we begin with, then, is the innocent Newton family and the sinister uncle, who
moves into Young Charlie’s room at the top of the stairs. Also in the family
are her father Joseph (Henry Travers), her mother Emma (Patricia Collinge), and
her young sister Ann (Edna May Wonacott) and brother Roger (Charles Bates).
Travers was in his late 60s and Collinge around 50 when the film was made, and
they look on the old side for Ann and Roger’s parents but about right for the
movie’s apple pie symbolism. The next door neighbor, who drops in without
knocking, is Herb (Hume Cronyn, in his movie debut). He and Joseph are crime
buffs and spend much time in debates about methods of committing a perfect
murder. Their asides are funny in themselves, and more so because of Uncle
Charlie’s discomfiture. His preferred method is strangulation with his bare
now everyone is onstage. The uncle, the family, the neighbor, the cops (notably
the good-looking younger detective Jack, played by Macdonald Carey, who falls
in love with Young Charlie). With Uncle Charlie seemingly content to spend the
rest of his life in Santa Rosa, Hitchcock needed something to create a shadow
of a doubt, and I suppose his MacGuffin this time is a story in the newspaper
about the Merry Widow Killer. This story might have passed unnoticed if Uncle
Charlie didn’t unwisely and unsuccessfully try to conceal it. That triggers
Young Charlie’s growing suspicion that there must be more to her uncle than it
appears. Charlie has a dark side to his nature, a way of narrowing his eyes and
seeming threatening, that is later, somewhat awkwardly, accounted for by a head
injury when he was young.
engine of the plot then involves Young Charlie’s suspicion and her uncle’s
paranoia and clumsy attempts to murder her–as if that would accomplish
anything more than confirming the suspicions of Jack the cop. As plots go, this
one is not a Hitchcock masterpiece, but it works because it generates suspense;
how close to the truth will the niece come before she’s killed or proven right?
During the running length of the film the elements all mesh efficiently; it’s
later that the weaknesses grow evident.