When Joseph Cotten was cast as Charlie Oakley in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, he found himself completely at a loss. The thirty-seven year old actor had never played a real villain before: Oakley was a serial killer whose victims were wealthy widows.
Cotten was so conflicted about the matter, he approached Hitchcock for advice.
“I’ve never played a murderer before, and here I am looking in the mirror at one who’s nationally known as The Merry Widow Murderer,” Cotten said.
“You want me to tell you how a murderer behaves,” Hitchcock questioned. “Come with me.”
The two drove from the studio to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, where they parked the car and began to walk.
“Take a close look at the men you pass and let me know when you spot a murderer,” Hitchcock said.
After a time, Cotten saw a man with shifty eyes and suggested he could be a killer. Hitchcock pointed out the man did not have shifty eyes — he simply shifted his gaze from the sidewalk to the beautiful actress, Claudette Colbert, who had just stepped out of a nearby car.
Cotten immediately realized Hitchcock was telling him that murderers looked and moved like everyone else.
“That completes today’s lesson,” Hitchcock chuckled.
This wry introduction to Hitchcock’s minimalist directional methods was an inspiration for Cotten. He was just beginning his film career, discovering the manifest differences between three venues: performing before a camera, being on a Broadway stage, and behind a network radio microphone.
“Anyone who can make a picture for Alfred Hitchcock is lucky”, Cotten said. “He teaches the actor to relax. He is fun and knows exactly what he wants. He inspires you to have confidence in yourself.”
In the case of Shadow of a Doubt, Cotten received an added boost of confidence from the pure eloquence of the script. There were six writers, among them Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, but the principle author was Broadway playwright Thornton Wilder. It was the only screenplay the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner wrote.
“I cannot remember any shooting script that suffered so few alterations during production,” Cotten declared. “All the actors agreed that the author’s words were not only easy to learn, but a pleasure to speak.”
Cotten’s performance in Shadow of a Doubt was a tour-de-force. In very real terms, it was also career-defining. The character of “Uncle Charlie” was a most highly challenging role. Hitchcock scholar Donald Spoto described Charlie as a “lunatic murderer,” capable “of great charm, generosity to his family, and of warmth toward his sister.” Aside from Norman Bates in Psycho, Charlie is the only heinous villain Hitchcock ever featured as the main character in a film.
Cotten credited the complex role for the wide-ranging parts he was offered to play in future productions. “Charlie opened a lot of doors for me,” Cotten said. “I was never type-cast.”
Before he died on February 6, 1994 at the age of 88, Cotten had appeared in more than 70 films, numerous distinguished Broadway plays, thousands of radio broadcasts and was featured prominently on television.
Like so many stars who had lengthy resumes in the Golden Age of Hollywood, much of Cotten’s work is unfortunately forgotten.
He is primarily remembered today for Shadow of a Doubt and three films connected with his close friend Orson Welles — Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Third Man. Welles directed the first two and co-starred with Cotten in The Third Man. All these works have aged well; Kane is frequently ranked as the finest film of all time.
Fate was not kind to Cotten in the last decade of his life. Health concerns began with some hoarseness during the final performances of a touring play, The Reluctant Debutante. Cotten required surgery to remove vocal nodules. During his extended recovery, he was not permitted to speak a word.
More tragedy was on the way. On June 8, 1981, he was stricken at home while showering. Cotten described the episode in his autobiography, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere: “I felt something snap in my chest, then I fell to my knees on the floor. How I finally got up and dried myself, I don’t know…I had a heart attack, followed by a stroke that struck at my speech center. Having come through my throat operation successfully and regained my normal voice, I now couldn’t speak at all. It seemed so unfair.”
Again, Cotten went through rehab, only to receive a dreaded diagnosis of cancer. Tragically, his larynx had to be removed. Cotten’s distinctive, sonorous speaking voice — what he called his “most precious instrument” — was forever silenced.
Patricia Medina, his wife of more than thirty years, cared for him throughout the entire nightmare. “He never complained,” she said. “I would have adored him just for his bravery.”