Skip to main content

He looked exactly the same when he was alive except he was vertical.

The Trouble with Harry
(1955)

(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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.