This is a really dark movie, and at the heart of it is the menacingly charming figure of Joseph Cotton as Uncle Charlie – a creepy, sinister character with a mysterious past of murder and darkness. Uncle Charlie is on the run as a suspect in a series of ‘merry widow’ murders and he seeks refuge in his sister and her family’s small town – but the cops turn up here too…
The movie opens fantastically and keeps the pace up admirably throughout. Establishing shots show Uncle Charlie lying on a bed in a low rent neighbourhood, the camera angled on his boarding house and his window to suggest something slightly off balance.
This kind of opening, the camera creeping closer and closer to the subject, is just the kind of thing Hitchcock uses at the opening of ‘Psycho’, and works a treat there also. On the surface he’s a laid back character but has moments of great anger, smashing a glass in his room as his landlady leaves. The house is number 13, as you may expect, and he is already under scrutiny from the cops. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is stabby, dramatic and great – over the top with Charlie and hitting the footsteps of the two flatfeet who tail him, reaching a climax as he gives them the slip and coolly puffs a cigar.
‘A kiss to Charlie from her Uncle Charlie’ is the telegram he sends to his niece, played by Teresa Wright (who interestingly gets top billing in the movie), and his repeated ‘Santa Rosa’ dialogue transports us to this far more civilised zipcode. Tiomkin’s theme is pastoral and refined, another matching series of dissolves establish niece Charlie lying in the same relaxed repose as her uncle, but without the jagged angles and dramatic dread – this is really fantastic stuff and well thought out from the get-go. Young Charlie is bemoaning the repetitiveness of her day to day suburban existence, desiring excitement – and my, is she going to get it…
When Uncle comes close to Santa Rosa he chugs in on a jet black warhorse of a train, steaming like the devil into this innocent sugarplum town, where if you cross the road out of step you get berated by the local fuzz.
On the train, he’s holed up out of view and prying eyes, claiming some mythical severe illness. Some card players enquire about him and there’s an odd shot showing one of the card player’s dealt hand – all the spades in order from the two to the ace, the ace at the front, it being traditionally called the ‘death card’, an omen of evil and foreboding (when I say ‘one of the card player’s’, it’s actually Hitchcock himself – he’s the director and he’s holding all the cards, of course). Uncle’s feigned illness is slickly shrugged off as soon as he sees his relatives and he’s straight away sleek charm personified.
There’s a clear lasciviousness when Uncle eyes up Niece as she strides along in all her youthful innocence, a really bold suggestion of lust for the 1940’s. He is symbolically given his niece’s room and he will sleep in her bed. His gift to her, a ring which he slips on her finger when they’re alone – the ring, of course, taken from one of the widow’s he has steadily been bumping off…
Uncle Charlie sweeps into their lives like a breath of foul air – full of verve and excitement and spilling gifts to one and all. Mother (Patricia Collinge) gets a fur (Young Charlie: ‘it’s what you should have’), demeaning poor old reliable dad (Henry Travers) for not supplying what his woman needs. Little sis (Edna May Wonacott) is the cynical member of the family, giving a disappointed and dismissive glance at her teddy present, obviously feeling it is beneath her years. Of course, in a classic ‘all that glitters is not gold’ kind of way, the mood starts to turn dark.
Benign old dad says he ‘doesn’t believe in inviting trouble’ and tells Uncle Charlie to take his hat off Young Charlie’s bed (another bad luck omen), but as soon as he’s left alone Uncle spots a couple of ripe old dears out the window and casually tosses same hat defiantly onto the bedspread. Uncle Charlie’s whole demeanour screams trouble – he’s the evil snake in this Edenesque picket fenced paradise.
The recurring visual motif of the lavishly dressed ballroom dancers opens behind the titles and pops up throughout the picture. They dance to the tune of the merry widow, a tune Charlie can’t help humming to himself in a self gratified manner, his niece then picking up on this and he having to cover his tracks with a knocked over glass at the dinner table.
This is classic stuff, sound-symbolic hummed tunes, abstract images that confuse then enlighten you, Uncle Charlie seated at the head of the family table, in control.
Dad has a great side relationship with his mate Herbie Hawkins, the two of them pouring over detective stories and murder mysteries in much the same way as Cary Grant’s Johnnie did in ‘Suspicion’. Herb is played by the great Hume Cronyn (you know, from ‘Cocoon’) and he’s an awkward square fellow who comes in at dinner time (much to the consternation of mother) and has a side chat with dad about murderous mushrooms. It’s little touches like these that lift the film from ordinary (which it’s never really in danger of becoming) into something superb.
Uncle’s charm offensive starts to turn just plain offensive when Young Charlie realizes he has nicked a part of dad’s newspaper (that will transpire to contain reports on the hunting of the widow murderer). Uncle stalks towards her and grasps her arm painfully. This scene is preceded by Young Charlie climbing the stairs, the camera slightly tilted and the shadows angling crazily. Touches like this centre the film very much in a gothic style and harken back to Hitchcock’s earlier movies, all expressionistically overwrought and amped up hidden lunacy:
Uncle Charlie: ‘What’s the use of looking backward? What’s the use of looking forward? Today’s the thing. Today.’ ‘It’s a joke to me – the whole world’s a joke to me’
Uncle Charlie is so out of whack with the small town he gets stared at wherever he goes. You have to wonder if he’s trying to lay low why he would come somewhere where he is so well known and then acts really brassily – his clothes, his volume level of speech, his outlandish phrases all bring attention upon him. It’s like he’s hiding so far out in the open he hopes people won’t notice him, or is resigned to his ultimate demise and is taunting destiny to come get him.
By the by, his meeting of the two middle/late aged ladies in the bank is great – he visibly eyeing them up as potential victims, virtually licking his lips in anticipation.
The two flatfoot cops come sniffing around in the guise of representing magazine reporters interviewing the ideal American family, and it takes all of Charlie’s ingenuity to avoid them. There’s a lovely backlit shot at 46’53” as he stares downstairs and ducks away.
The detectives inveigle their way into the Charlies’ room and the photographer gets to stay in there, so trusting is she and smooth are they. They get a snap of Uncle Charlie who demands the film but is the victim of a photo swap and they get what they wanted – as well as the younger cop arranging a time to pick up Young Charlie to show him around the town that evening…fast work if you can get it.
Their evening turns sour very suddenly, in about the only false note in the film. She is out with Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) and suddenly, from a pleasant evening of dinner and chat, the scene and mood changes where she realizes he’s a detective. This is a bit odd and comes from nowhere and sets the second half of the film in motion as Young Charlie starts to investigate her Uncle, whilst simultaneously getting more romantic with the very guy who could put him away (who to me seems about ten years older than her, her parents not at all phased by this).
Tiomkin’s music is fantastically over the top at times. As niece Charlie rushes to the library to check the destroyed newspaper evidence the orchestra goes increasingly nutzoid – finally stabbing violently as she discovers the headline WHERE IS THE MERRY WIDOW MURDERER? in massive full screen close-up. When she then realizes that the initials in her ring/gift are a match for the most recent victim Hitchcock pulls out one of his signature small-to-large shots and cranes up from the ring to a high shot of her dazedly leaving the library, then a dissolve to the whirling dervish dancers in their hypnotic waltz. This is simply marvelous, well thought out and planned direction.
Hitch then goes on to totally top himself with Uncle Charlie’s dinner table speech, over a slow zoom to Cotton:
Uncle Charlie: ‘You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewelry but of nothing else, horrible, faded, fat, greedy women…’
Niece Charlie (or is it mother offscreen?): ‘But they’re alive – they’re human beings!’
And then he turns slowly to camera, full face frame and asks us coldly:
This is genuinely chilling and beautifully acted and reveals Charlie for the cold-hearted, hatred-filled, sadistic sexist strangling murderous…oooh, he make yer blood boil.
His dialogue to her in the late night drinking emporium is also savagely great:
‘Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something.’
Uncle intimates to niece that he was about to top himself prior to coming to Santa Rosa, and she agrees begrudgingly to give him a few days before he gets out of their lives. It’s the first sign of real weakness in him and the desperation at the cops closing in starts to show as he cracks under the pressure (like the necks of the widows he strangled, oh yes). When dad and Herb pass by saying the Merry Widow murderer has been caught, Uncle fairly skips up the stairs…but stops and looks back and sees Young Charlie looking at him, he knowing that even if the game isn’t up then his family is history. The following steep angled shot of Uncle Charlie in his room is dramatic and we see the ceiling of the bedroom – maybe Hitchcock had been watching Orson Welles’ ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941) with its fabled use of low angles and real ceilings and, of course, Joseph Cotton. The close-up of his hands, cigar dropping, then clenching as he looks out the window at his niece is great – he thinking of an easy solution to his pressing problem.
Hitch plants his plot points adeptly, mother proclaiming early on with a pant ‘those back stairs are steep’, a line that will come back with a vengeance as Uncle Charlie saws through one step in his first attempt to bump off his niece. Later, a romantic interlude in the family garage will haunt the two lovers as murder closes in on Young Charlie, the director making clear that the garage door is wont to slam shut randomly. The attempted murder of Young Charlie is superbly handled and violent, shutting her in the garage with the car engine revving.
Uncle Charlie’s eventual demise, squished to death on the rail tracks is also exciting and hair-raising, Uncle and Niece fighting for life and limb until one of them gives up their ghost.
Hitchcock actually has some kind of coda to the picture – quite unusually given his penchant for getting to The End so rapidly in many cases. Outside the church where the respectful service is being intoned, Young Charlie and her police beau discuss the truth about Uncle Charlie – he never liked people or life, was bitter, cold and murderous. Only they know the truth and this short scene overlays the audio from inside the church as the real valediction to this charming man.
This is a film with a black heart, lifting the lid on small town naivete and an innocent’s reaction to a devil thrown amongst them. It’s a variation on the plot of 1927’s ‘The Lodger’ and, as a multi-layered depiction of maggot-ridden American life, I do think it’s my favourite Hitchcock to date.
As Young Charlie picks up telegram from Uncle at 14 30” there is a weird echo on the dialogue between her and Mrs. Henderson (the lovely named Minerva Urecal playing the telegram/post office lady). It seems out of place with the setting, as if they’re in a massive room – it’s strange and maybe suggestive of the scene being post synched, which would be odd. The limited view of the room they’re in doesn’t suggest it should be echoing quite so much, hmmm. Small point but noticeable.