The Shadow Self

The two Charlies in "Shadow of a Doubt"

When the sun is slant, we project our shadow outward onto others. This is the basic concept of the Jungian shadow. Projection. We project the darkness that we refuse to see in ourselves and “see” it … hallucinate it… in others. But the shadow is not so easily fobbed off. 

As the sun descends, the shadow pursues us, dogs our steps like an avenging fury, the stain of our existence lengthening down the pavement.

It is only at noon that we cast no shadow. We and our shadow are one. And in Hitchcock films, that is the magic hour. The hero and shadow meet, collide, confront, fuse.

In Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock’s most supernatural film (screenplay by Our Town playwright Thornton Wilder), Young Charlie seems to conjure up Uncle Charlie as she lies in bed — a scene that duplicates the opening shot of Uncle Charlie, also in bed, but eventually in mirror-reverse position, not daydreaming but ruminating on his pillow. The camera pans and we see dollar bills in big denominations spilled on the floor, ill-gotten and meaningless.

“Do you believe in telepathy?” Young Charlie asks the lady at the telegram office. You know, she explains, thoughts jumping between people’s heads. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the lady scoffs. “I only send telegrams the normal way.”

Young Charlie, in her sweet 20-year-old way, is yearning for magic, for adventure, for something exciting to happen. Here is her opening dialogue with her father.

We sort of go along, and nothing happens. We’re in a terrible rut…How can you talk about money when I’m talking about souls? We don’t even have any real conversations…we just talk. We eat and sleep …Dinner, then dishes, then bed… I guess we’ll just have to wait for a miracle or something.

It is then, as if disturbing the Stygian depths, that Uncle Charlie is called forth, appearing before her in a black cloud of locomotive smoke that obliterates the sky, coming, as if from the collective unconscious, as a sinister lesson in what excitement might mean in the cold, amoral world, beyond the big matronly houses on bushy lawns of Santa Rosa where the traffic cop knows Charlie by her first name and scolds her for hurrying too quickly across the street.

Joseph Cotton, with his deliberate way of speaking, the walnut coloring of his voice, brings a steadiness, a camouflage of reasonableness to Uncle Charlie. At first, Young Charlie is smitten by her debonair uncle.

I’m glad mother named me after you and thinks we’re both alike… because we're not just an uncle and a niece. It's something else. I know you. I know that you don't tell people a lot of things. I don't either. I have a feeling that inside you somewhere there's something nobody knows about. Something secret and wonderful and... I'll find it out.

In small ways, however, as he rips up the newspaper to delete a story about a manhunt, the prodigal uncle will give himself away — but only to Young Charlie.

Unbalanced reveries at the table about “faded, fat, greedy women” eating and drinking away their dead husband’s fortunes…stray looks from under his brow, gazing up darkly, steadily…will take on a heavy weight for the young woman after her date with the detective. A date when all these suspicions coalesce into a spoken accusation. And when the accusation comes, her eyes widen with alarm and she refuses to believe what the detective says, that her idealized uncle, this charmer whom all the women fuss over, is actually a man who romances and then kills rich widows, without passion, without heat, methodically.

That her denial is so fierce is telling. There is a shock of recognition here, for Hitchcock has already made Young Charlie complicit in her uncle’s crimes. Much has been made of the director’s Catholic orientation, particularly when it comes to the contagion of guilt — essentially, thought sins are only a hair less grievous than sins one actually commits.

In the film’s pivotal scene, upon which the rest of the story will turn, Uncle Charlie slips a ring on Young Charlie’s finger. She marvels at the emerald and then wonders why the ring is already engraved with someone else’s initials. Uncle Charlie makes up a flimsy excuse, and Young Charlie — glowingly, ecstatically — slips the ring back on her hand. It is, of course, the ring of one of his murder victims, and by accepting it, Young Charlie acquiesces in a ceremony that those of us brought up on the mythology of saints, relics, and apparitions in grottos will recognize as Hitchcock’s sly nod to a trope in saint lore, The Mystical Marriage, a celestial fusion of souls… specifically to the legend of St. Catherine of Siena.

In the 14th Century, there were many feverish virgins who imagined a mystical marriage, but only Catherine of Siena got a ring. In her vision… or hallucination (choose your own adventure), a youthful Jesus puts a ring on Catherine’s finger, as the Virgin Mary looks on approvingly. The couple is then fused in a union of souls as supernatural as the ghostly ring Catherine will forever see on her finger.* For her dowery, she offers her virginity, locked to her phantom husband, and steps off the wheel of time and nature. 

But Young Charlie is a 20th Century woman (“The smartest girl in her class at school,” boasts her father. “Won the debate against the East Richmond High School single-handed”), and the ring brings not obedience but penetrating questions, forcing her to awaken to the truth of the detective’s accusation.

Charlie has already, by an act of will and by declaration, cast Uncle Charlie as her soulmate, her mirror image, her other self. Now this paradox puts her on the street we mentioned earlier, the one she is rushing recklessly across when the traffic cop holds her for a moment after she narrowly misses being hit by a car: “Just a moment, Charlie! What do you think I’m out here for!” Charlie must get to the library and barely gets in the door as the librarian is closing down.

“Really, Charlie! I’ll give you just three minutes.”

There she finds yesterday’s newspaper, an issue Uncle Charlie didn’t rip up, reads the item about the manhunt for the “Merry Widow” murderer, and is stunned into numbness. Slowly she slips off the ring. Slowly she rises and walks — sleepwalks — through shafts of slanted light, overcome by the impact, the Shadow Self revealed, losing her bearings in a collision with the collective unconscious of a broken world — the gritty cityscape we only glimpse in the film’s establishing shots of bridges and tramps and junked cars, of “Rooms to Let” and dollar bills on the floor —realizing, at last, the dark night that conjuring up Uncle Charlie has brought to Santa Rosa… and to herself.

Yours truly,

Screencaps Shadow of a Doubt, 1943
*In Catherine’s vision, the ring is made of flesh, the foreskin of the Infant Jesus, a much-coveted relic in the 14th Century with several warring claims among churches where ‘holy foreskins’ were exhibited. For a totally unconvincing rationale for why this was an appropriate wedding ring, see The Complex Catherine of Siena
Coming soon, the conclusion of Shadow of a Doubt. Be sure to subscribe.

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