Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion” (1941) and “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943)

Freud at the Movies: Psychoanalyzing Early Responses to

Alfred Hitchcock’s

Suspicion (1941) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943)



Alfred Hitchcock, a movie director alleged by many to have been driven by psychological demons and suppressed desires, made dozens of films over his long career. Although he began directing in England, Hitchcock moved to Hollywood in 1939 when David O. Selznick signed him to a seven-year contract. There he made several films which critics claim reveal his personal obsession with psychoanalytic interpretations. Freudian psychoanalysis was a widely-discussed social topic during this period, and film critics – then as now – frequently interpret film using psychoanalytical language. Although the general public remains largely indifferent to the fine points of Freudian and Jungian analysis, critics are not. Consequently, an examination of the critical response to two of Hitchcock’s most successful films reveals how his depictions of hidden emotions and phobias have been mined for psychological implications.

The rising awareness of psychiatry began to reveal itself in films of the 1940s. By the end of this decade, says a modern practitioner, Robert Coles, “psychiatry in the United States was very much psychoanalysis, and not inconsequentially, our culture was also enormously taken with Freud’s thinking. Indeed, psychoanalytic concepts gradually became authoritative, even normative, a widespread means of judging people…a whole climate of opinion.” In this world of opinion, film critics were destined to see deep, subterranean meanings in character motivation and action.

The film critic typically sees his role as the interpreter of the auteur’s deeper meaning. As Robin Wood expressed, “The critic’s task is to…act as a mediator between the artist and the less educated, less aware public…” Further, “the meeting of psychoanalytical theory and concepts of ideology suggest that every human being in our culture is a battleground [for] the struggle between the forces of repression and the urge to liberation…” Some of Hitchcock’s films are easy to interpret as Freudian or Jungian, as undoubtedly intended by the director. In the case of Spellbound (1945), for example, the theme of the film revolves around Freudian analysis, and the setting for the film is a psychiatric ward.

Suspicion (1941) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), have similar plots. In the first, a woman (Lina) wrongly suspects that her husband (Johnny) is a killer intent on adding her to his victims. In the second, a young woman (Charlie) correctly suspects that her uncle (Uncle Charlie) is a killer who may want to murder her. In each case, Hitchcock manipulates his audience to accept the female protagonist’s point of view. Critics of the 1940s felt encouraged to seek psychoanalytical clues in daily life. Cultural historian Warren Susman noted that this was not only the “Age of Anxiety” but also the “Age of Jung” because of its concern with the collective unconscious. Hitchcock plays upon this underlying anxiety.

Early film analysis was concerned with esthetics, while later criticism often focused on the way in which societal codes and mental states shape subjectivity. Andre Bazin maintained that the purpose of film was to faithfully represent reality rather than distort it for esthetic goals. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan overruled him, maintaining that the image takes the place of that which is to be depicted, and becomes a thing in its own sense. Film criticism has been in the thrall of Lacanian psychoanalysis for more than a half-century. French scholars in particular assert hidden conspiracies and deviant pathologies behind every day events. They insist that a shadowy “ruling class” imposes its ideology on the unsuspecting proletariat. In this interpretation, directors and auteurs are often unaware that they are puppets for the psychological manipulations of the shadow conspiracy. Lacan’s approach infuses film analysis with questions of intent – ideological, religious, or perverse. American and British critics often adopt the French approach. On the matter of psychoanalysis, Wood insists that the critic has a simple choice, either “the Freudian model (the oedipal; trajectory)  or the Lacanian (the entry into the symbolic).”  In such a suspicious environment, Hitchcock could easily assert that a bicycle accident can transform Uncle Charlie into a murderer.

Critics such as Donald Spoto characterize Hitchcock with a host of psychoanalytical terms: “sexually repressed, voyeuristic…often sadistic.” That Hitchcock deliberately used psychological “markers” is not in dispute. He once said “Edgar Allen Poe and I certainly have a common point. We are both prisoners of a genre: ‘suspense.’” Quoting this comment, Professor Dennis Perry has compared Shadow of a Doubt with The Raven, showing how each artist used the motif of the doppelganger to suggest deep psychological connections between principal characters. Perry asserted that as a lonely young boy, the director was obsessed with Poe. Hitchcock noted “Fear, you see, is a feeling that people like to feel when they are certain of being in safety.” Consequently, Perry concludes that Hitchcock’s films are “about the apocalypse of the individual, the protagonist experiences his or her world falling apart before entering a radically new order of being.” By “radical,” Perry implies a change in psychological perspective. In both films, Hitchcock leaves audiences feeling that all is not well. This general conclusion is echoed by Royal Braun, who characterizes Hitchcock’s films as “interior, psychological adventures…in the end run, consciously Freudian.”

Close reading of these films confirms Perry’s assertion that Hitchcock “exaggerates” symbols and actions to emphasize psychological conditions. In Shadow, Uncle Charlie’s train “fills the sky with foul black smoke.” He violently grabs Charlie’s wrist to prevent her from reading an incriminating newspaper article. Charlie threatens her Uncle with “Go away or I’ll kill you myself,” and a character sums up Charlie’s darkening perception of the world, saying “[It] seems to go crazy now and then.” These devices are designed to create the suspicion of hidden menace and guilt. So Hitchcock paints pictures of idyllic small towns and peaceful settings, only to show “that appearances lie, and that all is not as peaceful and serene as it looks.” The director employs multiple techniques to trigger psychological responses. In Shadow, for example, he intentionally interrupts the narrative flow with repeated non-diegetic music – in this case the carefully selected “Merry Widow Waltz” – which emerges at inappropriate moments to unsettle the audience.

Film scholar Richard Alleva perceived a persistent thread of Catholic dread linked to church dogma and childhood trauma embedded in Hitchcock’s work. He described Hitchcock constantly struggling with the “concerns and values of Catholicism.” This was revealed in his films by a recurring theme of individuals unjustly accused of sin, or conversely, of sinners guilty but unpunished. More concisely, “to be human is to be guilty.” Thus it is not surprising that a wife should be consumed by Suspicion of her husband, or that the quite average family in Shadow shelters a killer.

In Shadow, Alleva identifies Charlie and her Uncle as “eternal soul mates” and he directly invokes psychoanalysis when he labels her realization of her Uncle’s character as a “psychological deflowering.” This “deflowering” reading is echoed by Wood, who adds that “The film shows sexual pathology at the heart of the American family…” Both critics interpret Hitchcock’s dialog as intentionally reaching for pathological markers at all times. As Wood claims, “Charlie’s ‘sickness’ is psychopathology.” So when Charlie asserts, “We’re not just an uncle and a niece. It’s something else,” she reinforces an incestuous desire. Such “telepathic” relationships are evident between the female protagonist and the male antagonist in both films. Indeed, Francois Truffaut records Hitchcock’s use of the term “telepathic” to imply subliminal communication by means of unnatural connections. Just as Lina intuits malevolent intent from Johnny’s guiltless behavior, so Charlie connects psychologically with her perverse uncle. Lina fanaticizes Johnny’s guilt to add drama to her life, just as, in keeping with the conventions of female-centered melodrama, Charlie hopes Uncle will “shake us all up.”

Critic David Lehman discovers similar psychological themes hidden behind Hitchcock’s innocent exteriors. “In Hitchcock’s America…paranoia is sometimes a reasonable response to events in a world of menace and violence…sometimes in the most intimate of places or from the most trusted of friends or relations.” Thus America’s homey and domestic landscapes present the most perilous settings. “People aren’t who they claim to be,” or as Uncle Charlie proclaims, “If you rip the fronts off houses, you’d find swine.” Consequently Paula Cohen finds Shadow “a film about the fate of an institution,” which in this case is the American family.

Ina Rae Hark develops similar concerns about the American family. She draws an extended parallel between Shadow of a Doubt and Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers, which was released in the same year. Wylie’s work attacked the emotional structure of the American family to reveal what he thought was layers of debilitating psychic illness. Hark’s analysis emphasizes the 1940s assumption that film and psychoanalysis could reveal otherwise hidden disturbances in the American soul. Psychoanalysts themselves are perhaps represented by Robert Coles, who suggests that “Since in many ways, this has been an American century; it has also been a psychoanalytic one.” Marxist film scholars such as Robin Wood extend the critique further. For Wood, “Uncle Charlie’s ‘sickness’ cannot be dissociated from the values and assumptions of capitalist ideology,” so he must die. Thus film becomes a subject of not just psychological analysis, but also ideological discourse.

Film reviewers of the period were less likely to assign psychoanalytical readings to Hitchcock’s films. The September 24, 1941 review of Suspicion, for example, spoke of “Alfred Hitchcock’s trademarked cinematic development of suspenseful drama, through mental emotions of the story principals.” The film was seen as targeting “…the women sector in displaying a wife’s development of mental hysteria through the burden or real or imagines criminal tendencies,” and actress Joan Fontain was congratulated for “successfully transporting to the screen her innermost emotions and fears.” There was no profound application of psychoanalysis, nor was Freudian or Jungian language used.

Hitchcock does occasionally telegraph very clear indications of his embedded messages. For example, in Suspicion, Lina discovers that game letters Johnny has been playing with can be rearranged to spell “mudder,” a word similar to “murder.” But most of the critics’ deep psychoanalytical readings are far more debatable. Unfortunately Hitchcock is not a reliable witness regarding his intentions. While Francois Truffaut’s comments about the director are insightful, his conversations are a disappointment.  Truffaut urges us to focus on what Hitchcock shows rather than what his characters say, particularly regarding “such intimate emotions as suspicion…and envy.” We should analyze Hitchcock the same way, distrusting what he says. Although he never again granted such direct access to his personal psychology, it appears that the wily Brit misled Truffaut with his explanations of motivation. He asserts that his preferred ending for Suspicion was for Johnny to poison Lina, but as Truffaut notes, the film works fine the way it is. Hitchcock’s recollections of why he made certain choices in Suspicion, or what his intents were, repeatedly conflict with other sources. Significant to this study, he never reveals how he implemented psychological effects in either of these two films.

Scholar Dan Auiler gained unprecedented access to Hitchcock’s personal files, letters, and script notes after the director’s death. He notes that even as shooting began on Suspicion, “the screenplay was still in turmoil.” Three different endings were scripted, but perhaps due to his ongoing dispute with the studio, no notes regarding psychological characterization have been discovered. While it is reasonable to assume that at least some hand-marked scripts would reveal overt strategies of character presentation and psychology, his study failed to discover any traces of conscious or unconscious management of psychological effects on these same films. All we have is a screenwriter’s note that Lina will discover that Johnny is not a killer – but no indication of how this will be revealed.

Hitchcock used camera movement to emphasize changes in character awareness and mental states. Film critic Roger Ebert observed that in Shadow, he repeatedly employed a slow zoom to reveal such emotions as “dawning recognition” or “evil intent.” In both films camera tilts and stressed shadows suggested subjective states that were not what they appear to be. Ebert also speculated that the fictional town for Shadow of a Doubt had a psychological significance for Hitchcock, whose mother was dying in wartime England even as he shot the film. Hitch’s emphasis on the cozy structure of Young Charlie’s family may reveal his own needs for emotional reassurance.

Hitchcock’s psychological signals are often only thinly disguised. Characters may deliver clearly menacing monologs, easily discernible to the knowing audience. Uncle Charlie famously complains of “Middle-aged widows…drinking the money, eating the money…horrible, faded, fat, greedy women…” with an expression of unalloyed, even psychotic, malevolence. This effect is accomplished by a tightening close-up on his face, and a hardening of his lips and jaw. More to the point, Auiler notes how Uncle Charlie mimes strangling a wine bottle while he reassures his sister that in cases of stress, “It’ll all be over in a few moments.” These overt theatrical signals are designed to first trigger; then reinforce, the audiences’ suspicions. Unfortunately, one critics’ explanation of Hitchcock’s intent for one action may be completely contradicted by another. William Rothman, for example, sees the wine bottle as “the stand-in for Charlie’s penis.” Psychoanalysis leads one critic to imagine a Freudian message; the next to see a plot development. But Rothman is equally guilty of imposing multiple meanings on character action. When Charlie and her uncle fight on the train in Shadow, Rothman sees this as replicating sexual intercourse rather than depicting a life-or-death struggle.

At other times mental state is suggested by mise en scene. Sociologist Diane Waldham notes that abstract paintings are used in “Gothic Romances” to signify madness or murderous violence in the owner. Waldman surveyed a variety of films and novels which link character pathology to the ownership of abstract art. An abstract painting plays a conspicuous part in Suspicion, thereby commenting on Lina’s mental state. Hitchcock thus warns us that Lina suffers distorted thought processes.

Suspicion is based on a successful novel whose opening paragraph explicitly states: “She realized that she was married to a murderer.” Nevertheless, movie audiences easily accepted the idea that the threat was imaginary. One of the first reviews in Motion Picture Herald tagged the film as “an absorbing drama of a woman’s tortured imagination.” Much has since been written regarding the alleged director-studio disagreement about the ending of Suspicion. Rick Worland disputes readings that suggest the studio imposed a “happy” ending. He notes that preview audiences complained about the “lack of… what we now term classical narrative style.” Those audiences didn’t like Cary Grant in a non-comedic role. In fact, says Worland, they never believed he was evil from the start. Worland suggests that the film privileges Johnny rather than Lina, thus rejecting the idea that the film is a “woman’s picture.” He further asserts that “no surviving script reviews…support the claim” that Hitchcock negotiated for a different ending in which Lina is murdered. He offers that the very first script, written with Alma Reville (Hitchcock’s wife) as collaborator, ends with the husband’s innocence. He nominates Suspicion as one of Hitchcock’s best works and assigns it to a new genre of “a 1940s psychological romance film.” Echoes of this analysis come from critics such as Spoto and Miller, both of whom point to Hitchcock memos in which he declares his intention “to make a film about a woman’s fantasy life.”

Ken Mogg has compiled alternate scripts for the last scenes of Suspicion, with detailed analysis of why each was proposed and then rejected. These candidate scripts range from those in which Johnny is a calculating murderer to those in which he is simply the victim of Lina’s overwrought imagination. Of particular interest is the analysis by Bill Krohn, the American correspondent for Cahiers du Cinema. Krohn’s reading “discovers” multiple instances of foreshadowing suggesting that Hitchcock intended to confirm Johnny as a murderer, and to have him successfully poison Lina. However, says Krohn, once the studio refused to have Cary Grant portray a murderer, Hitchcock converted the narrative to illustrate how a hyper-emotional woman might falsely fantasize that her husband was a murderer. Thus this film reveals how psychoanalytic portrayals might be re-configured to support contradictory effects.

David Sterritt’s analysis depicts Hitchcock as an obsessive control-freak, driven by inner demons to inflict his characters with his own fears. Strangely, this leads him to a self-contradictory conclusion that Hitchcock’s films culminate in “the transcendence of physical conflict over psychological and even moral confrontation with evil.”

The practice of reading deep codes into a film can easily be taken to greater extremes. Sterritt represents those critics who discover deep Freudian signals in every scene. His analysis of Shadow begins innocently by assigning a predictable phallic reading to Uncle Charlie’s cigar. While other scholars also note the cigar’s potential, some such as Wood see phallic significance in Uncle Charlie’s cane, which “…comes erect” when he sees Charlie. Sterritt, like Wood, engorges his analysis. He then extends his Freudian claim to assert that Uncle Charlie’s death is phallic since he dies under a train at the climax of the film! Sterritt demonstrates that some critics are particularly disposed to over-interpret film in Freudian terms, adding “Phallic symbolism constituted during the 1940s (as today) a particularly well known and frequently popularized aspect of psychoanalytic theory, working its way into much popular culture of the period.” When Uncle Charlie casually throws money on the floor, Sterritt takes it to represent a rejection of “the film’s obviously bourgeoisie milieu.” Even Freudian potty training makes an appearance. The scattered bills represent “excrement not properly disposed of – that is, not contained and hidden…”

Sterritt races into full psychoanalytical mode when he purports to see vampire symbolism throughout Shadow. He suggests that Uncle Charlie’s initial appearance on his flophouse bed represents a vampire lying in his coffin. Critics such as William Rothman likewise note the vampire possibility, but Sterritt pushes onward. He imagines vampire wings in the headboard of Uncle Charlie’s bed, transforming him onto “an angel of death.” He notes that Uncle Charlie refuses to be photographed. He also sees an insidious doubling effect when young Charlie is shown “lying on a bed, supine and paralyzed like [Uncle Charlie].” That this suggests the “tinge” of an incestuous relationship between the two, may say more about Sterritt’s own demons than anything within the film. He is not alone. Robin Wood also sees a “double incest theme…expressed through images and motifs, never becoming verbally explicit.” Nevertheless, having embellished his vampire thesis, Sterritt connects these psychological threats to the emotional climate of mid-1940s America, “a time of war and insecurity for the United States, where Hitchcock had ensconced himself.” Still not satisfied, he expands Hitchcock’s agenda to include “an indictment of the increasingly chaotic nature of American life during this period.” Alas, Sterritt is not alone in overheated analysis. Critic Alexander Doty approaches homosexuality as a psychological issue and not surprisingly finds Hitchcock’s casts filled with gay characters. Likewise, Theodore Price laboriously discovers “queer” references to homosexuality in nearly all of Hitchcock’s films, including Shadow’s Uncle Charlie.

Even Freud maintained that “sometimes a cigar is just a smoke.” Appropriately, Mark Crispin Miller maintains that Suspicion is simply a sabotaged “woman’s picture.” He interprets the opening credits as “addressing an audience of desperate fanaticists.” The film is therefore a Hollywood romance, a genre “at the peak of its popularity…in 1941,” but “at once generically dislocated” from its genre. Miller asserts that Lina is the audience’s substitute, thus her picture is our picture, in which Hitchcock perversely disturbs our comfortable melodramatic fantasies by implying themes in conflict with genre expectations. The director reveals his audience’s romantic impulse to imagine non-existent threats. Instead, he reveals Lina as a narcissist and insists that the film is simply her obsessive fantasy, a point with which Tania Modleski agrees. Johnny’s neutral image is “ceaselessly distorted with her own fear and hatred.” Modleski further notes touches of directorial irony, as when “the music swells excessively” to ridicule Lina’s reactions. Miller and Susan White indirectly imply that if we accept Johnny as a neutral figure, all doubts about his character are supplied by the Kuleshov effect, where Cary Grant’s face is “a continually changing landscape of emotions that demand audience interpretation.” This transforms Suspicion into a huge joke on the audience. The film “asks us to become aware of the manipulations made routine by the very industry that produced it.” This Hitchcock indicts mass culture and its audiences. We are the ones being psychoanalyzed, not Johnny.

Miller’s conclusion ridicules the obsession of twentieth century audiences – and especially film critics – with psychoanalysis. Great directors manipulate their audiences to inspire visceral reactions, but the hunt for Freudian symbols can easily become an obsession of its own. Hitchcock capitalizes on his audience’s expectation of psychoanalytical markers, encouraging them to invest their own suspicions and fears on his film’s characters and themes. Thus the search for psychoanalytical meaning is often imposed by the viewer and the critic, rather than fully realized by the director.