Overshadowed Hitchcock Heroines

When most people think of the women in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, they almost immediately think of the icy cool blondes (Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak) who were what he called “a symbol of the heroine.” It’s no secret that Hitchcock had a preference for blonde women and it’s also no secret that he had his share of issues with women. The heroines in his films are usually victimized by the men in their lives but they are also portrayed as smart and dangerous. Two of my favorite Hitchcock heroines find themselves in this plot device but the difference is they are brunettes and give two of the greatest female performances in two of his best films. They are Teresa Wright as Charlie Newton in “Shadow of a Doubt”, Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman in “Notorious” and Joan Fontaine in “Suspicion.”

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Hitchcock himself publicly stated that “Shadow of a Doubt” was his favorite of his films but when it comes to his body of work, it’s been tossed aside to the likes of  “Psycho,” “Vertigo” and “The Birds.” As a Hitchcock fanatic, I find it maddening when he’s referred to as a “horror filmmaker” and expect his films to be slashers because of Psycho. That’s not Hitchcock at all. He is known as “the master of suspense” for a reason. “Shadow of a Doubt” is a perfect example of how he crafts suspense in his films. This psychological thriller takes place in a suburban setting reminiscent of “Pleasantville,” everyone knows each other and you would expect law enforcement would be called to rescue a cat in a tree.

The film’s female heroine is young Charlie Newton, a girl who just graduated at the top of her class in high school and is making the transition into adulthood. But unlike most females in this small town, she yearns for life outside of this white picket fenced setting. Before “Shadow of a Doubt,” I had only been exposed to Teresa Wright in girl-next-door roles like her turn as a loyal wife in “The Pride of the Yankees” and as Fredric March’s daughter in “The Best Years of Our Lives.” I expected her performance in “Shadow of a Doubt” to be much of the same but what we see in this film is so much more.

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As the young Charlie, Theresa Wright exudes the innocence you expect from her but as the film goes on her character begins to question what’s around her particularly her beloved Uncle Charlie (played by the ever so charming Joseph Cotten), whom she’s named after. When her uncle comes for a visit, we learn that he is suspected of being the “Merry Widow Murderer” and thus begins an internal struggle for young Charlie. Is her Uncle, the man she idolizes a serial murderer?

One of the major themes I take away from this film is the idea of innocence lost. When we meet young Charlie, she’s peppy and innocent. When she develops suspicions that her uncle could be a serial murderer, Charlie grows up. I won’t delve too much into the plot because I don’t want to spoil this film. It’s truly one of Hitch’s best and I encourage anyone who has ever been interested in his work to watch this before “Psycho,” “Vertigo” and “The Birds” to truly appreciate his artistry.  What I appreciate about the role of young Charlie in the film is instead of a victimized female character, we see an intelligent woman understanding the shadows thrown her way in life far beyond the situation with her Uncle Charlie. She dives into life’s complexities and emerges a hero. Her innocence slips away as she learns more about who her uncle really is. As the audience sees a shift in the relationship between the two Charlies, we also see young Charlie shift into adulthood realizing there really is much more in life beyond the white picket fence and not everything is what it seems.

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