I have made no secret on this blog that I consider Alfred Hitchcock to be overrated as a film-maker. His fans are devoted, and the man’s reputation is so set in stone as for it to be considered sacrilege to say a single word against him. But I do actually like quite a few of his films, and this is one of them.
Small town America, during WW2. Often an effective setting for a mystery, thriller, or drama. Something about the innocence of the people, those white picket fences, and familiar faces in the drug store seems to be crying out to be upset. To me as a youngster, this idyllic world portrayed on film was something to admire. Decent accommodation, soda fountains and ice-cream parlours, always being able to park the car, big fruit pies, and delicious looking hot dogs and burgers. None of that existed in the England of my youth. Many films of the time liked to assault that comfortable exterior, with a moral tale that proved the resilience of the ‘ordinary’ good folks of America, and to show that nice people can make a difference.
This film is perfectly cast, with Joseph Cotten (in for me, his best role) relishing the good guy/bad guy lead of Uncle Charlie. Teresa Wright is perfect as the wide-eyed bored teenager Charlotte, (‘Charlie’) named after the uncle she adores, but rarely sees. The fact that she has a crush on the older relative and is happy for people to believe him to be her boyfriend is a little uncomfortable to modern perceptions, but glossed over as a natural attraction in the story. Character actor Henry Travers is solid as Joseph, the long-suffering brother in law of Charlie, (though he seems rather old to be the girl’s father) and Patricia Collinge is perfect as the fuss-pot mother. The wonderful Hume Cronyn shines as Herbie, neighbour and friend of Joseph, obsessed with crime novels. When the family get the news that their beloved Charlie is coming for a visit, the scene is set.
Two men appear at the house, supposedly undertaking a survey of an ‘average’ family. Uncle Charlie refuses to allow them to take his photo, something which confuses young Charlotte. One of them, Jack, asks Charlotte out on a date, and confesses that he is a detective, hunting a serial killer who has been robbing and murdering wealthy widows across America. He believes Uncle Charlie to be a prime suspect, but the girl finds that impossible to consider. However, certain clues keep turning up, and her uncle’s erratic behaviour and mood swings leave her with doubts. After one episode, he tells the girl that he knows he is a suspect, and asks her to help clear his name by keeping his secrets. She agrees, if only for the sake of her mother.
When another suspect is identified as possibly being the killer, Uncle Charlie is happy, and things calm down. But Charlotte soon begins to have unexplained near-fatal ‘accidents’, and fears for her life. This all leads up to a thrilling climax, as is to be expected in a Hitchcock thriller. This film satisfies on so many levels, but it is Cotten’s performance that stands out. He goes from kindly uncle to worryingly deranged suspect in the blink of an eye, and does it so well. An actor that I often think was over-used, and mildly irritating, manages to redeem himself to me in this one role. And we are left in no doubt (pun intended) that what happens in a supposedly ‘average’ family is far more than we might expect.
And you also get to look for Hitchcock’s signature cameo. If you want to, of course.