|Our first glimpse of Uncle Charlie
Cotten is perhaps most famous for his films with Orson Welles, but his best screen performance, in my opinion, is as the mysterious Uncle Charlie in the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Shadow of a Doubt. As the dapper and sophisticated uncle visiting his older sister’s family in California, Cotten establishes himself as a menacing presence from the moment he first appears on the screen.
Our first glimpse of Charles Oakley is of him laying on a bed in a boarding house, dressed in a perfectly tailored suit, smoking a cigar. The way the scene is shot and Cotten’s non-verbal, acting, we’re tipped off that Uncle Charlie is an unsavory sort. His face is stiff and immobile at times. His movements measured and deliberate.
|Was there ever a more menacing train?
Uncle Charlie travels to Santa Rosa, California, by railroad. When the train arrives, the engine’s smoke stack spits out the biggest, darkest cloud of smoke, casting a shadow on the small train station, another clue that this is no ordinary family visit. In the beginning, all is well. Charlie loves showing off her handsome uncle who dresses like a first class passenger on a luxury ocean liner. Then, little by little, things begin to change.
|“You’re hurting me, Uncle Charlie!”
|Uncle Charlie, a murderer?
At the library, Young Charley finds the article that her uncle ripped out of the paper. It says that there are two men suspected of being the “Merry- Widow” Murderer. A man back east and one out west. One of the victims has the same initials that were engraved in a ring Young Charley’s uncle gave her. She is now convinced her uncle is a murderer. At dinner the next day, Uncle Charley talks about rich women, widows and all their money. The money their husbands made that they’re spending “frivolously.” Moments before Young Charley recounts a dream that makes it clear that she knows something about her uncle. From that moment on, the tension increases and it’s clear that Uncle Charley isn’t going to let his niece get in the way of his plans: to settle down in Santa Rosa. Cotten’s performance which had hints of menace now goes full throttle, warning his niece not to get in his way in so many words. The glimpses of charm that Young Charley saw earlier have vanished. Cotten’s face becomes tighter, more mask-like; it’s hard to know what he’s thinking, but you’re convinced it isn’t anything good.
|“…or are they fat, wheezing animals?”
Finally Uncle Charlie is leaving town by train. Young Charlie, Ann and Roger are on the train saying their good-byes. While Ann and Roger get off the train, Uncle Charlie grabs his niece. As the train starts moving, Young Charlie realizes that he’s going to kill her. “Your hands,” she shouts, as their struggle now becomes physical.