Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, The (Blu-ray Review)13 Apr, 2015 By: Mike Clark
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars George Sanders, Ella Raines, Geraldine Fitzgerald.
While reveling in Criterion’s recent release of 1947’s Ride the Pink Horse, I stupidly didn’t mention the esteemed but nonetheless underrated Joan Harrison, a producer/writer who made significant contributions to Hitchcock’s early American films and was later the point person (aside from Hitch himself) for his TV show. On either the Pink Horse commentary or one of the accompanying interviews, someone notes that how after scoring heavily at Universal with 1944’s Phantom Lady, Harrison was so upset with what happened to The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry that she left the studio.
And with good reason, though it probably has to be said that given the censorship strictures of the time, Harry’s compelling narrative does paint itself into such a corner that it’s no surprise that five different endings got market-tested before Universal settled on the notorious end result. Which is: probably the worst wrap-up ever for a movie that is still basically a winner up until the final three or four minutes. If I recall correctly, even James Agee’s original review offered patrons a consumer tip regarding the precise moment they should bail out of the theater.
Comparing George Sanders’ title performance here with his acerbic Oscar-winner in All About Eve tells you everything you need to know about his acting range or at least malleability. Because here he’s playing something of a milquetoast living by necessity (well, maybe) with two older sisters with whom he suffered financial setbacks from the Depression after having once been semi-royalty of the community. One of the latter is a spider-woman (Geraldine Fitzgerald) who, unlike many screen examples of the species, is beautiful enough (you’d think) to snare some local hunk with money. But via some amazing subtext that got by the censors — and this has nothing to do with those censorship hassles over the ending — she has something pretty close to an obvious yen for little brother. Note the bit where she places her hand semi-seductively on Harry’s when they are both sitting down and having a serious talk. Creepy, man, creepy.
Sanders’ Harry is too much of a self-absorbed what-me-worry type to give it much notice, preferring to concentrate on his job (designing patterns at the mill), astronomy (his hobby) and playing piano for sing-alongs at the local men’s club (my Lord, that’s Harry Von Zell — the old announcer for the great “Burns & Allen” TV show — as one of the vocal quartet). And it all might remain business as usual were it not for the mill’s New York-based “career girl” (Ella Raines) coming to this sleepy New Hampshire town and opening Harry’s eyes to life’s possibilities. This is when it gets sticky.
Director Robert Siodmak had a great noir-ish run in the 1940s and had worked with Raines twice previously in Phantom Lady and The Suspect (both movies, like Uncle Harry, that first captured my imagination when I was 12 or 13 in the early ’60s). The duo’s collaborative capper actually belongs to Fitzgerald, who should have had a supporting Oscar nomination, but Raines is a good match for her here. In a visual that’s as electric as the sis’s incestuous hand gesture, there’s a fabulous body language shot of town newcomer Raines when she quickly sizes up the game her potential sister-in-law is playing with a kind of “we eat your kind with mimosa chasers every Sunday in New York” kind of look. Not for nothing was Raines, after Maureen O’Hara, the feistiest love interest John Wayne ever had (that would be Tall in the Saddle, filmed around the same time).
As for the finale … well, talking about it is a spoiler minefield, though (hint, hint) it is very much like the one that detracted from a better-known movie of the time from one of the era’s most significant filmmakers. What’s more, had Harry been allowed to wrap as grown-up common sense would allow, it would have concluded very much like said filmmaker’s follow-up classic (also from 1945) that did somehow get around the censors.
Missing from all this, one must admit, is any realization that the aspiring lovers here do not seem to have been made for each other and would have a tough time finding a geographic fit, with New Hampshire too sleepy for Raines and New York having too much bustle for chosen fellow. Fortunately, the Raines-Fitzgerald conflict is juicy and easily carries this 80-minute twisted-sister saga — one that tucks in nicely with a great Siodmak string (the following year alone, he’d direct The Spiral Staircase, Burt Lancaster’s star-maker The Killers and The Dark Mirror). The print here has some speckles in certain dark scenes — and this is a movie of dark scenes — but it’s a better copy than I’ve ever seen going back to adolescence and even my showings of it at the AFI Theater. The same old Olive Films irritant, though, rears its head once again. When one resumes running the film after, say, stopping it for a bathroom break or to tell Jehovah’s Witnesses to cease knocking at your door, it reverts back to the beginning instead of picking up where you left off. And then you have to see that damned animated Olive logo strutting its stuff against an irritating soundtrack all over again — enough to kill my love for martinis.