I was turned down by many stars and by writers who looked down their noses at the genre I worked in. That’s why it was so gratifying for me to find out that one of America’s most eminent playwrights was willing to work with me and, indeed, that he took the whole thing quite seriously.”
Hitchcock wanted Wilder because he had written the definitive play of classic Americana—Our Town.
He wanted to contrast the Puritan mores of small-town, mainstream American life with the twisted evil of the Merry Widow Murderer: How would they affect one another? Who would prevail?
Wilder and Hitchcock worked together every morning on the screenplay. Wilder was on his own in the afternoon, polishing their ideas. Wilder used a school notebook and wrote in longhand.
Near completion on the script, Wilder enlisted in the psychological warfare department of the U.S. Army. He boarded a train travelling cross-country to a military base in Florida. Hitchcock went along. Wilder finished the screenplay just as the train reached its destination. That’s how the film’s climactic confrontation was conceived.
Not coincidentally, Hitchcock’s cameo appearance in the film shows him aboard the train that brings the evil Uncle Charlie to the story’s small town.
The small town selected for filming was in Northern California, but it wasn’t Hanford. Hitchcock picked the more picturesque Santa Rosa (population 13,000).
A key reason why Hitchcock was partial to this film was that it brought murder and violence “back into the home where it rightfully belongs,” he said.
Shadow of a Doubt was Teresa Wright’s fourth film. She was nominated for Oscars in her first three, winning for Mrs. Miniver. Her other memorable roles include The Little Foxes, The Pride of the Yankees and The Best Years of Our Lives.
Hitchcock had to borrow Wright from Sam Goldwyn where she was Goldwyn’s resident “girl next door,” though she refused to pose for pin-up pictures—even in wartime.
Hitch chose Wright for the film in part, perhaps, because she had appeared in the original Broadway company of Our Town.
Wright played “Young Charlie,” the niece and namesake of the Merry Widow Murderer—played to smooth, disturbing perfection by Joseph Cotten. This would prove to be his favorite role—a remarkable revelation since he also appeared in The Third Man, The Magnificent Ambersons and Citizen Kane.
Like Hitchcock, Cotten was on loan to Universal from Selznick. He was perplexed at portraying a murderer with such a complex personality. He wanted advice from Hitchcock on how such a person thinks and behaves.
Hitch suggested they take a drive. On Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, he told Cotton, “Pull over and park wherever you can.”
They strolled down the street.
“Take a close look at the men you pass and let me know when you spot a murderer,” Hitch said.
Cotten paused to look in a store window. “No, no,” said Hitchcock, pulling him away. “It’s murderers we’re looking for, not thieves.”
“What you’re trying to say,” Cotten concluded, “is that a murderer looks and moves like anyone else.”
“Or vice versa,” said Hitchcock.
Shadow of a Doubt is an allegory of good and evil.
Like Strangers on a Train, tonight’s film features two people—Uncle Charlie and Young Charlie—who are two parts of a single personality. “We’re like twins,” young Charlie tells her namesake.
Principal photography began in Santa Rose on July 31, 1942 and was completed on October 28. The negative cost was a modest $813,000.
Reviewers raved. Audience response was strong as well. There was only one Oscar nomination, however—for the screenplay.
It was hard to ignore Thornton Wilder.
Worthy of note, as well, is Dimitri Tiomkin’s score.
And now—from 1943—Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, Shadow of A Doubt.