Domestic Hitchcock: Shadow of a Doubt

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This post takes part in the third annual film-preservation blogathon For the Love of Film, hosted by Ferdy on Films, the Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod.

This year’s blogathon is devoted to the work of Alfred Hitchcock. Funds raised will help the National Film Preservation Foundation stream an early film on which Hitchcock worked, The White Shadow, on the internet for several months—and record a new score for this silent film. Please click on the photo above to donate to this worthy cause. Films are perishable, and they need our help!

Now, on to MY Hitchcock contribution……

Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright, and Patricia Collinge in "Shadow of a Doubt"

As a food writer I often find it difficult to write about films, particularly films like those of Hitchcock, in which action and suspense are key. The characters have little time for cooking and eating. So for this essay I turn to Hitchcock’s most domestic motion picture—some might say his ONLY domestic motion picture—Shadow of a Doubt.

Released in 1943, Shadow of a Doubt has long been one of my favorite Hitchcock films in large part because it is domestic. The house in which most of the action is set is almost a character in the story. Viewers get to know its hallways, doorways, and rooms. And many plot points are worked out at the dinner table.

Since Shadow is a Hitchcock film the domesticity it explores is dark. It is domesticity nonetheless, however, and the picture features sympathetic and complex female characters.

Indeed, the film is primarily experienced through one of those characters, Young Charlie (Teresa Wright). A recent high-school graduate who still lives with her family in an old-fashioned home in Santa Rosa, California, Charlie is restless.

She finds family life tedious and is particularly concerned with that life’s effect on her mother Emma, who seems to spend her days going from one dispiriting household task to another. Charlie senses that she and her mother are trapped. “All I’m waiting for now is a miracle,” she tells her kindly but weak father Joe (Henry Travers).

The miracle comes almost immediately in the form of a prospective visit from her mother’s brother Charlie (the handsome, velvet-voiced Joseph Cotten), after whom young Charlie was named. The namesake feels a special kinship with her uncle, a far-off glamorous figure who sends wonderful presents but rarely shows his face in Santa Rosa.

The family gathers around Uncle Charlie at the dinner table.

Charlie believes she has a psychic bond with Uncle Charlie, a bond Hitchcock famously emphasized from the start of the picture by introducing both Charlies in the same position—lying on a bed looking despondent.

Charlie is even happier when she sees the effect the news of her uncle’s imminent arrival has on her mother Emma (Patricia Collinge). Emma’s voice lifts and her face lights up as she speaks of her long-ago childhood with Uncle Charlie, the spoiled baby of her family.

Uncle Charlie’s arrival is all that Young Charlie and Emma have hoped for. He brings laughter to the house and showers his relatives with gifts. Almost immediately, however, Charlie begins to wonder about her uncle. He has isolated moments of scary violence. He is trying to hide something. And the gorgeous emerald ring he gives her is inscribed with the initials of a dead woman.

Young Charlie begins to feel uncomfortable with Uncle Charlie. Papa Joe looks on at right.

Hitchcock brought in Thornton Wilder to work on the screenplay for Shadow. The film was shot on location in Santa Rosa, an attractive, medium-sized town, and the director believed that the playwright of Our Town could add a certain authenticity to this story of America’s heartland.

He did—as did the brilliant cast. Shadow of a Doubt both celebrates and critiques small-town life—and middle-class American life in general.

Like Uncle Charlie, the town of Santa Rosa is beautiful yet contains dark corners.

Like Uncle Charlie, Young Charlie and her mother Emma love the idea of home but long for something more stimulating and ultimately more dangerous.

At the end of the film Young Charlie’s future appears almost as bleak as it does at the beginning. She has survived attempts on her life. Yet she appears doomed to marry the stolid MacDonald Carey and recreate her mother’s humdrum housewifery.

As for Uncle Charlie, he feels forced by fate/fear/insanity to try to kill Young Charlie, whom he really does love.

Perhaps the saddest of the three is Emma. Young Charlie’s mother is devastated when she learns near the end of the picture that her brother plans to leave Santa Rosa, although she is fortunately unaware that he is leaving because he will be arrested or killed if he stays.

“But I can’t bear it if you go, Charles,” she says in near despair. She adds to her guests but most of all to herself, “We were so close growing up, and then Charles went away, and I got married, and you know how it is. You sort of forget you’re you. You’re your husband’s wife……”

Her tearful speech underlines the film’s unsettling portrait of domesticity. Domestic life, Hitchcock and Thornton Wilder tell us, is full of longings, regrets, and even danger. (Young Charlie barely survives two attempts on her life that use the house and its contents as weapons.)

And yet, as Young Charlie learns, Americans in the 1940s, particularly American women, don’t have a lot of other options.

The little cow sprinkles are meant to evoke black-and-white film--and to hide my icing errors!

Emma’s Butterscotch Pound Cake with Maple Icing

Emma and Charlie prepare several meals in Shadow of a Doubt. The food to which the most detail is devoted is a cake Emma demonstrates making for two men who pretend to be conducting a survey about typical American families. They are in reality detectives hard on the trail of Uncle Charlie, whom they suspect of being a serial killer.

She informs the pair that this maple cake is a favorite of her brother Charles. Viewers don’t get to see the entire baking process, but Emma makes it clear that the instructions include creaming butter and sugar and then adding eggs.

I hope her cake would have tasted something like this dense, rich pound cake with a maple topping. It’s enough to make almost anyone—maybe even Hitchcock—feel more positive about domesticity.


for the cake:

1 cup (2 sticks) sweet butter, at room temperature
1-1/2 cups brown sugar, firmly packed
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups flour

for the icing:

1 cup (2 sticks) sweet butter, at room temperature
3 tablespoons maple syrup
confectioner’s sugar as needed


Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease and flour a 10-inch Bundt pan.

In a mixer cream the butter. Add the brown sugar, and beat until smooth. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, followed by the vanilla. Beat in the baking powder and salt.

On a low speed, blend in the flour until it is incorporated. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Set the pan on a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes. Then turn the cake out onto the rack and let it cool completely before making your icing.

Whip the butter for the icing until fluffy; then beat in the maple syrup and sugar. You will need enough sugar to make the icing spreadable but not enough to make it too sweet; start with 1 cup and then add a little at a time as needed.

Serves 8 to 10.

Emma gets ready to bake her cake.

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15 Responses to “Domestic Hitchcock: Shadow of a Doubt”

  1. Donna says:

    Yummy post! I adore Shadow of a Doubt and will simply have to try the delicious looking maple cake. I love Patricia Collinge in this film. Of course I also love Henry Travers and Hume Cronin and their delectable and gruesome fascination with murder.

  2. Pat says:

    I have seen this movie! What a brilliant explication. The cake looks good too.

  3. Marilyn says:

    What a lovely post and what a yummy-sounding cake! I really like how you focus on the domestic aspects of this somewhat unusual film for Hitch. I’m glad he picked Wilder to write it instead of another writer on small-town life–Sinclair Lewis> Imagine how doubly dark it would have been.

  4. The consensus is “Yummy” regarding the cake. Just as well that I can only enjoy it as a photograph, as advice such as “serves 8” is usually disregarded.

    If you haven’t seen it, Hitchcock’s Frenzy has a sub-plot involving a detective with a wife who is always trying new recipes. There is also a scene with potatoes . . .

  5. Great post, with so many fascinating points! Hitchcock really does make domesticity look dark and fatalistic, in subtle ways. It’s interesting, as you describe, how the family’s house is one of comfort and security but also danger (especially to Charlie), plus it can be a trap. Oddly, the one character who’s MOST in favor of the domestic woman is Uncle Charlie – his long speech condemning what he sees as ‘useless’ wealthy widows with nothing to do begins with a paean to the housewife and how busy and useful she is in the home. It adds another layer of ambiguity not only to what is presented as a happy domestic family but to Uncle Charlie himself.

  6. tinkyweisblat says:

    Donna–I love that pair, too, both for the irony of their passion for murder but inability to see it under their own noses and for what THEY say about domestic life.

    Pat, thanks! It was good.

    Chef, I’m dying to try some of YOUR recipes.

    Marilyn, so true–although “Our Town” is darker than many people think!

    Peter, I’m definitely avoiding that potato scene if I can!

    Grand, well put. As I said to Donna, I was tempting to discuss domesticity from the men’s point of view. You’re spot on about Uncle Charlie–and Papa Joe isn’t much happier than the rest of the family.

    Thank you all for visiting and commenting….

  7. That cake has me drooling. Worse! It’s off my diet! Auuuugh!

    The food in Shadow of a Doubt seems a LOT more wholesome than the food in Frenzy, but that’s the joke, I guess. The potatoes in that movie aren’t eaten. It may even put you off of them.

    Love, love, love your blog, by the way. I love food and cooking and to heck with my doctor’s orders. It’s all about quality of life.

  8. tinkyweisblat says:

    Christianne–Yes, I was VERY careful to avoid Frenzy! Not my favorite Hitchcock.

    The cake is off my diet, too. I made it when I knew I had to bring something to a pot luck. If my budget had permitted, I would have made the leg of lamb they bring out in another scene and referred to wolves in lambs’ clothing or some such thing.

  9. Trish says:

    Terrific mix of your knowledge of food and movies, Tinky. I like this film very much, and I agree, there is a dread of domesticity. Patricia Collinge’s character is a very sad woman. I suppose it doesn’t help that the Travers and Cronyn characters are always talking about murder. I never thought that Charlie was headed for the same rut at the end of the film, but it’s a great point. Thanks for the recipe!

  10. tinkyweisblat says:

    Trish, we can HOPE that she’ll escape the rut, but I have my doubts. Thank you for stopping by….

  11. Joe Thompson says:

    Tinky: I just ate dessert, but now I want a slice of cake. I like the way you describe Hitchcock’s interpretation of the family’s life. I think young Charlie will get away and lead a better life. Thanks for sharing this with us all.

  12. tinkyweisblat says:

    Thank you, Joe! I wish I could have shared a piece of cake with you….

  13. Feminema says:

    What a great post about a film I love — I’ve always loved what Joseph Cotten could do, and Teresa Wright was just terrific. In some ways the plot structure reminds me of Suspicion: those building, yet contradictory clues that make the woman wonder about that mysterious man.

    And now: pound cake with maple icing. I’m making it tonight — the sheer idea of maple icing was just too good to pass up. Many thanks for this great post — the best thing about the blog-a-thon is getting to know other people’s work, and yours has such delectable appeal! Kudos on a great post.

  14. tinkyweisblat says:

    I couldn’t agree more about the blogathon; I loved your piece on Anny Ondra. Many thanks, Feminema! I hope your cake was tasty…..