Cosmic Time in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943) by Matthew Moore

[Editor's note.   Matthew Moore wrote his PhD dissertation on clocks in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Carol Reed.  This article shows how young Charlie (Teresa Wright) comes of age when she is effectively transported by her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) out of time and therefore able to see the established order afresh.  The article is excerpted and adapted from a chapter in Dr Moore's forthcoming book, 'Watching Cosmic Time in Midcentury Suspense Films': Watching Cosmic Time ] 


THE PRODUCT OF A life-long Christian, Alfred Hitchcock’s moral universe is predicated on an orderly system, human responsibility, the possibility for redemption, reinforcing faith with good works, and inherited guilt. In his corpus, such notions are manifested by the symbolic role of time. Saving time and keeping time therefore represent more than just observing a social nicety. They represent the maintenance of moral order, synonymous with cosmic order. Consequently, lateness represents more than just a faux pas. It represents a supreme transgression against the cosmological presumption. Often, it is causally associated with the threat of death and destruction. Perhaps nowhere in Hitchcock’s work is this principle more poignant than in Shadow of a Doubt. In it, timeliness and lateness reflect the ideological presuppositions of their creator, Alfred Hitchcock. The film’s minor obsession with clocks can be partially explained by looking at the premise that Christian cosmology of time and order has been transcribed into secular time.

The Newtons. The patriarch, Joseph, is located in the center of this familial universe.

The Newton family happens to share their surname with Sir Isaac Newton, the famed Christian scientist and the progenitor of natural theology. Such a cosmology rests squarely on the divine clock-maker presupposition: if one finds a watch, it must be concluded that a clock-maker made it. If time is ordered then the universe is orderly. If the universe is orderly, then an orderly entity created it. Isaac Newton, known for reconciling some of the polyvalent religious and scientific frictions raging among late seventeenth-century intelligentsia, explained the universal order in clear, rational, and understandable principles. The Newton family members–clearly intelligent, moral people–observe the conventions of orderliness and timeliness; it is fitting that Mr. Newton receives a wristwatch as a present. He displays it proudly and comments on it. The clockwork universe explained in natural theology and popularized by Newton is thus introduced in a subtle albeit significant manner.

In discerning the moral environment of the film, it is also important to notice the history of Christian hegemony in Californian communities. Except for the opening scene of Uncle Charlie, the film takes place entirely in Santa Rosa, California. There seems to be significance in the name, for Uncle Charlie mentions it twice. “Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa, California,” he tells the telegraph operator. Saint Rose was the first native from the Americas— indeed from the Western hemisphere—to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. Like San Juan Bautista in Vertigo, San Francisco in The Birds, and Los Angeles in Psycho, these toponyms remind us of the presence of Christian settlement in America centuries earlier. Uncle Charlie also mentions his childhood home: Saint Paul, Minnesota. He later quotes Saint Paul by saying “Take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake.” The passage, taken from 1Timothy 5.23, is significant because it marks the second time he invokes not only the name but the title of Saint Paul. Paul, of course, was perhaps the single most influential propagator of the Christian message, with the exception of the writers of the Gospels. His evangelism, a history of Christian expansionism, and Christian hagiography are all suggested by such references in the film.

The black sheep returns to the family.

Since names are always significant, Mr. Newton’s Christian name, Joseph, seems to have been chosen intentionally as well. He shares his name with the father of the Holy Family, the foster father of Jesus. As benign and loving head of the family, he represents the patriarchal hegemony that so dominated the major institutions of the 1940s. The family under his leadership uses his bank and goes to church on Sunday. The community of Santa Rosa seems to attend church without question. Outsiders, for example, the agents and Uncle Charlie, are shown clearly not attending church on Sunday, accentuating the compliance of those who do attend. For a film that initially appears to be about a family and a murderer, it contains numerous unmistakable references to a Christian worldview and cosmic time.

Community clockwork par excellence, the church.

Shadow of a Doubt represents a world clearly associated with a moral universe of law and order. Santa Rosa is an ordered idyllic community par excellence. The worldly institutions that permeate the town are structured on the presupposition of orderliness. The Church, as an institution, derives its moral authority from the faith that the transcendent and orderly God has invested it with a spiritual mandate of salvation and integrity. The bank, as an institution, is based on consumer confidence. The motto “in God we trust” may be axiomatic but the value of currency is derived from the commonly held belief that it indeed has value; it is important to note the several war bond advertisements at Mr. Newton’s bank. Patriotism, the belief that America was fighting a “good war,” and the stability of national security are neither discussed nor challenged–they are unironically assumed. The social structure maintains an aura of permanence, reflecting the particularly WASP-ish Great Chain of Being paradigm; men and women, young and old, rich and poor, white and black, outsiders and residents all have their preordained social places. All of these ideological state apparatuses reinforce each other’s orderliness at a time when the modern world faced its greatest moral catastrophe in World War II.

The conflation of time, finance, war, and order: The Bank of America’s clock tower

Emblematic of this conflation of institutions is the clock tower in the center of town. The Bank of America building is seen in the background of several shots throughout the film and the clock tower juts above the Bank of America sign atop the structure. Like the Angelus of Roman Catholic tradition, the bell tolls to help regulate the behaviors of the community residents. In Santa Rosa, the bell has been modified from regulating community behavior for spiritual reasons to regulating behavior for other reasons less unified in purpose. It is significant that this regulatory machine is structurally attached to that most prominent economic institution–the bank.

Scattered along the interior walls of the bank are posters promoting war bonds. As Uncle Charlie visits Mr. Newton at the bank, this propaganda is seen in the background, suggesting the association between purchasing and patriotism. To reinforce this, the flag is visible near the roof of the bank. The message seems to imply that, in order to support the soldiers who are fighting for freedom, it is important to invest in the capitalist economy. Uncle Charlie evidently does not invest in any, which potentially characterizes him as somewhat less than a patriotic American. The economy, the government, the church, and the family all run like clockwork, regulated by time and time-keeping devices. The threat of disorder that Charlie discerns in her own family is a microcosm of the global disorder facing the external world.

Uncle Charlie does manage to embarrass his brother-in-law among his boss and co-workers at the Bank of America. Making a bad joke about smuggling and hinting that Mr. Newton would someday have his boss’s job, he seems to make everyone present uncomfortable. Charlie scolds him. “Uncle Charlie, everyone can hear you!” she exclaims in surprise, shifting her previous tone when she proudly declaimed, “I want everyone to see you!” on the way to the bank. Seeing and hearing, as well as overseeing and overhearing, figure strongly in Hitchcock’s collection of themes. Agent Graham says of the world, “Sometimes it needs a lot of watching. It seems to go crazy every now and then.”

The secret agents of the government interrogating Charlie in her own home, separated by the highly symbolic clock

In Santa Rosa, the motivation for such community surveillance is to maintain propriety and, by extension, law and order. Consequently, Charlie’s indiscretions become supreme transgressions. From Mrs. Newton, who offers gentle admonitions, to Catherine, who stares disapprovingly, the citizens of Santa Rosa are all citizens on patrol. It is important to note the negative effect that Uncle Charlie has on his niece by the way this is exhibited to the community standards of propriety. Charlie lies to Catherine that she is ill and cannot go to the movies with her. Fifteen seconds later in the film, Catherine discovers her strolling with Uncle Charlie. Charlie is caught in a blatant lie and, seconds later, has a good laugh about it with her uncle.

A “good” lie or “bad” lie?

Subsequently, Charlie lies to her family about Uncle Charlie, to Graham about what she knows, and, presumably, to her community about Uncle Charlie’s evil. She and the Church share complicity in promulgating the ultimate lie that Uncle Charlie was a decent person. “The beauty of their hearts lives on,” a speaker at Uncle Charlie’s funeral service says about him. This lying is clearly done for the sake of her family and community. The law enforcement agents, representing the institution of the government, also share the responsibility for this cover-up. Ultimately, Charlie becomes a liar for the sake of others. For one who believes in the importance of morality, this is a sacrifice.

The regulating machine

The traffic officer, a professional citizen on patrol, is perhaps the most significant figurehead of this time metaphor. Employed to regulate order, the officer makes four symbolically important appearances in the film. Framed in the first three appearances with the Bank of America clock tower visible in the background, he obviously represents the maintenance of law and order. As the first citizen seen in Santa Rosa, his appearance mediates the viewer’s entry into this community. The low-angle shot framing him with the clock tower accentuates his significance in the community. He is vigilant and powerful, though ineffective at detecting Uncle Charlie’s true identity. Without the traffic officer, perhaps fatal accidents will occur. To reinforce this danger, Mr. Newton jumps to the conclusion that Aunt Sarah, having recently obtained her driver’s license, has gotten into an accident. For Hitchcock, who rarely drove (except to church on Sundays), the fear of a horrible automobile accident may have been very real indeed.

Patriarchal power, framed with the clock tower over his shoulder

Charlie, believing that she should learn something about Uncle Charlie by reading it in the newspaper, goes to the library. It is late. On her way there, the traffic officer stops her from crossing the street when she should not have. He makes her go back to the curb to wait for his signal, along with everyone else. Furthermore, when she is finally signaled across, he grabs her and scolds her for her impatience. Why? In the film’s narrative, it is associated with the danger of injury or death. But symbolically, in an orderly society, not conforming one’s schedule to that of the authorities can lead to a breakdown of the system. The officer’s reprimand links this violation of schedule with immorality.

As she speeds to the library, she notices that she is too late and the library is closing. It is 9:00 at night. She pleads to be let in, to have some authority allow her transgression. While knocking on the front door, she receives disapproving looks from citizens passing by, reminding us of the social pressures that reinforce the orderly system. It is easy to see the librarian, who explains, “If I make one exception, I’ll have to make a thousand” as a prickly stereotype. However, in this universal context, her symbolic function in the narrative is entirely consistent. It is her moral responsibility to keep to the preordained schedule. “You have all day,” the librarian tells Charlie, visibly upset that she has violated her own duty. As a result of being given a reprieve of “just three minutes,” Charlie finds the newspaper and learns about her uncle’s supreme transgression–murder. These extra three minutes have entirely changed Charlie’s view of the world and its established order.

Lateness as transgressive, but also transformational: the tree of knowledge

After Charlie becomes upset at the murderous dinner talk between Herb and her father and leaves, Uncle Charlie, who has followed her, persuades her to visit a bar. On their way there, Charlie again runs into the ubiquitous traffic officer who benevolently warns that he may have to give her “a ticket for speeding.” Uncle Charlie replies that they “don’t want to break the law.” It is after hours in her world, but Uncle Charlie exposes her to a place that stays open late.

The Til Two bar, a shady place outside of time strongly associated with agents of the military fighting the “good war”

The Til Two Bar, as advertised by clocks on the doors, represents a foreign world to Charlie, who is not used to the morally questionable activity that transpires there. The implication of moral degeneracy, indicated by the rowdy and perhaps drunken servicemen carousing with ladies, is directly associated with time. Louise, the bedraggled waitress, states that she has worked at the dive for “two weeks” and apologizes for her tardiness. “Sorry I was so long.” Moreover, she admits that she “never” would have expected to see Charlie at such a place. It is within this context that Charlie hears her uncle’s anti-sermon about his horrifying moral universe. Consequently, her life is changed forever. Like her uncle, Charlie has been transported out of time, and therefore, out of the established order.

A clock as temporal and spatial mediator in Charlie’s transformation

This kind of demimonde where people exist seemingly outside of the established order evolved rather curiously as a result of modernization. Western urbanization really began to dramatically increase at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Numerous scholarly sources trace the various socioeconomic push-pull factors leading to deruralization and urban population swells over the century. These trends appear strongly and perhaps even inextricably linked to industrialization. As social historian Roger Ekirch observes, “natural” sleep biorhythms were largely obstructed by the mechanistic time that is the life-blood of industrialization. Comparing sleep habits in premodern popular culture with those in the fullness of modernization reveals a host of psycho-social problems related to sleep deprivation. The modern epidemic of sleep loss, along with long-term concomitant ailments and hazards, has effectively been created by a forced communal conformity to the standard eight-hour industrial workday.

Restless sleep renders one unproductive in the secular world of work

Charlie’s typical world, though mechanistic, is hardly filled with anxiety. In fact, it appears idyllic. At least this is true at first glance. The out-of-time state she experiences with Uncle Charlie is presaged by her earlier sleeplessness. Soon after she has a “shadow of a doubt” about her uncle, she presumably stays up too late and sleeps in much later than usual. By reverting to her primitive circadian rhythms, she reasserts her identity vis-à-vis her temporal environment. Sleep is often culturally read as a passive experience but, as most modern cognitive and psychoanalytic research shows, sleep is active and even assertive. After learning the most disturbing news of her life, Charlie reacts in perhaps the most natural way— by reorienting herself in time.

Charlie and her shadow self

Charlie’s late night evokes the premodern and ancient regimentation of night intervals, before mechanical clocks. The Romans termed the period between midnight and the crowing of the rooster intempesta, or “without time” (Ekirch 138). This intempesta was typically considered the most dangerous, particularly because it was the most obscure. That is, sinister events could not only occur under cover of anonymity in the city, but under cover of darkness as well. This correlation reinforced the familiar trope of darkness as evil. Light proved one of the remedies to the dangers of the intempesta. Improved urban lighting and curfews, first introduced on a large scale in Netherlands in the seventeenth century, discouraged criminally destabilizing behavior by exposing it to the communal gaze. By the 1940s, all major cities had sophisticated urban lighting systems to extend productivity temporally into the night but also to discourage members of the demimonde from violating the established order.

The demimonde that occurred alongside industrialization and urbanization thrived on one of the defining characteristics of urban life: anonymity. Being anonymous is as old as the city itself. But the dramatic wide-scale increase of urban populations made anonymity ubiquitous. The growth of the underworld, with all the related developments, such as organized crime, black market economies, human trafficking, and prostitution, while preexisting the modern age, was normalized due to the hundreds of new urban centers that sprang up around the West throughout the modern period. The challenges that criminal culture posed to an orderly society were met by several civic measures. The most emblematic antidote has been the growth of professional police forces.

The demimonde, and all it represents

The emergence of these paramilitary groups, professionally trained and solemnized to enforce the laws, represent an historical shift in the nineteenth century. Again, police forces preexisted the modern period, but their ubiquity and special authorization in the liberal state made them part of the ideological state apparatus like never before. Since the professionalization of police forces, citizens took on a dichotomous role concerning surveillance. On the one hand, to be a citizen invested in the community, one needs to watch over their interests. But, on the other hand, authorizing and paying a group of professionals alleviated citizens of their direct civic responsibility to act as agents in maintaining order. After all, in America cops have come to been identified as citizens on patrol. Hitchcock expressed his ambivalence towards police officers throughout his corpus and in numerous colorful interviews.

The brief, final scene of his procession and funeral is permeated with a communal order. The procession snakes its way through a docile, orderly community in the shadow of the clock tower, the church minister ameliorates the mourning congregation with platitudes, and Graham patronizes Charlie’s intelligence by telling her, in essence, everything will be fine. After the disorder of Uncle Charlie’s accidental death, the community intuitively attempts to restore order. For the residents of Santa Rosa, this means a life of going to church, supporting the economy, and observing the laws–all with divinely-inspired regulation.

A well regulated community clockwork, commemorating the death of an outsider cum insider, a scene laden with irony.

[Editor's postscript.  Dr Moore would greatly appreciate receiving comments from readers.  He tells us: 'There are few things I enjoy more than chatting with people about movies!'  His email address is <>.  His full mailing address is: Matthew Dwight Moore, PhD, Director, Arts and Culture Associate of Science Degree, Associate Professor of Humanities, Roberts Wesleyan College, 2301 Westside Drive, Rochester, NY 14624, USA.]