Joseph Cotten created the role of C. K. Dexter Haven in the original Broadway production of The Philadelphia Story, opposite Katharine Hepburn. After the play’s successful run, Cotten thought he had a shot at playing Dexter in the film version. That didn’t happen, obviously, but Cotten stayed in Hollywood and we’re glad he did.
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 1943 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. While the audience suspects Uncle Charlie may have a darker side, it isn’t immediately obvious to his niece Charlotte “Charley” Newton, played by Teresa Wright. Young Charley, as she is called, is bored with what she thinks is a pretty dull life. When she finds out that her favorite uncle is coming to visit, she’s excited and happy, thinking he will snap the Newton family out of their drab existence.
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. Charley 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.
After dinner one evening, Uncle Charlie is seen making a house out of newspaper, ostensibly to amuse the two younger Newton children, Ann (Edna May Wonacott) and Roger (Charles Bates). It’s clear to the audience that there is something in that newspaper that he doesn’t want anyone to see. The children are not amused and Young Charley senses this house-made-out-of-paper game is fishy, too. Before she goes to bed, Young Charley brings a pitcher of water to her uncle. She spies the clipping that he had ripped out of the paper. She grabs it, but Uncle Charlie, who has been polishing his shoes, jumps out of his chair, his face a blank, to wrestle the article out of his niece’s hands, hurting her.
When two detectives, pretending to be government employees doing a profile of an “average American family,” show up asking questions, things begin to get tense. Uncle Charlie’s behavior becomes darker and just plain creepy. One of the detectives, Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) takes Young Charley on a date. He tells her that her uncle might be a killer. She doesn’t believe it’s possible, but there is a shadow of a doubt. What was in that newspaper article that Uncle Charlie didn’t want anyone to see?
At the library, 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 Uncle Charlie gave her. She is now convinced her uncle is a murderer. At dinner the next day, Uncle Charlie 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 Charlie 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, as he warns 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.
Now with things out in the open, Uncle Charlie does his best to intimidate his niece and when that doesn’t work, he tries to bump her off. He messes with the back stairs. Young Charley nearly falls down the entire flight when one of the steps breaks. Next he tries asphyxiating her in the garage with the family car running. She survives that attempt and it looks like she may have won the battle, especially when it is revealed that Uncle Charlie is leaving Santa Rosa rather suddenly.
Finally Uncle Charlie is leaving town by train. Young Charley, 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 Charley realizes that he’s going to kill her. “Your hands,” she shouts, as their struggle now becomes physical.
Cotten is so good in Shadow of a Doubt that it is incredible to me that he was passed over come Oscar time. Cotten’s performance is so well played that it just looked too easy, I guess. Still it’s one of the great Hollywood injustices that He wasn’t even nominated.Of all the evil screen villains, and there are many, Joseph Cotten’s performance is one of the most chilling. Hitchcock loved exploring the theme that evil isn’t always “out there,” but generally closer to home. Contrasted against his young innocent niece and the All-American surroundings of Santa Rosa, Uncle Charlie’s evil is all the more striking.
If you’re looking for a good screen villain, you can’t do much better than Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt.
Stephen Reginald is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant. A long-time amateur student of film, Reginald and host of “Chicago Film Club,” a monthly classic movie event held in his South Loop Chicago neighborhood. Reginald also teaches adult education classes at Facets Film School in Chicago. For more information, visit Classic Movie Man and South Loop Connection.