In his interview with François Truffaut on "Shadow" (first published in 1967), Sir Alfred Hitchcock said the dense, black smoke belching from the train that brings Charles Oakley to Santa Rosa was a deliberate symbol of imminent evil.
The producers assigned scouts to find an appropriate house to serve as a setting for this movie in Santa Rosa, where this movie was to be shot on-location. Sir Alfred Hitchcock had provided specific instructions that the house was to be nice, but somewhat worn-down to emphasize the Newton family's middle class background. The scouts selected the house which appears in the movie, and Hitchcock was delighted by the photographs of their selection. The house was well-built with both a charming interior and exterior. However, it was an older house that was slightly out of fashion at the time, needed a few cosmetic repairs, had a bit of an overgrown lawn and garage area, and the exterior painting was faded and chipped. Hitchcock believed that the expensive and sturdy, but weathered and worn, look to the house would give the suggestion that the Newton family could be anyone, just the average American family in any average American town. Hitchcock gave the scouts the authority to rent the house from its owners as a temporary filming location, much to the owners' pride and delight. He was horrified, however, when he appeared at the house to begin filming. The owners, excited by the prospect of a major movie being shot at their house, had freshly painted the entire house, manicured the lawn, and made a few repairs to the exterior. Hitchcock had to have his effects team artificially age the wear to the house and shoot around the owners' most-effective recent renovations.
Edna May Wonacott (Ann Newton) and Estelle Jewell (Catherine) were locals of Santa Rosa, where this movie was shot on-location. Many of the extras were also locals of the town, which was too far away from Hollywood to be affected by Actors Guild guidelines demanding the use of professional actors and actresses.
The project began when the head of David O. Selznick's story department, Margaret McDonell, told Sir Alfred Hitchcock that her husband Gordon had an interesting idea for a novel that she thought would make a good movie. His idea, called "Uncle Charlie", was based on the true story of Earle Leonard Nelson, a mass murderer of the 1920s known as "The Gorilla Man".
Although the year was 1942-43, World War II is never mentioned. However, when Young Charlie goes to the library to find out which article her uncle ripped out of the family's newspaper, the first paper she looks at has a headline that begins, "Tojo Speaks for..." (Tojo Hideki was Japan's Prime Minister for most of the war.)
When saying her prayers, little Ann asks for Captain Midnight to be blessed. Captain Midnight was the main character in a popular radio serial in the late 1930s and 1940s. While the broadcasts were generally directed towards youths, the adventures of Captain Midnight as he flew around battling saboteurs and spies for a secret American government branch (the "Secret Squadron") were also popular with adults. In keeping with her intelligence and independence, Captain Midnight spoke fairly regularly about the science involved in flying and treated female characters similarly to male characters (no damsels in distress in this serial).
The Italian dubbing of this movie was made in Spain during World War II. Since no young Italian actors were available, the two youngest members of the Newton family ended up with very noticeable Spanish accents.
The portrait that hangs on the wall of Charlie's room to the right of her door is one drawn by Willy Pogany of actress Mary Philbin, who was a leading lady at Universal Pictures just twenty years before.
Uncle Charlie is connected to all three children (Young Charlie, Ann, and Roger) in the family. Uncle Charlie is closest to Young Charlie. Like Ann, Uncle Charlie was always reading when he was young. Like Roger, Uncle Charlie is the youngest in the family.
When Hawkins is describing a fictional detective as a Frenchman, he is talking about the character Hercule Poirot, who appears in the stories of Agatha Christie. Ironically, in the stories Poirot is often mistaken for being French but he is Belgian. In the world of film, Poirot is best known as the central figure in Murder on the Orient Express (1974).
Before leaving for the west coast Charlie leaves his room and turns to follow his landlady. It is inferred that she would never be seen again. The real-life serial killer Earle Nelson, whose activities inspired this film, had a penchant for killing landladies and molesting them afterwards.
Charlie's sister mentions that he'd had an accident on a bicycle when he was a boy. Earle Nelson, the serial killer on whom this story is loosely based, suffered from extremely serious mental illness which, along with his history of occipital headaches, was attributed to a near-fatal bicycle accident in his childhood in which he was seriously struck on the back of the head. Charlie's sister mentions how his personality had changed after the accident (getting into mischief), which is what happened with Nelson, who soon began to commit burglaries.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
In an interview with François Truffaut, Sir Alfred Hitchcock said this was his favorite movie. Truffaut discussed with Hitchcock about the use of "two" in this movie. Two Charlies (Uncle Charlie and Young Charlie), Two scenes at the railway station (the arrival and the leaving of Uncle Charlie), Two men on the run (one man in the east and Uncle Charlie in the west), Two men on the run are killed (one by the plane and other by the train), Two policemen, and the two visits of police into the house.
Sir Alfred Hitchcock used the idea of "You destroy the thing you love" in this movie. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Hitchcock mentioned the idea of "You destroy the thing you love" through Oscar Wilde. Young Charlie loved Uncle Charlie. But she ended up destroying him at the end of the movie. In an Interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock mentioned that it is implied at the ending (Young Charlie with Jack Graham in front of church) that Young Charlie will be in love with her Uncle Charlie for the rest of her life.
Sir Alfred Hitchcock puts lots of personal elements in this movie. For example, Hitchcock's middle name is Joseph. Young Charlie's father's name is "Joseph" Newton. Like Roger, Hitchcock was the third and youngest child in the family. Hitchcock's mother's name was Emma Hitchcock. Young Charlie's mother's name is Emma Newton. Uncle Charlie's bicycle accident in the movie happened to Hitchcock when he was young. Ann Newton reads the book "Ivanhoe" in the beginning of this movie. Hitchcock knew the story of Ivanhoe by heart when he was young. Young Charlie drives the car in the family. Hitchcock's wife Alma Reville loved driving. Like Hitchcock, Herbie Hawkins is obsessed about the subject of the murder, and he is also mother dominated.
There are several vampire references throughout the movie, including: - Jack Graham asks Ann to tell Catherine the story of Dracula. - Uncle Charlie comes from Philadelphia, "Pennsylvania". Dracula comes from "Transylvania". - Uncle Charlie's line 'The same blood runs through our veins' is from Dracula (1931), were Dracula says the same line in reference to Mina when he and Van Helsing have their "battle of wills" to prove he now has power over her. - Telephathic communication between Young Charlie and Uncle Charlie is also connected to the relationship between Mina Harker and Dracula. - Uncle Charlie is also killed on the train "returning" to the east, much like how Dracula dies returning to the east. - As the landlady lowers the blind and the light disappears from his face, Uncle Charlie rises. This image is also interesting to note, as the blinds are traditionally drawn where there is a dead man in the room.
Other vampire references: When the audience is first introduced to Uncle Charlie, he is lying on his bed, arms folded across his chest, suggestive of a vampire lying in his coffin. Uncle Charlie's remaining unseen on the train (travelling to Santa Rosa) is a lot like Dracula's trip from Transylvania to London. Unlike Dracula, who drains the blood from a living being, Uncle Charlie corrupts the minds of the young ones by taking their innocence from them.
Other possible vampire and Dracula references: Vampires are often depicted attacking the neck -- so too would a strangler. As well, Uncle Charlie grabs Charlie by the chin and twists her face slightly to show her neck while claiming she is the most important thing in the world to him. The sparkling wine Uncle Charlie gives the family at dinner is specified to be red ('the red bottle,' 'brandy') suggests blood. The importance of the newspaper here echoes how Dracula is a story told through letters and news articles. At the party after Uncle Charlie has delivered his speech, the partygoers discuss how nice it is to have an American speaker instead of a foreigner -- Dracula's "foreign" status has always been an important part of the story (e.g., Bela Lugosi's accent). During the final struggle on the train, Uncle Charlie almost appears to be trying to bite Charlie's neck. The emerald ring becomes almost like a crucifix, a worn amulet to protect against harm. The wooden-step trap echoes a wooden stake. The carbon-monoxide trap echoes Dracula's ability to turn to mist or fog. Emma's rather random speech upon hearing Uncle Charlie say he will leave is delivered as though she is under a spell -- it echoes the performance by Helen Chandler as Mina under Dracula's spell. Uncle Charlie grabs Charlie by the wrists multiple times, a subtle reference to the veins there. There are multiple shots of Uncle Charlie catching himself making inappropriate motions with his hands (e.g., strangling the napkin) -- many movie vampires catch themselves reaching for victims with their hands. Uncle Charlie is shown putting flowers in his lapel button hole, and little Ann is always putting flowers behind her ear; these may be subtle references to flowers for the dead.