Joseph Cotten did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Charlie Oakley in Shadow of a Doubt.
Joseph Cotten was most often cast as a fairly unassuming fairly normal guy. In films like the Third Man, Citizen Kane, and A Duel in The Sun he even played the more level headed counterpart to someone who was bit more unscrupulous. Cotten usually was the guy you could trust, or at least the guy you knew wasn't really hiding any secrets. His role as Charlie is the complete antithesis and a classic case of an actor playing wholly against his established type. Charlie, or Uncle Charlie as he is most commonly referred to by his adoring Niece also named Charlie (Teresa Wright) is nothing like his earlier roles, and there most certainly is a dark secret that his character is hiding in this film.
Cotten in his opening scene slashes any thought of his earlier and later portrayals of easily understandable warm characters. We see him lying bathed in shadow, yet that is not the only shadow in the room. Cotten's makes Charlie a shadow himself. Charlie is basking in what he is both metaphorically in the shadow, but as well from what he has done as he is just about lying in the profits from his most recent murder as well. Charlie is a man basking in what he is, and Cotten's performance as Charlie almost entirely being himself reflects this. Cotten's plays the suspected psychopath not as a gleeful villain, but very effectively as an odd cynical philosopher. His line deliveries early have such an incisive soullessness which reflects the nature of Charlie.
Cotten in his first scene brilliantly sets up the nature of the character feeding into a dread, and that doubt when he changes a bit to go visit his family to escape the police inquiries. Cotten brings some of what is found in one of his more traditional performances as Charlie charms his entire family. Interestingly enough Cotten might be at his most charming as Charlie. It is very easy to see why everyone would be so quickly enamored with Charlie, as well as why they would be so easily accepting of his rather lacking explanations of what he has been up to. Cotten portrayal is particularly mesmerizing in how his whole body, and voice are welcoming yet in his eyes we can still see the man we met earlier.
Cotten's performance becomes a fascinating man of different shades as Charlie ingratiates himself back in his family but as well in their seemingly very pleasant town. Cotten is extremely effective with his dynamic that he creates in presenting the Charlie attempting to live while not being suspected of anything. Cotten is incredibly smooth in portrayal of the way Charlie may just seem like he is being nice to everyone in his usual way, but within that he suggests the mind of Charlie which is always watching for something that may find him. I think one of the most astonishing things he does is the way he becomes two men even when smiling, how he can switch so naturally from the outgoing man about town Charlie with his more open body language, to that dark brooding evil in his colder withdrawn in the true Charlie.
This is a rather interesting case of a villain in the film in that most of the time he actually plays the part of just the nice Uncle, and it is in between the lines where we finds the villainous nature most of the time. This might seem limiting in some way, but Cotten never allows this to be a limitation in his portrayal. Cotten creates such a menacing feeling in the moments where the real Charlie comes out, and he is outstanding the way he is able to jump out in a brief moment making Charlie the unpredictable element he should be. Although we ought to know the truth about Charlie due to his opening scene, Cotten's performance still allows the mystery of the man through the terrific way in which he plays with the right hints to the monster, but never overplays his hand.
The way Cotten plays the part so carefully makes it so whenever the real Charlie comes out it is absolutely spellbinding. One of his strongest moments comes in when we see a glimpse into the psychotic mindset of Charlie as he talks about how he feels about wealthy widows. Cotten is chilling in his portrayal of this insanity in Charlie. There is such hatred in him, and it isn't a direct loud hate but rather something seething through him in a most disturbing way. Even though we never see Charlie actually kill anyone in the film this scene as well as the few others where we get to know the thoughts in Charlie's head Cotten shows through his deranged philosophy exactly what drives Charlie to his horrible hollow pursuit.
A main focus of the film is the relationship between old Charlie and young Charlie. It is probably rather telling that Teresa Wright has much more chemistry with Joseph Cotten then she does with her technical love interest played by Macdonald Carey. Charlie and Charlie are more than just Uncle and Niece and the scenes between Cotten and Wright are what make the film. It is not necessarily incestuous so to speak but Cotten and Wright give the two Charlie's a definite connection. The arc of the story comes in really the connection that Cotten and Wright make together, and how it changes over the course of the film.
Cotten and Wright are just about flawless together in the way at the beginning that could not be more loving to one another with the warmest of attention. They are the purest form of happiness without even a sense that there could be anything wrong. The two are so fascinating in their chemistry though as each slowly changes in attitude toward the other. Cotten moving slowly toward the darkness in Charlie revealing not only his sinister nature but the ugliness of the world, and Wright losing her uncontrollable affection, and constant optimisim. The greatness in their performances is that even as each becomes hostile to one another they keep that underlying connection between the two powerfully conveying the almost otherworldly nature of it.
One of the themes of the film is what lies beneath what is ideal on the surface, and Cotten's performance is the personification of the theme. His turn as the psychopath Charlie is a revelation for Cotten who is able to be the white paint as well as the rust. Cotten's performance is that of a visceral nature in the way he tears the image of the gentle smile and loving embrace mercilessly off to reveal the demonic creature that lives within. His performance works as the freighting portrait of the hidden psychotic and the destroyer of all that is rose tinted. Cotten allows us to experience right along with young Charlie that fall from enchantment to cynicism through his viscous uncompriming portrait of Uncle Charlie.