by Frank Olson
Alfred Hitchcock was on an incredible creative winning streak from 1951 through 1960, a period bookended by the masterful Strangers on a Train and Psycho. In the midst of continually justifying his “Master of Suspense” moniker with a number of the genre’s all-time classics (Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest) Hitchcock also made several equally interesting (if less commercially successful) films which challenged preconceptions about his trademark style while still adhering to his familiar thematic concerns. Perhaps the most offbeat and overlooked of these films is The Trouble with Harry, a small-town comedy that feels remarkably light on its feet despite its morbid scenario.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producer: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: John Michael Hayes, Jack Trevor Story (novel)
Cinematographer: Robert Burks
Editor: Alma Macrorie
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Edmund Gwenn, John Forsythe, Mildred Natwick, Mildred Dunnock, Jerry Mathers, Royal Dano, Parker Fennelly, Barry Macollum, Dwight Marfield, Shirley MacLaine
US Theatrical Release: October 3, 1955
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
It’s indicative of the film’s odd tone that the titular Harry is not so much a character as a fresh corpse. The body is discovered in the first scene by a child (Jerry Mathers) idyllically strolling through the woods playing with a toy gun. One possible killer is kindly old Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), a retired Captain who comes across Harry while trying to hunt for rabbits (one of the items that he manages to shoot is a “NO SHOOTING” sign). Like any good Hitchcock character, the Captain has a fear of the authorities, and decides to hide the body rather than alerting the police. The Captain’s efforts to bury Harry are disrupted by a succession of villagers who happen to be walking through the woods that day. An old maid named Ivy Gravely (Mildred Natwick) sees the Captain dragging the body but quickly and mysteriously agrees to keep what she’s seen a secret. A scholarly type (Dwight Marfield) literally trips over Harry’s feet, but is so invested in the book his head is buried in that he simply gets back up and keeps reading. (In one of the film’s funniest understated jokes, it is suddenly revealed that this clumsy fellow is the town doctor). The child from the opening returns to the scene of the crime with his mother (Shirley MacLaine) who identifies Harry as her husband but seems unconcerned, and possibly even happy, that he’s dead. In a Buñuelian touch, the sequence ends when a tramp (Barry Macollum) shows up and steals Harry’s shoes.
It’s easy to imagine ways that this setup could be played as a straight murder mystery, and certainly no one would be more qualified than Hitchcock to direct such a film. But the way that these opening moments play out establishes a bouncy and spirited atmosphere that is quite unlike anything else in the director’s oeuvre. A typical Hitchcock film would focus either on the mystery of Harry’s death or on the mounting guilt of the people trying to cover up the crime. The Trouble with Harry is instead concerned with the surprising and amusing ways that its characters react to a bizarre circumstance. The film is as interested in its living characters’ behavior as the characters are uninterested in Harry’s body.
As the story progresses it becomes clear that it’s not a suspense film so much as a character study with romantic comedy elements. Town artist Sam (John Forsythe), a friend of the Captain’s, is eventually drawn into the mystery, and takes it upon himself to investigate the mysterious widow, with whom he is instantly smitten. The Captain and Ivy also strike up a courtship, and it’s through the development of these new romances that the film gradually reveals each character's involvement (or lack thereof) in Harry’s demise.
This is a comedy less concerned with slapstick or satire than with bemused character observation, and fortunately the central quartet become continuously more interesting as the plot thickens. Indeed these may be the richest and most multi-faceted lead characters in any of Hitchcock’s films, and the director’s attitude toward them is uncharacteristically warm. With his potbelly and his fear of the police, the Captain may be a stand-in for the director himself. Sam could’ve been presented as a stereotypical self-serious artist, but the film takes his talent seriously (even as it pokes fun at the townspeople’s inability to appreciate his more abstract paintings) and allows him a climactic moment of generosity that is genuinely moving. Ivy is one of the more vibrant and mischievous elderly characters in cinema, in a reversal of the expectations for a character who a lesser film would’ve classified as a spinster. The widow initially seems like a femme fatale but is gradually revealed to have a distinctive mixture of childlike innocence and deadpan wit.
This is a rare example of a Hitchcock film focusing on an ensemble rather than a main character or couple (Lifeboat is the only other example that comes to mind), and the four leads each deliver nuanced and funny performances. Though the dialogue in John Michael Hayes’ screenplay is often witty, and the plot twists are amusing, most of the humor comes simply from the characters’ behavior, and the cast makes their actions feel believable even when they are at their most absurd. That the cast is led by relative unknowns (MacLaine subsequently became famous but made her film debut here, and her performance is different enough from her more famous roles that it still feels fresh) makes the film feel grounded in a way that it couldn’t have been if Hitchcock regulars like Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant had been involved.
The Trouble with Harry is a modest film by Hitchcock standards but it still benefits from the director’s access to the best crews and equipment available in 1950s Hollywood. The glorious VistaVision cinematography of Robert Burks gives the film a distinct red and yellow color palette that plays a huge role in contributing to the inviting atmosphere. Bernard Herrmann’s score (his first of many collaborations with Hitchcock) is perfectly pitched to the mood of the film. Though less taut or suspenseful than the director’s signature hits, the film is tightly scripted and judiciously edited, and there isn’t a single moment that is superfluous or out of place. The Trouble with Harry is a beautiful film that revolves around a dead body but celebrates the oddities of life.