Wednesday, April 15, 2020

“The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry”—Film Noir Set in New England

The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945) is a film noir directed by Robert Siodmak. The plot revolves around Harry Quincy (George Sanders) a bachelor who supports his two sisters Lettie (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and Hester (Monya Macgill). The younger sister, Lettie, is self-centered and needy and doesn’t want her brother to marry and leave her. When Harry begins a romance with Deborah Brown (Ella Raines) things get complicated.

Geraldine Fitzgerald, George Sanders, and Ella Raines
Director Siodmak once again directs a wonderful cast in one of the most unusual and controversial films noir released in the 1940s. Sanders has one of the best roles of his career and he isn’t playing a sophisticated cad, a role he practically patented. As “Uncle Harry,” Sanders plays an aging bachelor stuck supporting his two sisters in the old family mansion. The Quincy family was one of the town’s most prominent families, but we learn through the film’s opening scenes that they lost most of their money during the depression. Harry works in the local mill, designing patterns for the fabrics they produce.

When Deborah, a young designer from New York arrives at the mill, she and Harry instantly hit it off. They eventually plan to be married, which doesn’t sit well with the self-centered Lettie. Will love prevail or will Lettie’s scheming ruin Harry’s life and a chance at happiness?

Like Charles Laughton in Siodmak’s The Suspect, Sanders gives one of his most subtle and layered performances in The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry. His Harry is innocent, naïve, and sweetly charming. When was the last time anyone described a Sanders characterization as innocent? Sanders reveals an acting range that he was rarely ever to express on screen and it’s wonderful to see.

Fitzgerald as Lettie has one of the best roles of her career as the younger sister who manipulates her brother and abuses her older sister, Hester, all the while pretending to be a paragon of virtue and respectability.

Raines as Deborah finds herself once again ably directed by Siodmak, having starred in The Suspect the year before. As a young career woman, she exudes confidence and femininity. It’s no wonder Harry is attracted to her; she’s the opposite of his needy sisters.

Robert Siodmak (1900 – 1973) had a very successful career in Hollywood and is best known for his thrillers and films noir. He signed a seven-year contract with Universal and directed The Killers (1946), the film that made Ava Gardner a star. He worked with some of the top movie stars during Hollywood’s Golden Age, including Deanna Durbin, Gene Kelly, Burt Lancaster, Dorothy McGuire, Yvonne de Carlo, Olivia de Havilland, and Barbara Stanwyck. Often compared to Hitchcock in his prime, he never got the recognition that the Master of Suspense did, but most of his films hold up remarkably well and are worth watching.

George Sanders (1906 – 1972) was a British film and stage actor who also had a fine singing voice. Hollywood was looking for a villain to star opposite a young Tyrone Power in Lloyd’s of London (1936) and Sanders more than fit the bill. His performance in that film would forever stamp him as a sophisticated bad guy. Before his acting career, he worked in the textile industry, which must have helped him with his role in The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry. In the 1960s, Sanders played Mr. Freeze in the Batman (1966) television series.

Geraldine Fitzgerald (1913 – 2005) was an Irish stage and film actress. Fitzgerald’s film debut was Dark Victory (1939) starring Bette Davis. That same year she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as Isabella Linton in Wuthering Heights. Fitzgerald’s movie career was hampered by her battles with studio management at Warner Brothers, where she was under contract. The role of Lettie in The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry was one of her best screen performances.

Ella Raines (1920 – 1988) was born in Washington State where she studied drama at the University of Washington. Howard Hawks spotted her in a college production and signed her to a contract. Right out of the gate, she starred in some big movies, including Preston Sturges’s Hail the Conquering Hero and Tall in the Saddle (both 1944) where she shared equal billing with John Wayne. As her movie career declined in the 1950s, Raines worked in series television starring as Janet Dean, Registered Nurse (1954-55). She appeared on the cover of Life magazine twice, once in 1944 and in 1947.

Join us on April 21 at 6:30 p.m. Central Time for a discussion on Zoom. To watch the movie on YouTube and for information on joining the discussion on Zoom, click here.

Questions for discussion:

1. Noir or not? The setting for The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry is a small New England town, not your typical noir setting. What do you think and why?
2. Does this film have a femme fatale? If yes, who is she?
3. What did you think of George Sanders and his characterization? Have you ever seen him in a role like this?
4. Geraldine Fitzgerald is an interesting character. What did you make of her? Did you sympathize with her in any way?
5. Ella Raines’s character was a real contrast to the other two female characters (Harry’s sisters). She’s independent and confident in her own skin.
6. Joan Harrison produced this movie. She started out as Alfred Hitchcock’s secretary. Do you think the fact that this movie was produced by a woman gave the film a different perspective on the genre?
7. What did you think of the ending? Was it satisfying? Explain.


  1. Like you said, George Sanders rarely portrayed sweet and innocent, which means this is a film I've GOT to see! :)

  2. The mill used in this town opening scenes is actually the Ponemah Mills in Taftville Ct. circa 1940s. We were watching this movie and were amazed to see our towns mill as it was back then. It unfortunately now is an apartment complex.

  3. Thanks for stopping by and how cool about the Ponemah Mills!


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