Archive for the ‘Week 41: ‘The Trouble with Harry’ – 1956’ Category

Week 41: ‘The Trouble with Harry’ – 1956

October 16, 2010

What a bizarre little film. It’s a curious black comedy involving an inconveniently dead body popping up in small town Vermont and the way the locals deal with it. I found the tone of the film very odd and, from a modern standpoint, not particularly funny at all. Saying that, on a second viewing I found the whole thing to be pretty charming, and charmingly pretty too. The vivid colours of Robert Burks’ camerawork really evoke the lovely backdrop of Vermont in autumn and the location/studio shots are amongst the best matched in all of Hitchcock’s movies (ie. there are no dodgy, bluescreened, furry backgrounds).

The Harry of the title turns out to be Harry Worp (Philip Truex), the ex husband of the young and attractive Jennifer Rogers (first film for the then twenty one year old Shirley Maclaine) who lives in the town with her young son, Arnie (Jerry Mathers). Various disposing of the body shenanigans ensue and Harry is actually buried and dug up four times during the course of the picture.

The film lacks any major stars, the only such case in Hitchcock’s 1950’s output. Maclaine was obviously completely new to the screen, John Forsythe (playing the painter Sam Marlowe) mainly a TV actor (both before and after the picture) and Edmund Gwenn way too much of a character actor (not that that’s a bad thing but he wouldn’t have the pull to open a movie).

Forsythe is pretty good as the enthusing and inspired painter, playing well in the scene where he envisages Miss Gravely as some object of glamour (after guessing her age at 58, then being told by her she is 42 – smooth). I don’t quite buy that all his artistic bluster and distraction causes him to blank the clearly rich old gent who pulls up in his chauffeur driven car and shows interest in his paintings, but there you go.

The initial discovery of the body is well done, Arnie playing with his toy gun and hearing real gunshots – a great composition as he emerges between the enormous foreshortened feet of the dead Harry.

Edmund Gwenn as Captain Wilde I like a lot, veteran as he is of many earlier Hitchcock’s. But he does seem a bit at sea here (pardon the sailing pun) – talking to himself when he first finds Harry in order to get across his thoughts, a technique which just seems slightly contrived.

There’s a real dark humour to the film that is enjoyable, Miss Graveley (Mildred Natwick) prodding the deceased to check he’s dead. She’s a game old bird, inviting the Captain over for muffins in a bid to woo him. Throughout the film there’s a lot of this kind of double entendre titter-ye-not-ness. Most famously is when Sam stating quite openly to Jennifer that he wants to paint her in the nude – quite the scandal at the time of release. The dialogue in the picture is one of the best parts – the script peppered with little one liners that make you smile:

Jennifer: ‘He looked exactly the same when he was alive, except he was vertical’.

The Captain: ‘Marriage is a good way to spend the winter’.

Forsyth (about Miss Graveley): ‘Do you realise you’ll be the first man to…cross her threshold?’
The Captain (also referring to Miss G.): ‘She’s a very well preserved woman…and preserves have to be opened someday’

The film is one of the most static in all of Hitchcock’s work – in the sense that the camera pretty much is locked off on the action, and will only move to follow actors as they move about the frame. For this reason, the whole thing feels very play-like and theatrical – dialogue delivered in longish scenes. Not a bad thing but an interesting exercise for a director who was so adept at exploring innovative camera techniques for so long.

As the plot thickens, the local deputy (Calvin Wiggs, played by the fantastically named Royal Dano) spots Sam’s sketch of the dead Harry but you kind of know that there isn’t going to be any great threat to the community in a film of this kind.

There is a pretty perfunctory investigation to the whole affair and we slowly realize that each of the main cast have some reason to have bumped Harry off.

The story ramps up as they stash the corpse in Jennifer’s house, Deputy Wiggs comes sniffing around and various close shaves ensure. Harry is dumped in the bath and the local Doc. Greenbow (already a rather confused fellow – played by Dwight Marfield) eventually checks him and says he died of a heart seizure, so no-one is to blame. This is all nicely farcical and ridiculous, and lightly played by all the cast. There’s some rapid dialogue in these scenes to match their fast thinking and it’s all sweet and charming.

A nice little touch of the Captain snoozing in a chair with the shadow of Harry’s feet on the wall behind him and the repeated closet door opening with creepy music sting suggests some kind of a haunting, both nice touches – as is the Captain’s expression of surprise on finding out the true reason for Harry’s death:

The Captain: ‘Well, I‘ll take a trip to the Philippines’

The whole film then neatly goes full circle with them replacing Harry where they found him, ending on a chuckle about a double bed – sweet and satisfying.

This was the first film that Hitchcock collaborated with the composer Bernard Herrmann, and the score is really enjoyable. Parts of it reminded me of Herrmann’s later soundtrack to ‘Cape Fear’ (both the original from 1962 and the Scorsese remake, his music reworked by Elmer Bernstein) – big stabby descending notes of impending doom. There are charmingly light themes in there also, which work well with the pastoral New England backdrop.

The film is undeniably an oddity in all of Hitchcock but, I have to say, it’s pretty enchanting in its own strange way. It kind of has this feeling that you are glimpsing a strange, naive world that has never really existed but you’d like it to – preoccupations with blueberry muffins, the size of teacup handles and other day by day domesticity against a backdrop of death and dark humour: quite an intoxicating mix. I would hesitate to recommend it as classic Hitchcock (it’s not) but if you’re in the mood for a relaxing, nostalgic slice of old, weird American innocence it’s well worth a look (this innocence summarized by Sam accepting a load of random gifts for everyone as payment for his paintings, rather than any massive cash reward). The gentle discussion between the Captain and Miss Gravely over tea and muffins about how best to dispose of the inconvenient Harry is perfectly pitched and a summary of the tone of the film. The repeated sly and grim humour, good dialogue and daring innuendo is top notch and consistently entertaining. Herrmann’s score, Burks’ camerawork and Edith Head’s costumes all – as you would expect – wonderful. ‘The Trouble with Harry’ is a weird one, for sure – but good weird rather than ‘Number Seventeen’ waste of time weird.

Miscellaneous notes

I assume the misspelling of ‘Addmitance’ in the P.O. Dept. section of the town store is intentional – good gag, hey?

Monsieur Hitchcock strolls by Sam’s paintings outside, wearing a longish light brown coat.

Nice profile shots of Maclaine and Forsyth about seventy minutes in.

Stylish socks there, Harry, well done.