Grade: B-Trouble with Harry, The (1955)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Stars: John Forsythe, Shirley MacLaine, Edmund Gwenn, Mildred Natwick

Release Company: Paramount Pictures

MPAA Rating: PG

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Hitchcock: The Trouble with Harry


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During his lifetime, Alfred Hitchcock was frequently criticized for remaining in the same genre. Imagine that--the Master of Suspense being downgraded for making "only" suspense thrillers. Actually, Hitchcock was quite adept at crossing genres, creating remarkably sexy sequences in thrillers like Notorious and North by Northwest, and he even ventured into romantic comedy. Sandwiched between more widely viewed Hitchcock vehicles To Catch a Thief and The Man Who Knew Too Much and released the same year that Hitch began his wildly popular television series, The Trouble With Harry is essentially a light-hearted and highly entertaining romantic comedy.

It still has the Hitchcock touch--a dark comedy using a dead body as the central MacGuffin and elements of suspense developing in the final reel. Part of the reason that the film is rarely screened is that it's so different from Hitch's other features that most don't see The Trouble With Harry as representative of the Master's work. Even back in 1955, distributors couldn't figure how to market the film.

Adapting Jack Trevor Story's British novel, the understated dark humor certainly suits Hitchcock's temperament. Opening with stunning New England Autumn landscapes highlighted by golden leaved splendor, three gunshots are gunshots heard on a sunny afternoon. A small boy comes upon a body and runs off, followed by a grizzled old rabbit hunter (Edmund Gwenn as Capt. Albert Wiles), who nonchalantly muses about what to do with the body; the dead man is a stranger and not likely to be missed by the locals. As he begins to drag off the body, spinster Ivy Gravely (Mildred Natwick) matter of factly queries, "What seems to be the trouble, Captain?" It seems no one is phased by the dead body, including Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine in her feature debut) who actually seems to know Harry.

These understated responses are precisely what appealed to Hitchcock, as he explained to Truffaut:

"I've always been interested in establishing a contrast, in going against the traditional and in breaking away from clichés. With Harry I took melodrama out of the pitch-black night and brought it out in the sunshine. It's as if I had set up a murder alongside a rustling brook and spilled a drop of blood in the clear water."

With the body exposed to plain view on a clear day, it's soon apparent that Harry's corpse serves primarily as a plot device to help two potential couples eventually get together--an older pair with Miss Gravely and the Captain while Rogers is destined to hook up with Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), the village's eccentric artist. He expects the local shop owner to sell his paintings alongside her cider stand, yet completely ignores an interested wealthy buyer the first time he approaches. Marlowe serves as the energetic idea generator necessary to make the easy going townsfolk take action, even if its unnecessary and wasted. And this is the case with Harry, who is buried and unburied four times during the narrative.

Just as soon as his body is covered over, one of the characters decides that it would be better to dig him up. Not that it would matter--the town's sheriff can't even locate a freshly dug grave when looking at it. But that's all part of the fun with the surreal comedy that often plays like a Samuel Beckett creation.

Of course, the Master can't resist creating suspense towards the end--and a good thing since the acting is so stagy that it could be off-putting to many viewers. Just how will the four complicit comrades deal with the sheriff when he discovers Harry's dead body has been sighted? He's got Harry's shoes and Marlowe's portrait in evidence, but the suspense only propels the story towards the happy resolution.

A more provocative suspenseful angle is achieved through a whisper. When a millionaire finally corners Marlowe to buy his painting masterpieces, Marlowe turns into the town humanitarian by asking for his friends to express a wish--monthly delivery of strawberries, a new cash register, hunting supplies. But for himself, he whispers his desired price to keep us guessing for several minutes. Considering the mentality of the decade, the secret wish shows just what a provocative sexy beast that Hitchcock has always been. The Trouble With Harry will never rank with the Master's greatest works, but the delightful comedy throws additional light on his creative spirit.

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