Bright Lights Film Journal

Charlie’s Little Sister (Shadow of a Doubt)

Erich Kuersten’s younger sister series (starting here) inspired me to think about the younger sisters in Hitchcock films, particularly Pat Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train (1951), and her bespectacled predecessor, Edna May Wonacott as Ann Newton in Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

Alfred Hitchcock’s *minor* characters are rarely throwaways. Little Ann was the co-creation of Hitchcock, and screenwriters Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville (Mrs. Hitchcock). Not surprisingly, Ann recalls the younger sisters in Wilder’s Our Town, and even more so, “Tootie” (Margaret O’Brien), the high strung – one might even say neurotic – little sister of Judy Garland’s character in Benson and Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis. She is the darkest member of the Newton family other than the psychopathic Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) himself.

Reading the recently published Britton on Film, the collected film criticism of the late Andrew Britton (worth buying for his essay on Mandingo, alone), I discovered this provocative description of the character:

A marvelous inflection of the generic type of the smart, precocious, tomboyish younger sister produces in Ann Newton, a little girl characterized by a sustained autistic withdrawal from reality into movies (her ambition is to look like Veronica Lake) and, predominantly, books, she wants to become a librarian and is introduced refusing, literally, to take her head out of Ivanhoe, the classic novel of sublimated romantic dream by an author who epitomized, for Mark Twain, the rottenness of the European character. She also has a dread of “movin’ around and changin'” (“I don’t want to get carried away”), a profound conservatism (“It’s wrong to talk against the government”), and in her love of horror stories and her repressed resentment of the family (“I broke my mother’s back three times”), anticipates by thirty years a crucial contemporary development in the horror film. [Britton is referring to “family horror” films like Rosemary’s Baby, Night of the Living Dead, and The Exorcist.]

Note Ann’s placement in the portrait of the Newton family, above. She is positioned between the two Charlies, “normal” Charlie (Teresa Wright) and “crazy” Charlie (Cotten), without physically relating to (touching) either one. The fact that she is the only member of the Newtons who is standing shows clearly her alienation from the rest of the family. While everyone in the group is looking at Mother (Patricia Collinge), Ann is the only one who isn’t smiling. Her expression could easily be interpreted as a glare of hatred.

Looking at this frame, I can’t help thinking of the last shot of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). Repulsion, obviously influenced by Hitchcock’s Psycho, is the story of a cosmetologist, played by Catherine Deneuve, who grows increasingly alienated and psychotic over the course of the film. The last shot is a zoom or track into a family photo showing the Deneuve character as a little girl. She is staring directly at the camera, the scared rabbit look in her young eyes revealing that she was quite mad, even then.