STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY, THE (director: Robert Siodmak; screenwriters: from the play Uncle Harry by Thomas Job/Keith Winter; cinematographer: Paul Ivano; editor: Arthur Hilton; music: Hans Salter; cast: George Sanders (Harry Quincy), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Lettie Quincy), Ella Raines (Deborah Brown), Sara Allgood (Nona), Moyna MacGill (Hester Quincy), Samuel S. Hinds (Dr. Adams), Harry von Zell (Ben), Judy Clark (Helen), Craig Reynolds (John Warren), Ethel Griffies (Mrs. Nelson); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Joan Harrison; Universal; 1945)
“Darkly poignant while remaining on message.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Warning: spoilers throughout.
Robert Siodmak’s (“Phantom Lady”/”The Killers”) psychological film noir is based on the Broadway play Uncle Harry by Thomas Job; writers Stephen Longstreet and Keith Winter wrote the script. The film is saddled with a ridiculous dream gimmick ending, drastically changed from the play’s version, that undid the incest theme (Geraldine Fitzgerald left no doubt as to the nature of her obsession) wonderfully setup to make this suspense thriller so darkly poignant while remaining on message. The terrible ending can be attributed to pressure from the 1940s censors. Joan Harrison, noted for her longtime working arrangement with Alfred Hitchcock, was the film’s producer who got so irked that she quit Universal Pictures for cowering before the censors. The nervous studio previewed with five different endings before deciding on the safest crowd favorite to please the Hays Office.
The melodrama is set in a small mill town in New Hampshire called Corinth, where the mill’s chief designer Harry Quincy (George Sanders) is employed–content with his dull life though bored to death designing the same rosebud patterns for the mill’s biggest selling cloth. Harry’s the last link to Civil War General Melville Quincy, the town’s most prominent citizen honored with a statue in the village square. The General lost his money during the Great Depression, and Harry inherited all that was left of the family estate–the mansion. The browbeaten, bourgeois, middle-aged bachelor shares his home with his feuding sisters, the older Hester (Moyna MacGill) and the younger (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Things get rosier when the attractive Deborah Brown (Ella Raines), a fashion maven from the company’s New York City office, visits and starts dating the repressed Harry. Deborah is also being wooed by mill supervisor John Warren, a divorced man with a school-aged child. The relationship between Harry and Deborah slowly grows and the two decide to marry, which pleases the widow Hester but unduly upsets the clinging spinster Lettie. The selfish Lettie breaks up the marriage plans by refusing to find a suitable place to reside in when asked to leave the mansion so the couple can move in and furthermore feigns being sick. When Deborah gives Harry an ultimatum to go with her to Boston to marry or else she’ll leave him, he chooses to remain and care for the scheming hypochondriac Lettie. Soon Deborah marries John. Harry, at last, finds out for certain that Lettie was faking the bed-ridden illness to stop his marriage plans. Impulsively, he poisons Lettie’s evening cup of cocoa with the poison she purchased to put down their aging pet dog, but Lettie instead gives the cocoa to Hester. It turns out to be the perfect crime, as Lettie gets convicted of fatally poisoning her sister and is sentenced to hang. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t end at this point.
The conventional melodrama is aided greatly by Sanders’ touching low-key performance, and though diminished by the false ending it still remains overall an arresting and intelligent melodrama that takes damning pokes at the petit bourgeois’ lifestyle and ambitions.
REVIEWED ON 2/24/2005 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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