Evolution of a Screenplay: Hitchcock’s ‘Shadow of a Doubt’

typewriter-726965_1280Alfred Hitchcock made over 50 motion pictures, beginning in the silent era and working into the 70s. He is a master filmmaker, and has been lauded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a special Oscar. He was honored by the American Film Institute. His work has seen a resurgence in popularity through the re-releases of his classics in theaters and on DVD and Blu-Ray. He directed the classic ‘North by Northwest’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘Rear Window’, ‘Psycho’ and ‘The Birds’, among many, many others. But of all his films, Hitchcock most often expressed his appreciation of ‘Shadow of a Doubt’.

Hitchcock had been on perpetual loan-out by David O. Selznick since they had made ‘Rebecca’, He had been working with different producers. His most recent film, ‘Suspicion’, had been produced by Jack Skirball. In 1942, Hitchcock was given a five-page treatment for his consideration by Margaret McDonnell, who worked for Selznick. The story, ’Uncle Charlie’, had been conceived as a novel by McDonnell’s husband, Gordon. He had come across a story in the news and wrote the treatment based on that story.

‘Uncle Charlie’ tells of an average family of four living in the small town of Hanford, in California’s San Joaquin Valley.The father is an employee of the local bank. Mother is involved in her women’s groups – there is great concern about social standing in the family according to McDonnell’s treatment. ‘The Girl’ seems hard, maybe a little edgy. Her ne’er-do-well boyfriend is viewed with concern by the community, who are quick to blame him for a local stick up.

In the treatment, the cold, dispassionate voice of the narrator describes the residents of the town the way Uncle Charlie describes people in the film, though in this case the perspective is that of ‘the girl’s’ boyfriend.

Mother receives a letter from her brother, the near-mythical Uncle Charlie, announcing that he is coming to visit. The children have not met him, only heard countless stories of their idyllic childhood and how wonderful Charlie is. After Uncle Charlie arrives, he meets and bonds with his niece. He showers her with gifts, but he doesn’t care for her boyfriend and tells her so.

You can read Gordon McDonell’s treatment for ‘Uncle Charlie’ here:

http://the.hitchcock.zone/wiki/Uncle_Charlie_by_Gordon_McDonell_(05/May/1942)

Hitchcock saw promise in the story, suggesting it would make an excellent basis for a screenplay. He hired Thornton Wilder, three-time Pulitzer prize-winning author and playwright. Wilder had written ‘Our Town’ and that was the feeling Hitchcock wanted – ‘Our Town’ with a serial killer plopped right down in the middle of it. It would be Hitchcock’s first ‘American’ film. Jack Skirball would produce once again.

Hitchcock, his wife Alma Reville and Wilder began developing the screenplay. The story was moved to Santa Rosa, California. ‘The girl’ in McDonnell’s treatment was fleshed out into Charlotte, whom everyone calls Charlie because of her strong connection to her uncle. The connection is demonstrated by the crossing of the telegraph messages from one Charlie to the other. And it is evident that her affection for Uncle Charlie is reciprocated.

But she is not the only character with such a close connection. The mother, Charlie’s sister, Emma, was developed into a believable counterpart to Charlie’s socio/psychopathology. She is emotional in the way Uncle Charlie cannot be. The scene in which Charlie presents the family members with gifts has a particularly telling moment when Emma opens her gift – framed photographs of their parents she hasn’t seen in many years. She is at once pleased to see them and to receive them but, at the same time, she is upset in the knowledge that Charlie had them, had kept them from her, for so long.

The screenwriters removed the character of the niece’s lowlife boyfriend. ‘Young Charlie’ became a nice girl who is just bored with life in a small town and looking for something to stir things up.

Hitchcock found working with Wilder so pleasant he added an effusive tribute to the screenwriter in the film’s opening credits.

Wilder left the project to join the Army. Writer Sally Benson was brought in to contribute additional dialog. Benson’s collection of short stories, ‘Junior Miss’, had been turned into a play that had just opened on Broadway. Alma and Hitch worked with Benson to finalize the screenplay. Benson was given full (shared) screenwriting credit with Wilder and Reville.

During shooting, actress Teresa Wright felt that the dialog in the scene in the garage in which she and Macdonald Carey begin to explore their relationship didn’t ring true. Actress Patricia Collinge, ‘Emma Newton’ in the film, had been published in the New Yorker and Hitchcock asked her to work with the actress to rewrite the dialog in the scene.

You can read a draft of the screenplay here:

https://issuu.com/lafamiliafilm/docs/shadow-of-a-doubt/1