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Uncle Charlie by Gordon McDonell (05/May/1942)

The following is a transcript of a story outline — titled "Uncle Charlie" — sent to Alfred Hitchcock by Gordon McDonell in early May 1942.[1] Hitchcock crossed out the title and replaced it with "Hitchcock #2 Untitled".[2]

The story was adapted by Alma Reville, Sally Benson and Thornton Wilder into Shadow of a Doubt (1943).


May 5, 1942


by Gordon McDonell

The story is set in the little town of Hanford in the San Joaquin Valley, a typical American small town almost lost between the desert and mountains. In Hanford lives an unimportant little family of four — father, mother, daughter and son. They are little people, leading unimportant little lives. The father is a small and rather timid employee in the local bank. The son, about 10, has a job but not a very good one, and there are very few prospects for him in the small town. The daughter is a girl of about 18 with great potentialities of charm. Given the right chances one feels she could develop her real natural intelligence and make something out of her quite considerable beauty. But in Hanford there is nothing for her. She takes on much of the burden of housekeeping in the little household, trying all the time to spare her semi-invalid mother the work which seriously affects her health, She has become engaged, half against her own better sense, to the town's ne'er-do-well. He is always half in trouble, footloose, discontented, often railing in speech against the humdrum respectability of the smug little town. As a result, whenever anything goes wrong in town, when a small local holdup finally attributed to tramps empties the cash register of the local drug store, town gossip at first ascribed the holdup to the ne'er-do-well. The instinct throughout town is to fasten blame on him whenever possible. The girl, herself, is often swayed by public disapproval and yet she clings half-heartedly to their engagement just because the future is so empty.

The little family are always struggling to come up in the world socially. It is very important to them, and they count their small social successes very tenderly, for instance, the evening when the mother has to deputise as chairman of the local meeting of the Women's Club, is a red letter day. It is almost THE BEGINNING OF BETTER THINGS. The struggle to "climb to reach the Joneses" is just as hard a one in the little town of Hanford as it would be in London or New York and just as important to the climbers, but when the story opens and the hot weather has descended once again to burn up the smug little streets and fill the air with biting desert dust, it looks like just another year when nothing will ever happen. Life passes Hanford by; there are no high spots, there are never even any crimes.

A letter addressed to the mother arrives which is the whole key note of life for the little family. It comes from Charlie, the gay, handsome, successful, debonair brother whom the mother has not seen for ten years. To the girl and her brother, Uncle Charlie in anecdote has become quite a legendary figure, the hero of so many exploits of the mother's girlhood. Always it has been their hope that one day they would see and know Uncle Charlie for themselves, and now a letter comes from a fashionable New York hotel telling them that Uncle Charlie is on his way west and is coming to visit then. At once the summer becomes exciting and lively and the little house is alive with plans. The girl sees the flush of vitality again in her mother's cheeks as her father hurries from house to house to tell everybody proudly the news of Uncle Charlie's visit, little teas are arranged in advance, and a whirl of small town gaiety is planned. The President of the Woman's Club approaches the mother hoping that Uncle Charlie will favor them with a talk on some of his travels.

Then Uncle Charlie arrives and he is all and more than any of than expected. Distinguished, entirely charging, vary polished, and a man of the world, he captivates them all, and the household takes on an entirely new lease of life. Uncle Charlie has the gift of unique sympathy and is able to deal with every member of the family in just the way needed to galvanize them into making better use of themselves. Under his influence, the father loses much of his feeling of inferiority and gets a better position in the bank, the young son is spurred by Uncle Charlie's vigorous encouragement to go out and look for a job in a bigger city with a future to it. The mother becomes an entirely different person. She once again takes an interest in her appearance and her faded prettiness blooms again. On that account alone Uncle Charlie wins the gratitude of the girl. To her it is the greatest gift he could have brought that he has given so much of health back to her fading mother. Between Uncle Charlie and the girl there springs up a very close relationship. He is wonderful to her in a way that no man has ever been before, bringing to her a breath of that wide outside world she has longed to visit. Evidently well supplied with money Uncle Charlie showers her with pretty things, brushing away her protests by saying that this is the least an uncle can do for his pretty niece. He is unalterably set against her fiance. The two men start off on the wrong foot and are antagonistic from the start. The worst side of the fiance always seems to be brought out in ugly contrast to Uncle Charlie's polished manner so that many an evening ends in the young man making a surly fool of himself. Uncle Charlie is quite outspoken in urging the girl to have done with this misalliance, saying that she is throwing herself away on such an oaf and that he himself will take her along with him and show her some of the world-

Then gradually, although her head is almost turned by the attentions of this good-looking man of the world, little things begin to bother the girl about him. She begins to wonder about his life, about his past, and one day while tidying up his room in his absence, she is impelled by curiosity to go through his trunk. In it she finds some clippings dealing with two or three isolated murder cases. A terrible instinct hits her. Then she is furious with herself for having such thoughts about the man who has become their benefactor. She tries not to think about it again, but again and again she returns to search his room and each time she finds something that makes her suspicion grow. Finally tucked away in a corner of his trunk she finds a pretty dainty chiffon scarf. A memory strikes her and she ruffles through the clippings to find the description of the most recent murder, that of a young girl which took place a couple of months earlier. The murder weapon had been a flowered chiffon scarf.

She slams the trunk shut and turns to run, but as she rushes out of the door Uncle Charlie comes in. Her eyes are unguarded and as she faces him for that brief instant he sees in her eyes that she knows he is the murder.

She is utterly torn between whether to hand him over to the police or whether to let things slide. If she hands him over to the police, the whole life of the little family, above all her mother's life, will be ruined for good and all. In a small town like Hanford such a scandal could never be lived down. The town would have been made a fool of, having opened its hospitable doors to a murderer. The revelation of the truth might even kill her mother. Feeling unable to bear this choice alone she tells her fiance about it and he turns out in this, her greatest crisis, to be a strong and solid prop. He does not try to force her to go to the police, understanding that she has to work that out alone, but he does stand by her in a way which welds them very closely.

The girl's one object while making her decision is to avoid Uncle Charlie, and Uncle Charlie's one object is to get her alone. Terrified, she realises that his only means of silencing her is to kill her. Several times he almost succeeds in getting her alone, once when he sends the whole family out to a movie and returns to the house, but she escapes out of her bedroom window, although she knows that this cannot go on for long.

Then Uncle Charlie arranges a large picnic in the foothills. They all drive out in cars across the desert floor and park below the towering, crumbling sandstone cliffs which are the beginning of the mountains. It is the gayest of picnics, but to the girl it is a haunted evening for she has decided that even if it kills her mother, she cannot let the murderer go free. Then by clever planning, when they start home Uncle Charlie manages so that the whole of the cavalcade of cars leave and start off into the sunset across the desert floor, no one realising that the girl has been left behind a little way up one of the cliffs they have been climbing. When the last car has driven off into the dusk and the evening silence has settled down over the desert, he begins to climb to meet her. Coming down she sees him approaching and knows that this is the end, that soon she will be found entirely crushed and broken at the foot of the crumbling rocks, the victim of a tragic "accident". She turns and, panic-stricken, struggles wildly up the crumbling hillside, but the man gains on her. She reaches the crest and turns as he comes toward her. They are on the edge of the cliff. Uncle Charlie's hands go out but the girl jumps aside. From a little below comes the sound of a sudden shout. The fiance has realised that the girl has been left behind and is racing up the hillside, Uncle Charlie makes a lunge but the shout startles him and he misses his hold just as the piece of cliff on which he is standing breaks away and falls carrying Uncle Charlie down with the mass of rocks and loose earth to crash to the desert floor below.

The broken body of the well-liked Uncle Charlie is brought reverently and tragically home to Hanford by a score of willing volunteers who rush out to the scene of the "accident". Condolences and glorious floral tributes pore into the grief-stricken little household and the whole of Hanford turns out to do honor to the guest in a funeral the like of which has seldom been seen in the small town. As they drive along in the funeral procession, the girl and her fiance are the only people who know what Uncle Charlie really was and what his death has spared the mother.

Notes & References

  1. As reproduced in Hitchcock's Secret Notebooks by Dan Auiler
  2. "Hitchcock #1" was Saboteur (1942).