Alfred Hitchcock Reveals “The Trouble with Harry”

15 12 2010

“It’s taken from a British novel by Jack Trevor Story and I didn’t change it very much. To my taste, the humor is quite rich.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Released in October 1955, “The Trouble with Harry” is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s little gems: a black comedy set in autumnal New England that’s also a murder mystery and a romance.

After a credits sequence featuring artwork by New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg, we are treated to a series of breathtaking views of Vermont’s hillsides, brightly colored with autumn leaves. A small boy (Jerry Mathers) marches through the woods, toy raygun in hand. And then, he stops. Before him on the trail is the dead body of a man in a gray suit, his feet pointing toward the heavens. The boy, Arnie, goes running for his mother, but the body is not alone for long. Moments later, the parade continues, as Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), who had been hunting rabbits, finds the body, too. Wiles decides that he must have accidentally shot the man, but before he can move the body, more people wander by: a doctor so absorbed in his reading that he doesn’t even notice the body when he trips over it, a tramp who takes the deceased’s shoes, as well as a woman, Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick), who talks to Wiles about the situation.

Wiles decides to bury the body and not alert the authorities – it was an accident, after all – but before he can do anything, little Arnie comes back with his mother, Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine). She recognizes the body as Harry, her estranged husband. What’s more, she’s glad to see him dead.

Finally, Wiles hides the body and gets a local artist, Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), to help him bury the body. Later that day, though, Wiles discovers that he did indeed kill a rabbit, which means that he couldn’t have killed Harry. He convinces Sam to help him dig up the body again, and so begins a strange odyssey in which Harry is buried and dug up again several times over the course of the day. Along the way, Gravely admits that she might have killed Harry. Rogers, too, could have been the killer, although it seems unlikely. After burying and disinterring the body over and over, the local deputy sheriff learns that something is going on. Marlowe throws him off the trail, but after learning from the doctor that Harry died from a heart attack, the group decide they must redeposit the body where they found it so that the deputy can find it on his own. With Harry above ground and definitely dead, Rogers is free to marry Marlowe; Wiles and Gravely, too, seem ready to become a couple.

The cast of “The Trouble with Harry” is filled with New England eccentrics, like Mrs. Wiggs, a local shopkeeper who tries to sell Marlowe’s paintings. Taciturn and unsmiling, she doles out sharp comments in her cluttered store. Miss Gravely is oddly vain about her age; Wiles has built himself up as an adventurer when he was only a tugboat captain, and Marlowe reserves the right to not sell his paintings to people he doesn’t like, even though he has no money. Shirley MacLaine, in her first film role, portrays Rogers as a forthright young woman who is thrilled that her troublesome husband is dead; when asked why she hit him over the head with a milk bottle, she repeatedly refuses to answer, saying that’s between her and her late husband.

There’s a bawdy streak to the movie, too, from Marlowe and Wiles’s conversation about Gravely, with Marlowe saying “no man has crossed her threshold before” and Wiles answering, “Someone’s got to be first.” There’s also a great deal of giggling when we learn that, in exchange for his paintings, Marlowe declined money but asked instead for a double bed. And of course, there’s the well-known line MacLaine delivers after Rogers and Marlowe kiss: “Lightly, Sam. I have a very short fuse.” Ahem.

The cast is a delight, helping to keep things light despite a murder and the chance that someone – or all of them – might be arrested. Forsythe is full of brash energy whether he’s teasing the local spinster, haggling with an art collector or trading quips with MacLaine, who gives as good as she gets. (Hitchcock would always say he discovered MacLaine.) Gwenn has fun with his role, too, letting his sea captain spin ever more ridiculous yarns of Turks running amok with machetes and so forth. This was Gwenn’s last film role with Hitchcock; he was 78 at the time.

“The Trouble with Harry” bears more than a passing resemblance to Shakespearean comedies like “Twelfth Night,” with its bucolic setting, its endless coincidences (really, how can so many people stumble upon that body?), a clueless authority figure, and, of course, romantic pairings. About half the movie was shot on location in Vermont, but bad weather made it necessary to relocate to the Paramount backlot. Before leaving Vermont, Hitch had the crew box up an enormous number of fallen leaves, which were then spray painted and pinned to trees on the new sets. The location shooting may be the most beautiful Hitchcock had filmed since “The Manxman,” shot on the Isle of Man.

Through the 1950s, Hitchcock had built a crew of trusted associates who served him well on “The Trouble with Harry,” including Associate Producer and Second Unit Director Herbert Coleman, who scouted the locations for this film, and cinematographer Robert Burk, who captured the blazing color of the fall foliage. Screenwriter John Michael Hayes, on his third consecutive movie with Hitch, drew on his own New England upbringing to replicate the cadences of the locals, keeping the script lively, fun and fast paced.

Most important, this film featured a score by composer Bernard Herrmann, who would work with Hitchcock on seven more films in the next ten years. Here, the score is bright and playful, emphasizing the farcical feel of the plot; at times, it even seems to propel the action, using plucked strings to echo the characters’ steps as though they were in a cartoon. In his best work with Hitchcock, Herrmann’s scores would enhance the story, setting the tone and pointing to important plot points.

Hitchcock also continues to edge closer to featuring an original pop song in this movie, with the song “Flaggin’ the Train to Tuscaloosa,” written by the great jazz composer and inventor Raymond Scott, whose songs were often heard in 1940s Warner Bros. cartoons. As in “Rear Window,” the new song is not heard in a fully orchestrated and performed rendition; here, it’s sung informally by Sam Marlowe as he wanders around the town. This would change in Hitchcock’s next film, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” when Doris Day sings “Que Sera Sera.”

“The Trouble with Harry” was not a hit on release; it was too dark for American audiences, although it fared better in Europe. However, its tone helped set the stage for Hitchcock’s new venture into TV, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” which made its debut one day before “The Trouble with Harry” opened. Although AHP was often suspenseful and frightening, the introductions by Hitchcock featured the same kind of gallows humor as “The Trouble with Harry.” (Incidentally, Hitch makes his cameo in this movie at about the twenty-two minute mark, wandering by as the wealthy collector examines Marlowe’s paintings.)

Next, Hitchcock remakes his 1934 suspense film “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” starring James Stewart and Doris Day.

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5 responses

16 12 2010
Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci

I very much enjoyed your write-up of THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY! This darkly funny little gem is one of my favorite Hitchcock films, from the opening credits (which I’ll admit I initially thought James Thurber had done. Guess my admiration for Thurber threw me off temporarily! :-)) to the piquant final frame. Your comparison of …HARRY to Shakespearean comedies is apt indeed. Anyone know if there’s a soundtrack of Bernard Herrmann’s score available?

20 12 2010
Alfred Hitchcock Presents “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” « Hitchcock and Me

[…] vehicle for self promotion premiered on October 2, 1955 – just one day before the premier of “The Trouble with Harry.” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” was more than just a hit. It carried Hitchcock into a new […]

16 02 2011
“The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” Makes Its Debut « Hitchcock and Me

[…] nicely, as a good courtroom drama usually will. Forsythe, whom Hitchcock had directed before in “The Trouble with Harry,” makes a sympathetic protagonist. All through the episode, the viewer has to assume that he […]

23 02 2011
Barbara

I enjoyed this movie, thought it was funny the first time I watched it. Lots of good acting in it and Hitchcock didn’t employ the usual “blonde” in the role of Jennifer. I guess that role wasn’t the blonde type. Shirley McClain was great. She just couldn’t seem to get rid of Harry. Loved it.

27 02 2011
adamphilips

Thanks for the comment! McClaine was great indeed – no wonder she became such a big star. I think the whole business about Hitchcock being obsessed with blonds is overdone, really. The only female stars he made three movies with were Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman, and one of them was not blonde.

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