If viewed as a suburban trial-run for Hitchcock’s later, greater Psycho, Shadow of a Doubt has its distinct pleasures. Joseph Cotten’s eerily charming slow-burn performance is Uncle Charlie the predecessor to Anthony Perkin's jittery mama's boy Norman. Tree-lined streets and picket fences in place of the desolate Bates Motel. People being so POLITE to each other, it’s downright criminal in and of itself.
Joseph Cotten plays a charming city drifter on the run from two men. Who they are, who he is and what he has done…at first we’re not quite sure. We just know it MUST BE BAD. Or is it? Because once Cotten returns to hideout in the small suburban town where his sister lives with her family, he becomes everyone’s favorite Uncle Charlie. Doling out presents. Sharing interesting stories. Treating his favorite namesake niece Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) with an affection so sweet it will give you instant tooth decay (or, in this day and age, an instant molestation rap). But once the two men show up supposedly to do a “family survey,” Young Charlie starts to get suspicious and bone up on Uncle Charlie’s past.
The problem with Shadow of a Doubt is that people are so small-town nice it takes a long time to get to that suspicion. More than half the movie. And even when Young Charlie goes to the library to recover the news article Uncle Charlie conveniently cut out from the paper a few days before and makes her startling discovery, she really doesn’t do much about it other than try make her Uncle slip-up, playing amateur sleuth.
She kind of has to, because the detectives in this movie may be the most inefficient pushovers ever put on film. They might not have any hard evidence on Uncle Charlie, but they also have absolutely no skills other than hanging around and attempting to strike up a very tame love interest with said niece. As for Uncle Charlie, he’s free to go about his business (which isn’t much) except for a few perfunctory attempts to see that his favorite niece bites the dust.
Honestly, they should have just called this movie Uncle Charlie since it's more of a warped character study more than a murder mystery. For the audience, there’s little Doubt as to what old Charlie has been up to, and he’s certainly not a Shadow in the way he acts. More of flashing billboard: “Hey Look Here! Potential Murder Suspect Everyone!”