The Hitchcock Haul: The Trouble With Harry (1955)

Trouble_with_Harry_VSD5971As the synopsis on the Netflix sleeve informed me, the trouble with Harry is that he’s dead. That is definitely trouble, but more for the people who happen to stumble upon his body. Now, how much you enjoy this movie will be directly related to how many times you think it acceptable to bury and then dig up a body. Do you think it’s acceptable to do so as many times as needed? But how many times could you possibly need to do such a thing? Do you think burying a body just once is too many times? For that mater, how do you feel about death? On a scale from one to ten in fucks given, are you at a no fucks or entirely too many? If you give entirely too many, stay away from this Hitchcock outlier.

The Trouble With Harry is a very strange film. I am a huge fan of black comedies, and for this reason I greatly enjoyed Hitchcock’s entry into the genre, but it wasn’t a box office success, and I can understand why. It doesn’t surprise me that Hitchcock would make a film like this. I’m actually surprised he didn’t make more. It has his signature quirky sensibility and wry humor that all his films possess, but in Harry it’s the focus. His signature camera angles are still there, and it feels very much like some of his early work from the ’20s and ’30s, approaching the film very much like play. This was right before Hitchcock hit what I consider to be his golden age with films like Vertigo and North by Northwest, films everyone associates most strongly with his style. Harry feels very much like a bridge between his old work and this new era, much like Dial M for Murder which was released the year before.

Harry is rather remarkable for several reasons. One is the frank dialogue throughout. Talk of death and sex is very straight forward and even playful. At the time this was a bit scandalous, and even watching it today you’ll still have a few did he really say that moments.

The Trouble With Harry is about several members of a sleepy Vermont town who happen to stumble upon the dead body of a stranger in the woods. Each person has a different reaction to the body, and each person just happens to believe they were the reason he’s dead. Captain Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) is out doing some hunting. Having come up empty-handed, he decides to pack it in for the day, only to stumble upon a body with what looks like a bullet hole in the head. Convinced that he accidentally shot this poor man, Captain Wiles decides to do away with the body discretely. But while he is dragging the body away, he is discovered by Miss Ivy Gravely, an old maid. Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick) barely even reacts, despite having a delicate sensibility. She agrees to basically ignore the situation.

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The first person to have discovered the body is actually little Arnie (Jerry Mathers), who runs home and drags his mother Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine) back to check it out. It’s Jennifer who identifies him as a man named Harry, and she seems more than a little happy to find him dead. Soon a handsome artist named Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) gets tangled into the web with only the most impure intentions toward Jennifer.

As each person becomes aware of the others’ involvement with the body, their experiences with the dead man are revealed. Each person has a different reason to worry about the man’s sudden death and either need his body done away with or out in the open. Because of this indecision, the group ends up burying and then digging up the body at least three times. I’ll be honest, I can’t really remember at this point! I found it exasperating at first, but when they had to dig it up yet again for the last time I actually laughed very hard in disbelief.

After a whole big run-around with their own decisions and trying to keep the body and knowledge of the death from the Deputy Sheriff, the group decides on possibly the simplest solution of all: put it back where they found it and claim a do-over.

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Part of the strange tone of Harry can be credited to how self-absorbed the world and characters are. No one cares about Harry or worries much about the repercussions of his death beyond the implications of their own environment, and even then, no one seems overly concerned that they will run into too much trouble with the dead body. No one cries or faints with shock or terror or even sorrow when they see the dead man. No one worries about the other ratting them out. It’s like a strange set of snow globes around each character’s individual sphere of experience, and the same goes for the town. There are hardly any visitors, and when a rich benefactor tries to buy all of Marlowe’s paintings, Marlowe initially blows him off in favor of the exciting issue with Harry. It’s fascinating to watch, and perhaps a bit telling of the 1950s in America.

Trouble-with-Harry_MacLaineIt is also notable for its score. The Trouble With Harry marks the first collaboration between Hitchcock and composure Bernard Herrmann who also scored such notable films for Hitchcock as North by Northwest, Vertigo, and the most famous of all, Psycho. When you hear a Herrmann soundtrack you can’t help but connect it instantly with Alfred Hitchcock. This is another major part of Hitchcock’s transition from one era to the next: Herrmann’s sound. The two so completely compliment each other. Family friends of ours recently rewatched this film, and it was they who asked me to check it out next in line. Both are very musical, and one is actually a composer himself. He was incredibly enthusiastic about the score for The Trouble With Harry, and I must agree that it is excellent. It might not be as much of its own character as in Herrmann and Hitchcock’s other films, but it seamlessly blends with the film and supports the narrative and characters expertly.

Herrmann is very impressive on his own as well, composing scores for such influential films as Citizen Kane, Cape Fear, and Taxi Driver. He also contributed to the Twilight Zone. His work is incredibly influential and has enriched our viewing experiences in so many ways.

If you want to watch something a bit different and expand your Hitchcock palate, I would absolutely recommend The Trouble With Harry. I’m not going to lie, it’s very strange, but you might just enjoy it. However, if someone could please explain to me the deal with the closet door opening by itself over and over again, I’d really appreciate it.

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