Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945)

"You know Letty, you look up at the stars, you feel awfully small.  Our problems seem so petty against all that space on space out there.  We're mere drops of nothing compared to the sun, that has a hundred million miles for a back yard.  So why do we torture ourselves trying to discover what's good and what's evil, what's right and what's wrong?  It's so unimportant."

These lines, spoken by George Sanders as the titular Harry Quincey, eloquently express the essential feeling of noir. The degree to which the rest of the film follows suit is variable.  Some of that may be due to Hays office meddling, but they were not entirely to blame for the mixed results seen here.

Certainly it's not for want of cast and crew with some hefty noir credentials.  Producer Joan Harrison has several key films of the cycle to her credit, including those she worked on in her formative years along side Alfred Hitchcock.  The director, too is an iconic name in noir - Robert Siodmak, whom we have to thank for just black gems as The Killers, Criss Cross, Cry of the City, and The File on Thelma Jordan.

And with a case that includes such names as George Sanders, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Ella Raines, one wonders what could have been missing.  Well for one thing, Sanders seems terribly miscast as a shy, socially awkward artist with little experience with romance, who works by day designing fabric patterns, and spends his nights ogling the stars through his self-made telescope. Even the avuncular title he is called by is supposed to point to his utter lack of interest to girls- illustrated in an opening scene when he complains to a girl who calls him "Uncle Harry," that he dislikes being called such by an entire generation of people with no such relation to him at all. If you thing any of those things sound like the makings of a good role for him, you must be thinking of a different George Sanders. Still, the premise is nothing if not firmly established by the script, even if Sanders never truly fits into the mold his character is supposed to break out of.  He bemoans his lack of excitement in his work, saying at one point, "I've painted so many rosebuds I see them in my soup." Indeed, there is so much talk of rosebuds, it might well be a sequel to Citizen Kane.

However, once one forces their way past their suspension of disbelief at his casting, the plot itself is certainly noir, though more suburban than most films of the genre.  He lives together with his two sisters, Hester (Moyna MacGill) and Letty (Fitzgerald).  Hester is widowed and a doting sister, if at times too caught up in self-pitying.  Letty is introduced as a sweet but frail shut-in, though what is wrong with her is difficult to guess by her hale appearance (another hurdle for us to overcome as audience). These characterizations are somewhat unevenly maintained by the script and the actors. As the story progresses we see more accurately what these two are really like.  We see the two sisters have a bit of personality conflict with one another, often over how to behave toward their brother.
Letty progressively reveals a protective and possessive attitude toward her brother that dances the line of being a bit more than mere sisterly affection, or even needy invalid behavior - especially when we see how little she is truly ill.

The real conflict, however, begins with the entrance of a NY fashion designer names Debra Brown (Ella Raines), who comes to their sleepy little Post-depression suburban textile manufacturing town of Corinth, to work with Harry at the mill. She begins to show him there is more to life than painting rosebud patterns every day. They spend a lot of time in off hours, going to softball games, dining out, etc.  Somehow, despite his supposed awkwardness with girls, the two are quite close.  Engaged, in fact.

This certainly does not sit well with Letty, though she successfully hides her dissatisfaction from her brother for a while.  Eventually, even he catches on, as she drags her feet in her task of finding a new home for her to live in with Hester once the couple are married.  She seems to believe that as long as she can delay that, she can delay their marriage.  As her plots take more desperate turns (including possibly poisoning his sick dog Weary!), it becomes apparent that she is the femme fatale of the tale.  Or should we say sœur fatale?

She finally drives the couple's patience to the breaking point when, the day before they have planned to go to New York for a honeymoon and marriage, she "has a spell" - an event that forces Harry to choose between staying with his sister or losing the girl he loves.

He stays.  She goes.

It is at roughly this point, that, driven to despair, Harry ponders what to do with his greedy, cruel sister, now that he has lost all purpose for living.

At this point, a certain plot point occurs that you wouldn't recognize as such until the end of the film.
There is a title card at the end warning viewers "Do Not Disclose the Ending."  However, since the film is now over 70 years old,  and since the noted contemporary film critic Bosley Crowther flatly refused not to reveal it, I feel no qualms about doing the same.

He falls asleep and dreams the rest of the plot.  Was this originally the intent of the tale?  Or was it the result of Hays Office censorship demanding changes?  Like The Woman in the Window that came out before this, it is probably the latter.

So here is what he dreams:

Debra goes off to New York to marry the barely-seen John J. Plothole (Craig Reynolds), a widower and would-be suitor who is only seen in one brief scene in the film early on.

Harry decides the only choice he has is to take Debra's leftover poison from killing Weary and use it on her. Unfortunately, the wrong sister gets it, in a classic which-mug-has-the-poisoned cocoa switcheroo. Then things get genuinely noir, in the more commonly thought-of ways.  She catches onto what he has done, but everyone believes she is the perpetrator.  She goes to prison, is tried, convicted and sentenced to hang.

There is a grimly macabre scene showing Harry's friends gathered at a fine restaurant to dine while they wait for the jury to deliberate. Like so many other rural/suburban noirs, such as Cover-Up. this scene paints an ugly portrait of small-town life and Americana. the depiction of these jolly townsfolks glibly discussing the case and their expectations for the verdict is sharply cutting. Similarly pointed imagery is painted in a scene involving a man who comes to asses Letty's belongings to buy from Harry once she is executed.

Harry ultimately is overcome with guilt and tries to submit a signed confession to free his sister, but is shooed away and praised for his sacrificial offering by the police, and sneered at by Letty, who says coldly, "I died months ago. Tomorrow is just routine."  She expresses her pleasure at the fact that he will be tormented forever by his guilt, while she will be free after she is executed.

Finally, at the breaking point,  at what ought to be the moment of most pitched drama, the dream ends.  He awakes to find his sister both alive (and behaving much more kindly than before), and Debra returned to his side, unable to stay away or marry anyone else but him.  Roll credits.

Does it work?  I suppose if you lower your expectations accordingly, you can find a great deal to appreciate in this film.  The actors, even when miscast, are engaging to watch, and the plot, while tangled beyond saving, is at least interesting.  There is minimal music for the most part, but the absence is only occasionally noticeable and wanting.   The supporting cast is colorful and entertaining, with reliable character actors such as Sara Allgood as the stereotypical Irish cook Nona, and radio announcer and comic actor Harry Von Zell has some memorable moments as Ben the druggist.

The final assessment?  Good but not great.  I was able to enjoy it for its pedigree even when its actual execution was less than stellar.

** out of 5

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