The Unhealthy Family Dynamics of Shadow of a Doubt

      Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt features the Newton family, who at first glance appears to be an ideal happy, average family. However, beneath the surface, the Newtons experience a number of problems which they try to hide with their facade. Among Hitchcock’s dysfunctional families, the Newtons are probably the most outstanding.

The relationship between the heroine Charlie Newton and her sinister uncle Charlie is taken at face value by the other characters as nice and normal. However, critics have observed subtle incestuous undertones between the two. In his article “All in the Family,” James McLaughlin states that “Incest is a barely suppressed presence in the film…” At the beginning of the film they are both shown lying in bed in the exact same position, signifying their connection to one another. The film also depicts the pair as having a quasi-telepathic link, which is often associated with lovers. Perhaps the most blatant hint at incest would be the ring, originally a wedding ring, which Uncle Charlie gives our heroine when they meet. Hitchcock inserts this subtext into the film to convey an uncomfortable atmosphere to the scenes with the two Charlies and to exemplify the problematic family dynamics of the Newtons.

Uncle Charlie putting the ring on his niece’s finger

Hitchcock portrays the Newton’s facade as phony and unsatisfactory. Early on, Charlie displays dissatisfaction with her family, stating that she wishes to “cure her family,” in her opening scene. Her spirits are temporarily lifted when Uncle Charlie comes to visit, but are crushed when he brings a number of problems to the Newton household. The manners which the Newtons deal with these problems best exemplify the film’s criticism of how families with fake images react when this image is threatened. For example, there is the dinner scene where Uncle Charlie rants about how terrible rich widows are and how they deserve to die. While initially shocked, the Newtons then pretend that he had never said anything out of the ordinary. The family, with the exception of Charlie, chooses to be willfully ignorant of Uncle Charlie’s malevolence because they don’t want to give up their preferred happy image of Uncle Charlie. Even Charlie doesn’t reveal the truth about him after his death.

The maintenance of this facade and the refusal of the Newtons to confront their own problems is what causes much of the grief within Shadow of a Doubt. Because of this, the Newton household remains a “foul sty,” as Uncle Charlie put it.

McLaughlin, James. “All in the Family: Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.” In A Hitchcock Reader, Second Edition, 145–55. Blackwell Publishing, 2009.

 

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