The Trouble with Harry
(SPOILERS) Hitch was very partial to this atypical comedy, one he took on over Paramount’s objections (“With Harry I took melodrama out of the pitch-black night and brought it out into the sunshine”). The Trouble with Harry probably represents very few Hitchcock fans’ favourite of his films, so it is conversely a prime contender for “most underrated” lists. I’m not hugely on board with it, I have to admit. It’s enjoyably lightweight (it has that in common with his previous film) but almost painfully self-conscious in its quirkiness. Funny as The Trouble with Harry often is, its trouble is that it’s so aware that it’s Hitch doing outright comedy, it loses a lot of goodwill along the way.
Captain Wiles: Next thing you know, they’ll be televising the whole thing.
Truffaut referred to the picture’s “disconcertingly nonchalance”, and its particular streak of black humour – “To my taste, the humour is quite rich” as Hitch put it – didn’t really wash with US audiences (who had also previously rejected Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace; later, the decidedly more lowbrow Weekend at Bernie’s would prove a big hit based on similarly corpse-based humour).
Jack Trevor Story’s 1949 novel was translocated from England to New England and with it the “understatement” of the characters’ attitudes to something as commonly disturbing as a dead body; here, it elicits abject indifference. Bernard Herrmann’s forebodingly jaunty score – his first for director and the latter’s favourite, apparently – strikes precisely the right tone, and Hitch sets up suspense motifs throughout in much the way he would with a straight thriller. There’s potential discovery with the body, on the hill, digging graves, in a bathtub by the sheriff. But in this case, always to humorous or amenable resolution. There’s even a cupboard door swinging open forebodingly at junctures, but it proves no more than a red herring.
Captain Wiles: I’ll be there with a clean shirt and a hungry face.
The central quartet of potential couples are winning enough, although the female leads come out decidedly best. Shirley MacLaine is entirely adorable – not something you can say of her latterly – in her movie debut as widowed Jennifer (it’s her husband lying on the hillside, his shoes recently removed by a hobo). Mildred Natwick – later Oscar nominated for Barefoot in the Park and fifty playing forty-two – is the lonely spinster fired up by the chance of something with Edmund Gwenn’s tugboat Captain Wiles (Gwenn is reuniting with the director for a final time after a decade and a half break). She’s wonderfully deadpan throughout; witness her matter of fact reporting of how her father met his end “caught in a threshing machine”. Gwenn – a quarter of a century Natwick’s senior – is an endearing old duffer, but sets the low-key tone of the entire affair. It’s all much too amiable and relaxed to ascend to the screwball farce levels of the aforementioned Capra film, even with the back and forth quips and banter from John Forsythe’s Bogart-lite delivery as artist Sam Marlowe.
Captain Wiles: She’s a well-preserved woman.
Sam Marlowe: I envy you.
Captain Wiles: Yes, very well preserved. And preserves have to be opened some day.
The inclusion of more salacious suggestiveness (above) is presumably considered to be of similar tonal innocuousness to the morbid premise. The interaction of the main quartet is breezy enough, but peripheral elements can rather grate. Such as Doctor Greenbow (Dwight Marfield), myopically surfacing at intervals while studiously engaged in bouts of perambulatory book reading. “Kind of strange, isn’t he?” is about right, but forced and irksome is more accurate. Then there’s the out-of-nowhere development of the fantasy millionaire buying all Sam’s artwork and the latter’s fantasy altruism in response.
Arnie: You never know when a dead rabbit might come in handy.
At one point, Wiles announces “I haven’t got a conscience” and generally that seems to sum up Hitch’s cheerfully ambivalent attitude to his characters. This was only the director’s third colour film, and if Robert Burks’ photography of autumnal Vermont is resplendent, Hitch’s frequently Achilles’ heel with his later films – of starkly unforgiving joins between location and set “exteriors” (essentially, most of the hillside sequences) – is fully present and incorrect.
Peter Bradshaw labelled it “radical absurdist cinema”. Which, well, no. When The Trouble with Harry is over, I doubt you’ll be immediately reflecting on it as either radical or absurdist. Determinedly amiable, frothily macabre, lightly lurid. Perhaps.