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Film

'The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry' Is a Splendidly Unhealthy Portrait of Small-Town Moral Rot

This is a charming, bucolic, and splendidly unhealthy atmosphere populated by a gallery of busybodies and wrongheaded local boobs.


The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry

Director: Robert Siodmak
Cast: George Sanders, Geraldine Fitzgerald
Distributor: Olive Films
Year: 1945
US DVD release date: 2015-03-31

Robert Siodmak's The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry might be confused in some minds with Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, because both are small-town crime stories about murder and uncles. The latter film features Uncle Charlie, an evil man visiting a small town from the big, sophisticated outside world. However, Siodmak's film has an arguably more disturbing premise, as its moral rot is homegrown from the town's oldest and most illustrious family.

Harry Quincy (George Sanders) is the last male heir of a blueblood family now in decline. He works at what many viewers must have perceived as feminine work, designing patterns with roses and suchlike frills at a fabric mill run by some middle-class upstart. Harry supports his widowed older sister Hester (Moyna McGill) and "invalid" younger sister Lettie (Geraldine Fitzgerald), whose attachment to her brother is so unhealthy and dependent that she does everything she can to sabotage his romance with a city gal, the forward and common-sensical Deborah (Ella Raines). She's going to have to wear the pantsuit if she's to steer Harry into matrimony, and for some reason she wants to.

In a reversal of the typical trope, the modern, sophisticated New York career woman in smart make-up and dress suits isn't the femme fatale but the healthy breath of fresh air. She's there not to lead Harry to his doom but because she's good for what ails him. If she has a touch of manipulation about her, it's to keep up with Lettie's countermeasures; as Deborah tells her, "I won't misunderstand you."

What's keeping Harry sick is the burden of heritage and tradition, represented by the clammy, deceitful Lettie. Her incestuous subtext needn't be audibly spoken: it comes across loud and clear, and that's what makes this slow-building story of sexual frustration so unusual for 1943. The movie presents a charming, bucolic, and splendidly unhealthy atmosphere populated by a gallery of busybodies and wrongheaded local boobs, from the outspoken housekeeper (Sara Allgood) to the druggist (Harry Von Zell) and the local doctor (Samuel S. Hinds).

Fans of director Robert Siodmak view this film as a disappointment compared to his other noirs of the period, and that's understandable when you consider that his next two were The Spiral Staircase and The Killers. It's partly that Sanders plays an uncharacteristically weak and vacillating milquetoast instead of his usual debonair scoundrel, though he's very good. The main problem is the untenable ending. We'll try to be circumspect, but spoiler alerts are warranted.

The tacked-on ending is basically a necessity rendered by Hollywood's Production Code, which dictated that people couldn't get away with murder. However, even without that coda, the previous ending isn't psychologically credible or satisfying in Stephen Longstreet's script (based on Thomas Job's play). We'd have to believe that someone would willingly be executed because they "died months ago", and if we swallow that, why would they go through a jury trial instead of pleading guilty? The more we examine the tacked-on ending, the more it makes better psychological sense, as it indicates a personality type so lacking in confidence that even wish-fulfillment fantasies don't go as planned. So the ending is kind of a save, even if it annoys many viewers. The film ends by asking us not to reveal it, and many wouldn't care to.

We should consider this film not only in the context of Siodmak's career but that of producer Joan Harrison, who began as a screenwriter for Alfred Hitchcock and became studio Hollywood's only female producer who specialized in crime films. She'd already produced Siodmak's Phantom Lady and later made the remarkable and unusual Ride the Pink Horse, directed by and starring Robert Montgomery (which recently making its disc debut on the Criterion label). Later, she produced her most famous achievement, the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series, an anthology that often served or mocked the convention that crime shouldn't pay.

Olive Films has released this under license from Paramount, which is confusing because it's a Universal picture. They've done no digital restoration, much less working on the print or negative, and the result is sometimes clean, sometimes spotty, mostly good. (For contrast, compare to the astounding Criterion print of Ride the Pink Horse.) What you get, even with a supposedly compromised ending, is a tart little analysis of the darkest human motives, and a film in which the strongest characters are women.

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