Let’s start at the end and work backwards to the beginning. And no, that’s not a mere ploy to try to grab your attention. There are some movies where, due in large part to the nature of their endings, it is hard to talk in detail about them without straying deep into the kind of spoiler territory that I prefer to avoid if at all possible. The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945) is one such movie, a film which features a significant twist, some might even say an outrageous one. I shall do my utmost to allow those coming fresh to the film to experience it as it should be, the end titles even include a contemporary appeal to audiences to respect this aspect after all, although I see no reason why we cannot discuss any and all developments freely in the comments section below.
The prologue informs us that we are in New England, in a town called Corinth to be exact. It feels somehow appropriate that events should unfold in a town whose name alludes to a classical past, for New England (to an outsider such as myself at least) always seems to have an air being connected to the past. The town bridges different eras (just as Corinth in Greece acts as a physical bridge between the mainland and the Peloponnese), or could one say they clash? The main square has a statue of a famous general and the whole place is dominated by the hulking prison-like mill which provides the main source of employment. Within the walls of this forbidding edifice we see a man toiling away in his studio/office. This is Harry Melville Quincey (George Sanders), a descendant of that worthy positioned for posterity astride a marble horse in the square. His is a humdrum existence; the glories of his ancestors mean little in the thrusting industrial age and he must content himself with designing yet another variation on a rosebud pattern for an everyday textile. Harry is a man who is not so much drifting into staid and uneventful middle-age as one who is firmly mired in a world of stifling decorum. If the town is still shackled to a degree to what came before, then the house where Harry lives is practically a mausoleum, a burial chamber for one’s dreams. The furniture and decor recall a faded gentility, weighed down by the combined pressures of expectation and disappointment. He shares this space with his two sisters, Hester (Moyna Macgill) is a wittering and fussing old maid while Lettie (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is a manipulative malingerer.
So Harry lives daily amid bickering and pettishness, punctuated by spells of tedium at a job which is eating away at his creativity and relieved only by his occasional star gazing via the telescope he has laboriously constructed in the summer house. This neatly sums up his character, the consummate ditherer and dreamer, forever focused on the faraway and the unattainable. Then all of a sudden that distant sparkle lands right in front of him in the form of Deborah Brown (Ella Raines), a designer from New York and a bracing breath of fresh air destined to blow away the cobwebs and wreak havoc in the plodding, predictable Quincey household. While love seeks Harry Quincey, something far less savory stirs in the heart of his needy and clinging sister Lettie. Passion, possessiveness and fear are set on a collision course, their meeting point to be decided by a man sat alone in his living room contemplating a small bottle of poison.
The tone of the movie shifts from a fairly light beginning, with some well-observed and self-deprecating humor provided by Sanders, Macgill and Sara Allgood, on through some tightly controlled melodrama towards a progressively darker destination. It is a smoothly blended process with no unseemly jarring observed, not till the very end anyway and the coda that is sure to displease some. I am willing to go out on a limb here and admit that I quite like this twist which occurs. It satisfies me on a number of levels and always has done. I feel sure others will disagree with me here , but I reckon it can be read or interpreted in a number of ways, not just the superficial and obvious one. I actually see it as a natural extension or growth of the character of Harry – one would hardly expect anything else of the man, and whether it is in fact meant to be taken at face value is, I think, left to the viewer’s discretion.
Robert Siodmak did as much as anyone to codify the look and conventions of film noir in that great run of movies in the 1940s from Phantom Lady right through to The File on Thelma Jordan. I imagine The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry will not be at the very top of the list of favorite films noir from the director for too many people yet it remains enjoyable and well crafted. Siodmak coaxed fine performances from all the main cast members with Sanders tapping into a diffidence that he often masked with his characteristic polished smugness. Here he allows that mask to slip and offers a peek at a man whose faltering weakness is recognizably human and sympathetic even if he’s not always likeable. Ella Raines , in her third of four collaborations with Siodmak, exudes a sexy, sassy big city confidence, her earthy frankness bowling Harry over from the very first moment. Harry’s character resides in a remarkably Irish household, with Belfast native Moyna Macgill (Angela Lansbury’s mother) alongside Dubliners Geraldine Fitzgerald and Sara Allgood. Macgill flutters delightfully and makes for a strong contrast to Fitzgerald’s intense self-absorption; the latter’s final confrontation with Sanders is overflowing with cracked malice and comes across as genuinely chilling. Sara Allgood is good value as the lugubrious housekeeper, clashing with the two sisters and giving as good as she gets while she philosophizes about her own longstanding engagement with gloomy resignation.
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry has been released in the US on DVD and Blu-ray by Olive films, sporting an attractive albeit imperfect transfer. It took me many years to catch up with the movie as it was one of those titles that never seemed to get screened on TV. I finally got to see it when it was broadcast one summer when I was on vacation and I liked it immediately. Sanders’ low key characterization resonated with me and Ella Raines in her pomp could never be disappointing. While some (many?) viewers will gripe over the nature of the twist that I have attempted to dance carefully around, I believe there is more of an issue relating to what Deborah sees in Harry in the first place, and why she perseveres in the face of his inertia and his family’s obstructiveness. Ah well, love is… whatever one wishes it to be, I suppose. To borrow a repeated phrase from the film, that’s the way things are. Speaking as a dedicated fan of the films of Robert Siodmak, I obviously recommend seeing this movie. Sure there are weaknesses on show but it was made right in the middle of his best period and that alone ought to make it required viewing.