Teresa Wright plays a young woman of about 18 who lives with her parents and much younger brother and sister in Santa Rosa, a small all-American city in northern California. She’s rather bored until her mother’s beloved younger brother, Joseph Cotten, comes for an extended stay.
Wright has always liked her charming and widely-traveled uncle, but gradually she develops suspicions about him, darkly serious suspicions supported by concrete evidence that she dare not talk about with anyone for fear that if they prove true, the news would destroy her mother.
Tension builds slowly but becomes intense, not least because Wright’s character is so likable and her situation so difficult and eventually very dangerous. As for Cotten, I can’t think of another Hitchcock film that so deeply examines one of its characters and the underlying reasons for his actions.
Teresa Wright was unique in having been nominated for an Academy Award in each of her first three films. She won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as the granddaughter in Mrs Miniver and in this film, her fourth, had top billing over Joseph Cotten. Her acting career lasted until 1997, and she died in 2005.
Her father, a mild-mannered bank employee, is played by Henry Travers, best known for his role as Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. Hume Cronyn (made up to look older than he really was at the time) is the father’s eccentric best friend.
According to a documentary about the film, it was Cronyn’s first screen role, and he said that during production in Santa Rosa a little girl ran up to him to get his autograph, the very first he’d ever been asked for. When returned her autograph book she examined at his signature, then looked up and him and commanded, “Hurry up and get famous!”
The heroine’s younger sister is a similarly no-nonsense little girl played by Edna May Wonacott, the real-life daughter of a Santa Rosa grocer. Hitchcock had noticed her waiting at a bus stop when he was scouting locations and thought she had the perfect studious look for the part. She had no acting experience, not even in a school play, and her only training was a bit of coaching by Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia, but she’s quite good and went on to play similar parts in a few other films over the course of a decade.
The heroine’s best friend (the one who casts a rather predatory leer on Joseph Cotten when they’re introduced) was another Santa Rosa resident named Estelle Jewell. Other minor characters were played by locals as well.
The mother, Joseph Cotten’s sister, is played by Patricia Collinge, an Irish-born actress whom Teresa Wright had previously worked with in The Little Foxes. Macdonald Carey is an undercover policed detective investigating Cotten who develops an attraction to the heroine.
Wright wasn’t happy with a scene in the script that had Carey confess his romantic feelings to her because she thought they way it played out wasn’t believable, so she sought Collinge’s opinion and found she agreed with her. Wright took this up with Hitchcock and suggested he let Collinge — a successful short-story author as well as an actor — rewrite the scene, and he accepted her advice. (In fact, Hitchcock often welcomed ideas from the cast and crew, as did Orson Welles. So much for the notion of the director as auteur.) He liked Collinge’s help enough that he later brought her in as a script doctor on Lifeboat.
The story for Shadow of a Doubt was proposed by Gordon McDonell. The script was by Thornton Wilder (best known of course for his play Our Town) with revisions by Sally Benson and by Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, as well as by Collinge, though Collinge received no on-screen writing credit.
Another amusing tidbit from the documentary: During a break in production the cast and crew organized a gin rummy tournament and invited Hitchcock to participate. He said he didn’t know the game but would play if someone would teach him how. Someone did, and Hitchcock won the tournament. I suspect this inspired his cameo in the film as a card player.