When it’s on: Saturday, 23 May (2.35 pm)
The Trouble with Harry started out as a novel by British author, Jack Trevor Story, was adapted for the stage, and later Alfred Hitchcock bought the screen rights for $11,000. Upon its release, it was deemed to be a flop, yet its subsequent success in European cinemas enhanced its reputation, and the film probably made its money back after another round of American screenings. Perhaps surprisingly, it was to be one of the director’s personal favourites. When asked in 1974 about his body of work, The Trouble with Harry was one of four movies Hitchcock claimed he wanted to have staying power with audiences (The 39 Steps, Shadow of a Doubt and North by Northwest, since you’re wondering), and perhaps it isn’t that difficult to see why. Whilst Psycho and Vertigo are acknowledged masterpieces, they’re both dark pieces of work that explore the grim recesses of the human soul. Our Harry, on the other hand, is never less than fun, and I suspect Hitch hoped the movie would reflect his own sense of humour.
Certainly, The Trouble with Harry is a good laugh. It’s simple yarn, which is based on the discovery of a dead body laid among the autumnal trees of a Vermont fall, turns into high farce as the story progresses. Hitchcock proved he could find wit amidst the usually morbid subject of somebody’s death. And as usual, the plot, which follows the fortunes of four characters who are in different ways linked to Harry, produces so much more from its focal point. Throw in a sublime and playful Bernard Herrmann score (the composer’s first collaboration with Hitch), some great performances, and a tone that sustains a light, breezy atmosphere, and you end up with a film that might not be a Hitchcock classic, but by most people’s standards is well worth a second look.
Harry, the movie’s central character has no lines, doesn’t move of his own accord, and we see little of him beyond his feet, which are wrapped in blue socks with gaudy red toes. That’s because Harry’s dead. Lying flat on his back in the woods, a hole in his head that might have been made by a bullet or a shoe heel, Harry’s unfortunate corpse comes into contact with a number of the local town’s denizens and very nearly gets several of them into peril.
The film opens with a shot and raised voices, shortly before a small boy discovers the body. Herrmann’s typically ominous score suggests only one thing – murder most foul. Elsewhere amidst the trees is Captain Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn). Out to shoot rabbits, but showing no success for his efforts, the softly spoken gentleman blames himself for Harry’s death. He must have shot him by accident, Wiles argues to himself, and so he sets about preparing to bury the evidence. Whilst doing so, he comes across Ivy Gravely (Mildred Natwick), who shows next to no concern about finding someone hauling a dead body along by the feet (‘What seems to be the trouble, Captain?‘) and instead invites him over for blueberry muffins and coffee, perhaps even some elderberry wine. Harry’s wife, Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine), also finds the corpse. In another movie, her lack of remorse over his death would be at least callous, and certainly chilling. Here, it’s farcical. Local artist, Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) gets roped into the Captain’s plan to dig a grave for Harry, that is when he isn’t dreaming about the lovely Jennifer, and the possibility of selling a painting or two.
Ultimately, Harry winds up as a bit of a plot device, albeit a troublesome one as his very presence becomes a burden for those who would be rid of him. What the film’s really about is the web of relationships that develops between the other characters, all of whom have been drawn together by him. Sam fancies Harry’s widow, and his attempts to woo her form a major plot strand. More charming by far, however, is the faulting courtship between Wiles and Ivy. Neither is very confident – the Captain frets about not making a fool of himself, whilst Ms Gravely gingerly buys a special cup and submits to a haircut, all to prepare for her blueberry muffins date. As the quartet move closer together, they find more and more labyrinthine ways to dispose of Harry. His poor corpse is buried and dug up several times as the characters look for reasons to shake him off quietly or let the authorities come across his body.
Much has been made of the fact that this is Shirley MacLaine’s big screen debut. The movie was unavailable for public screenings for nearly thirty years when Hitchcock bought back its rights and left it in legacy to his daughter. By the time it was re-released in 1984, MacLaine had become Hollywood royalty, fresh from her Oscar winning turn in Terms of Endearment, and fans got to see a much younger and prettier model in this lost vintage. In the winning role of Jennifer, she’s all charm, heartbreakingly pretty and the very epitome of a 1950s modern girl. It’s impossible not to see what would have attracted Marlowe to her.
Yet hers isn’t the lasting performance. This honour goes jointly to Gwenn and Natwick. Their characters are twee and lovable without ever becoming mawksome. The former, an Oscar winner himself (he was Kris Kringle in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street) is a delight, his soft English accent – retaining its trace of his London roots – giving him the harmless exterior that turns out to be just as true on the inside as he wraps himself up in doubt over what to do about both Harry and the lovely Ms Gravely. Natwick is similarly superb and wonderfully funny as the highly strung Ivy, who also believes she has something to do with Harry’s demise when not getting herself worked up over the Captain. Theirs is a charming middle-aged relationship, and you’d put money on their connection lasting much longer than that between Jennifer and Sam, such is the chemistry between them.
Perhaps the weakest link is Forsythe, who ought to have the plum role as our likeable young hero who gets the girl, but who never seems entirely at ease with it. He’s easy enough on the eyes and doesn’t put too much of a foot wrong. But he just isn’t quite as memorable as his peers, and it’s unlikely you’d watch the film again on his account alone.
Forsythe’s slightly uneven presence aside, there’s little about The Trouble with Harry that’s open to criticism. Hitch was enjoying his own golden age whilst making the movie, and it’s clear that this is a very polished piece of work. All the same, it can’t help but fade when compared with the director’s recognised greats of the 1950s. Partly this has to be down to its tone. The film is frothy and light. It’s almost as though Hitchcock made it to shed some of the heavy-going material he was working with at the time, such is its leisurely pace and characters who appear to have few skeletons lurking in their closets (though at one point in the movie, that’s more or less exactly what they’ve got). Some of the film’s scenes take place during the night, yet overall this is a piece made for daylight, a glorious fleshy autumn filled with dying leaves, blue skies, and the local doctor tripping over the corpse during his constitutional, only to obliviously pick himself up and move along. The town is filled with nice people. Even Royal Dano’s doubting deputy sheriff comes straight out of Bedford Falls; it’s a place where nothing bad really happens and even terrible catastrophes can be resolved.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. The Trouble with Harry marks a delightful change of pace, a nice, funny piece of work that has real heart within it. If it isn’t perfect, then that’s because Hitchcock was fated to be better when handling darker material, the pinnacle of which was still to come. As a lighthearted ninety five minutes of entertainment, however, it takes some licking. Many have tried, and very few have succeeded in exceeding its easy charm and good-natured wit, and you end up wondering just how much of himself the master put into it.
My favourite bit? Undoubtedly the scene where the captain is walking into town and spies a police car in the road. Carrying his rifle, the firearm he believes killed Harry, he tries to hide it inside his jacket, before opting to hold it against his leg and affect a limp to shield it as he strolls past the cops. Gwenn carries the moment splendidly, a bag of nerves trying to manage a blithe greeting while all around him, Herrmann’s flutes maintain a slightly mocking lilt.
The Trouble with Harry: ****