Monday, July 15, 2013

Instant Gratification Theater: The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945)

"Instant Gratification Theater" is my new, rather uninspired title for posts commenting on stuff I see on streaming video. This should replace the equally uninspired but much clunkier "Stuff I Scrambled to See on Netflix Before It Expired." Sometimes, though, I may even write about movies that DIDN'T just become available.

Today is not one of those times. Many of the old Republic catalog titles that had been on Netflix for several years apparently expired this weekend. Who knows, though? They might well return THIS week for all I know.

The only "strange" thing about Uncle Harry's affair is the terrible ending of the film. Now, I don't want to spoil it for y'all in case you want to go back in time to last week when it was still on Netflix and watch it yourself (or I suppose you could watch it on TV later or in the future, but I like my time travel scenario better--should we go back and kill Hitler while we're at it?), so when it comes time to talk about the specifics, I'll give you a big warning.

You know, I was wrong. There are actually TWO strange things about this movie. The other is that George Sanders, one of the most credible cads to ever appear on the silver screen, plays such a milquetoast. He's the surviving male member of a long line of town big shots, and he constantly plays subservient to his sisters, one in particular played by Geraldine Fitzgerald. This doesn't cause too much of a problem, except Harry Quincey is pretty much unenthused by life in general till he meets Ella Raines' Deborah and falls in love with her. The town is talking about their "affair," chaste as it is, but the one fuming and conniving to undermine it is Fitzgerald's Lettie.

The principals make this routine melodrama worth watching. Sanders is always compelling, even when kept in check, Fitzgerald is quite effective, and Raines is luminous. She has a unique look that contrasts well with Fitzgerald, and her character knows what's up right away and indulges in some fun verbal sparring, first light and then heavy, with Lettie. I appreciate the fact that Deborah is not portrayed as a pushover nor an idiot but just a frustrated woman who sees what's going on and loves her man, but thinks, come on, enough's enough with his overbearing sis.

Complications ensue as Lettie continues to sabotage the relationship, wanting to keep Harry to herself (and director Robert Siodmak doesn't go overboard on the psychosexual aspects of this saga, but how could they NOT be there?), and you keep wondering why Harry puts up with it. Even Deborah gets frustrated and starts delivering the ol' "her or me" ultimatums--not uncommon for a lover to do that to a man and his ex, but to a man and his sister? It's a little frustrating to see George Sanders put up with all of it. I mean, it's remarkable enough that he plays a designer at a fabric factory, let alone how passive he is for most of the film.

Uh, wait a minute. SPOILER WARNING

I'm still not gonna reveal the whole ending, but I will talk about it in general terms. Some terrible things happen in the movie, then there are some twists, and a cruel bit of justice ends the story. It's sinister but not sinister in the way we expect. But it's still sinister--or so we think.

THEN we get the "real" ending, in which George wakes up and we realize that most of the dark, twisted stuff (OK, the dark and twisted stuff APART FROM a sister subverting her brother's romantic relationships) was...all a dream! Talk about a letdown. The real beef I have with this is not so much the tacked-on "never mind" of a coda, one clearly mandated by production code enforcers or people fearing production code enforcers. No, it's the text that closes the film, one of those, "Please don't tell your friends about the ending" notices. I usually LOVE seeing that in a movie, but not when the ending is so lame.

I think what it should say is, "Please tell your friends to leave about 90 seconds before the actual ending, so they can witness the film the way it was meant to be and not endure our mandated cop-out finish." I almost feel obligated to tell my friends about the ending of "Strange Affair." I'll give 'em a SPOILER WARNING first, of course.

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