It was Alfred Hitchcock's favourite of his films, apparently. Me, though, I find its director's presence in it less significant than that of Thornton Wilder.
I'll say it up front: I'm a huge Thornton Wilder fan. I love him. I got that way by acting in one of his plays. He's a humanist of great warmth and intelligence who won a National Book Award and three Pulitzer Prizes, once for one of his novels and twice for his stage plays. Here he was helping to adapt someone else's story and the eventual film was Oscar-nominated for Best Writing, although the man thus honoured was (boo, hiss) the original story's author, Gordon McDonell. However note that in addition to Wilder's regular screenwriting credit, Hitchcock also gave him an additional "Thanks To" mention in the opening credits. (Wilder had had to do it in a hurry because he was about to join the army to fight in World War Two.)
Anyway, this is recognisably a Hitchcock film, especially in the last twenty minutes, but personally it speaks to me more strongly of Wilder. It's set in his small-town America and it's got all his warmth, c.f. Our Town. Look at the script's quiet discussion of the word "ordinary". Joseph Cotton sees it as the worst of insults, as for instance in a speech that's at times word-for-word identical to one from Malachi Stack in The Matchmaker, except that this one's more savage. Macdonald Carey on the other hand thinks it's something to be proud of. "Average families are the best. Look at me. I'm from an average family."
The film's comparing evil with good, but Wilder would never just write a villain and be done with it. "He thought the world was a horrible place. He couldn't have been happy, ever."
The result of all this is a film that's warm and sometimes funny, but also unsettling. It made me uneasy. Joseph Cotten has come to stay with his relatives and there's something clearly wrong with him. However everyone's delighted to see him, his sister in particular being so moved that you'd think he was her long-lost lover. Cotten pitches his performance just right, being charming, generous and uncomfortable to watch even when he's being the perfect guest.
However the film's key relationship is his with Teresa Wright, who was named after him and is called Young Charlie, as opposed to Uncle Charlie. Teresa Wright believes in telepathy. She delivers a speech in which she explains that she and Cotten are linked and that she can read him and know his secrets. "We're sort of like twins. We have to know." That too sings to me of Thornton Wilder, incidentally, being another example of his whimsical illogic that's all about simple things and the relationships between people.
All this makes for an interesting Hitchcock film, although I can't agree that it's his best. It lacks set-pieces and the resolution's lame. Instead it's a delicate, subtly disturbing piece that lacks the viscerality of Hitchcock's most famous films, instead making up for it by going off in a different direction with Thornton Wilder.
It would be a crime not to praise the cast. 1. This was the beautiful Teresa Wright's fourth film and, believe it or not, the first in which she wasn't Oscar-nominated. 2. Joseph Cotten is striking some extraordinarily delicate balances in one of the two landmark roles of his career, the other being The Third Man. In a stellar line-up, he's the one you can't take your eyes off. 3. Henry Travers is delightful as the father of the household and gets more laughs than anyone, especially when he's being a murder nerd with Hume Cronyn, although of course it was inevitable that you'd love the man who played the angel Clarence in It's A Wonderful Life. 4. Patricia Collinge is Travers's wife, but in no way overshadowed. Curiously enough, two years earlier she'd been in Teresa Wright's first film, The Little Foxes, and they'd ended up competing for the same Best Supporting Actress Oscar in it. The nearest thing I can find to a downside in the performances is a deeply weird little girl, but I think she's meant to be that way.
Admittedly I was thinking for a while that Macdonald Carey looked too old to be a love interest for Wright, but there I was being silly since she's 25 and he's 30. That's hardly cradle-snatching. It's just that I'd been thinking of her as one of the children.
Everyone seems to have loved this one. Hitchcock was so impressed by their shooting location, Santa Rosa, that he ended up buying a home near there, and I can't find anyone with a bad word to say about anything to do with the movie. Shooting went like a dream, then the critics loved it. Wright called it her favourite film in an interview in 1959. Wikipedia cites someone who's called it Hitchcock's first undisputed masterpiece, while David Mamet goes further and thinks it's simply Hitchcock's best film. Personally though, it wouldn't have occurred to me to go that far. It's sweet and understated. It's creepy in a manner so delicate that you might almost think you're being silly for feeling uncomfortable. It's neither exciting nor thrilling. What it has instead is Thornton Wilder's sensibility.