“What do you know, really? You’re just an ordinary little girl, living in an ordinary little town.”
A teenager (Teresa Wright) in a small town hopes that the arrival of her beloved Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) will bring some excitement into her family’s lives; soon, however, she learns the devastating truth that Uncle Charlie is the “Merry Widow Murderer”, wanted for killing widows on the East Coast.
Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “top-grade Alfred Hitchcock thriller” — which he nominates as one of the Best Films of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book — examines the “thin line between the normal and abnormal,” as exemplified by contrasts between the film’s two central characters: “a smart, spirited, typical young woman named Charlie (Teresa Wright) who lives with her average family in an average American town, and her insane itinerant bachelor Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten).” It’s immediately clear, as Peary points out, that “the two Charlies are two sides of the same person”, and that “young Charlie” will have to experience a rude awakening once she recognizes the truth about her beloved namesake. Indeed, the entire film is structured as an elaborate “coming of age” for adolescent Charlie, who must not only give up her childish fantasies about her uncle, but must protect her mother (Patricia Collinge) from learning the truth about her cherished younger brother, and, in one of the film’s weaker subplots, falls in love for the first time (with MacDonald Carey, a detective on the case).
As in his discussion of “Bruno Anthony” (Robert Walker) in Strangers on a Train (1951), Peary once again argues that the villain in this Hitchcock film is worthy of our sympathy. He notes that Uncle Charlie evokes “strange pity” once we realize he “has many of Wright’s finer qualities, and that he might have been as virtuous and happy as she if he hadn’t had a concussion-causing accident as a child that suddenly made him wild”. But I disagree with Peary that we “sometimes wish Wright would stop her sleuthing” — Cotten is clearly deranged (in his “twisted mind”, he “thinks up ways to kill his niece”), and needs to be caught before he murders again. See TCM’s article for a fascinating discussion of how the script — which was co-written by Thorton Wilder, and explores the darker side of “small town America” — gradually emerged through collaborative effort.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Teresa Wright as “young” Charlie (nominated by Peary as Best Actress of the year)
- Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie (nominated by Peary as Best Actor of the year)
- Patricia Collinge as Uncle Charlie’s doting sister
- Effective use of Santa Rosa locales
- Joseph Valentine’s cinematography
- An enjoyably creepy story of evil in a small town
Absolutely. This classic is one of Hitchcock’s best, and merits multiple viewings.
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)