The 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt, reportedly one of Hitchcock’s personal favorites of his own films, is a clever suspense story. He smartly cast Teresa Wright as Charlotte “Young Charlie” Newton, the moral center of the story, who begins to wonder if her beloved Uncle Charlie is the notorious “Merry Widow Murderer.” And Joseph Cotten, as her namesake uncle, gets to show off some of his best acting skills in this film, in a role that requires him to be quite charming in a way that lets you know there’s more beneath the surface.
Hitchcock shot most of the film on location in Santa Rosa, California, and there is a brief library scene. The old library — a Carnegie library built in 1904 — was torn down in 1964. The library, in quintessential Carnegie style, is made of brick and covered with ivy, with a large sign proclaiming it a “Free Public Library.”
Charlie hurries out to the library to look up a newspaper clipping — a vital clue to the mystery of the “Merry Widow” murders. We see her hurry through town, spliced with quick shots of the town hall clock, almost colliding with a car while trying to cross a busy street. The lights in the library switch off (helping to set the tone of suspense and shadows) and the bells begin to ring just as Charlie scrambles up the front steps. Finding the doors already locked — this is one efficient librarian! — Charlie doesn’t give up; she knocks several times on the front glass door (which prominently displays the opening and closing times) until the librarian, Mrs. Cochran, reluctantly lets her in.
Played by Eily Malyon in an uncredited role, the reel librarian is an older woman with her white and grey hair pulled back in a bun. She does not wear glasses but is dressed quite sensibly with a long-sleeved dark shirtdress that hits below her knees. Her makeup, if any, is minimal, but she does wear a classic pair of pearl earrings. Of course, she is also wearing a watch!
Mrs. Cochran loses no time in reprimanding Charlotte:
Really, you know as well as I do the library closes at 9. If I make one exception, I’ll have to make a thousand. I’m surprised at you, Charlie, no consideration. You’ve got all day to come here… I’ll give you just 3 minutes!
Charlie apologizes quite profusely but wastes no time herself in bee-lining it to the (quite impressively large) newspaper section. She quickly locates a back issue and finds the article she’s looking for about the Merry Widow murders.
Shocked and disoriented, Charlie stands up; visually reflecting her emotions, the camera then reels up to a bird’s-eye view of the library’s main floor. We then get to see a more expansive view of the library (thank you Hitchcock!), with its large, wooden Circulation desk, multiple tables and chairs, classical columns, and glimpses of adjoining rooms. The camera work is impressive; as Jim McDevitt and Eric San Juan write in their interesting work, A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense, “The dramatic pullback shot in the library, when realization first dawns on her, punctuates the isolation she must feel at that moment” (p. 158).
Charlie’s whole world falls to pieces in that library, based on the info she finds in that newspaper — but order struggles to win in the end. As Hitchcock visually demonstrates, the columns stand tall, the wooden doors and panels seem solid — but they’re half-obscured in shadow. Despite Charlie’s internal confusion, the walls of her outside world are still standing. But is it all just surface, a mirage, a public room almost empty? (I totally get symbolism. ;))
So what is the point of the reel librarian in this short, but important, library scene? Mrs. Cochran serves to intensify the tension and suspense, an obstacle Charlie must overcome in a race against time to find out if her uncle is a serial killer or not. The librarian provides another layer to the tension caused by the conflict between order and chaos. Mrs. Cochran is also the gatekeeper — in a literal sense — of information vital to the mystery. In this way, Mrs. Cochran fulfills the Information Provider role.
She also exhibits some characteristics of the Spinster Librarian, albeit a less severe one. Uptight, no-nonsense personality? Check. Focused more on rules than people? Check. Hair in a bun? Check. Sensible, nondescript clothing? Check.
- McDevitt, Jim, and Eric San Juan. A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense. Scarecrow Press, 2011.
- Shadow of a Doubt. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotton, Henry Travers, Hume Cronyn, Patricia Collinge. Universal, 1943.