Young Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) has a special relationship with her uncle Charles (Joseph Cotton). She was named after him and grew up listening to her mother’s stories of his glamorous escapades; her mother Emma, Charles’ older sister, also idolizes him. In her Uncle, Charlie sees a window into a more cosmopolitan, intellectual lifestyle than the one she’s living in quiet Santa Rosa, California. So Charlie is elated when Uncle Charles suddenly telegrams that he’s arriving for an extended visit.
At first Charles is welcomed with open arms. Emma and Charlie are looking forward to plenty of bonding time, and the rest of the family – and soon the rest of the town – is entertained, if a bit bemused. Charles is even invited to speak at the local ladies’ club and give lectures at the Town Hall. But gradually Charlie starts noticing some things don’t add up – like the ring he gives her as a gift that has another woman’s name already engraved in it. Or the habit he has of stealing random pages out of her father’s newspaper. Or the two men hovering around the house who keep trying to find excuses to talk to the family about Uncle Charles. Or the way Uncle Charles seems to get a little nervous whenever anyone gossips about a pending nationwide manhunt for a serial killer.
It is telegraphed pretty early on that Uncle Charles is the serial killer in question, a man the press has dubbed the “Merry Widow” killer for his habit of wooing wealthy widows and then strangling them and taking their money. The suspense then comes from watching Charlie first piece the mystery together and then struggle to hide her “enlightenment” from Uncle Charles. But soon Uncle Charles seems to find her out, and starts pleading his case to her, persuading her to keep her newfound knowledge secret. But Charlie is torn, of course, and soon finds herself suffering a series of “accidents” around the house…
For a “noir” film, this certainly looks sunny. Santa Rosa is presented as a near-idyllic small town; the local beat cop knows everyone by name, families regularly leave their doors unlocked, Charlie’s family home is sun-dappled and cozy and there’s a picturesque town green. Even neighbor Herb (Hume Cronyn, in his debut role) and his habit of reading true crime novels and thinking up “how to commit a murder” schemes with Charlie’s father is dismissed as a kooky eccentric, rather than anyone to worry about (and Herb even comes to Charlie’s rescue after one of her “mishaps”).
Hitchcock went out of his way to make Charlie’s life as small-town-picturesque as possible, to the point that he hired playwright Thorton Wilder (author of the famous play Our Town) as one of the screenwriters. It all seems to be built up as a contrast to Uncle Charles, who gradually lets slip that he has a very different view of humanity indeed; during one cozy family scene, as Charlie’s father and Herb are brainstorming about true crime, Uncle Charles suddenly chimes in with a chilling speech about elderly widows comparing them to “fat, wheezing animals”. “…And what happens to animals when they get too old?” It’s a brilliant scene; Charlie has just started to have her suspicions about Uncle Charles, the rest of the family is living in blissful ignorance, and Uncle Charles is still coming across as “secretive” instead of “dangerous”, but this speech – delivered in a cold monotone by Cotten – confirms Charlie’s suspicions, and is the first real sign of danger in the film. When critics asked Hitchcock if there was any main “theme” to this film, he offered that “love and good order are no defense against evil”, and this is the moment when Charlie first realizes that. Uncle Charles’ opinions actually aren’t all that different from your average serial killer manifesto, but after so much sunny small town charm, it’s startling to see those attitudes rear their heads.
Another element that I found a bit uneasy – possibly unintenionally – was the relationship between Charlie and her uncle itself. Charlie idolizes him with an ardor that feels romantic after a while, and Uncle Charles’ affection for his niece feels similarly intimate. I’ve been trying to find out if that was intentional on Hitchcock’s part; Alex studied this film in school and said that his own class was inconclusive on the matter, “but….my hunch is probably he did?” Whether intentional or not, it’s noticeable enough that I was discomfited early on, probably before Hitchcock meant me to be. You never outright see anything incestuous, and there’s no outright statement of impure intent from either character, but there’s still enough of a tone to make me uneasy – to the point that I’d actually suggest a mild content-warning for future viewers. This film served as an influence on the 2013 film Stoker, one which has a similar plot – but takes the uncle and niece relationship to a much more blatantly incestuous place.