The Trouble with Harry (1955)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

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By Roderick Heath

A children’s skipping rhyme from the same corner of London where Alfred Hitchcock was born:

Jack the Ripper’s dead
And lying in his bed
He cut his throat with Sunlight soap
Jack the Ripper’s dead.

To me, that’s Hitchcock’s background and sensibility in a nutshell—the alternations of awful violence with casual humor, childish wit, bloodlust and surrealism mixed into a deft doggerel.

The Trouble With Harry is Hitchcock’s breeziest, yet also his most esoteric film, the closest he came to bringing his native love of black comedy to the screen. The film is easy to forget amidst the near miraculous run of his mid 50s films (six films in three years), busy as it is alchemising the intrinsic angst that’s so iron-grey in I Confess (1953) and The Wrong Man (1956) into a morbidly comedic counterpoint. In Harry, death is the springboard for a people coming to life. This is, of course, an essential aspect of all his films, but usually fulfilled with an explosion of danger and intrigue, not Shakespearean pastoral romance.

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Beneath its modest exterior, Harry is Hitchcock at his most personal and rigorous. The physical beauty of the film is a wonder to behold, with its lustrous autumnal landscapes and casually perfect framings, and the tone is exactly the sort of casual black joke Hitch loved so dearly, composed of multiplying ironies and sarcasm for social sacred cows. The New Wave film critics who made an icon of Hitchcock always seemed to regard his jester’s humor as an impediment to viewing the inner artist, but in fact it’s impossible to extract, and you wouldn’t want to. But it’s a mistake to call The Trouble With Harry a comedy per se. It only gains a comedic patina with its sly, quietly absurd refrains: the burials and unburials of Harry; the peregrinations of the dreamy, poetry-reading Doctor Greenbow (Dwight Marfield) who keeps tripping over Harry’s corpse and not noticing; and the utter lack of concern anyone has for the dead guy who suddenly complicates their lives.

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The basic, obvious gag of the film is that where sudden death—especially murder—is supposed to be a calamitous moment demanding the forces of justice and social propriety to engage with due solemnity, very often, that’s not how it work. Harry’s death, which three of the main characters think they caused, validates their existence as something more than mere doormats of fate. Timid, middle-aged virgin Ivy Gravely (Mildred Natwick), retired tugboat captain Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), and deadpan, runaway wife Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine) are all escaping something oppressive in the way the world has forced them to inhabit pre-formulated roles. Wiles’ fantasies of being a sea captain who’s travelled the world obscure the humdrum reality of his actual working life. Miss Gravely’s blooming out of the part of repressed, man-fearing spinster commences with a forthright response to a perceived assault. And Jennifer has refused to play anymore in a silly remnant of a patriarchal tradition, happy to be free of the last encumbering representative of it: the hapless Harry, who only married her because his brother, father of her son, died in the war, and then he became strangely, horribly obsessed with her.

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Standing with them and also apart is the film’s tenderly mocking take on the cliché of the heroic, individualist artist, embodied as Sam Marlowe (John Forsyth), a proto-hippy dropout painter who doesn’t give a fig whether anyone likes his paintings as long as he has enough to live on and pursue his vision. His works are the type of nonfigurative scrawls that lead to the inevitable joke of the painting being viewed upside-down; as his loyal storekeeper friend and art dealer Mrs. Wiggs (Mildred Dunnock) puts it, “I don’t understand your work, but I think it’s lovely.” When a rich man (Parker Fennelly) recognises his genius, Marlowe sells everything for only what is vitally important to his friends, including the film’s punchline object, a double bed for him and Shirley to share. He’s a figure of fun with his edge of pomposity and oddball imagination, but the film also hinges on Marlowe’s capacity as a creative visionary to build community: he’s the one who remakes Miss Gravely as a new woman and draws the three “murderers” together into a band of outsiders. Marlowe never sees something as it is, but as it might be.

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The four main characters—five if one counts Jennifer’s toy-gun-toting son Arnie (Jerry “Beaver” Mathers)—each summon a classic Hitchcock figure that’s also a perfect square of types: elderly eccentric fantasist; young eccentric artist; virginal spinster; droll, experienced younger woman; and Puckish, amoral, time-ignorant kid (he literally gets yesterday and tomorrow the wrong way around, a malapropism that eventually serves a deftly clever purpose). There’s an intrinsic link between art, sex, and death, signaled in the opening credits, where a childish drawing reveals sundry, everyday features of the small New England town where the action occurs, and accidentally, felicitously, incidentally offers Harry’s corpse at the conclusion, over which, of course, “Directed by Alfred Hitchcock” appears. It’s Hitchcock delighting in his ghoulish reputation, and claiming his peculiar provenance—the artist of murder.

Arnie, standing over Harry’s very real dead body with his toy gun, is both a jokey admission of the put-on that’s about to take place and a tacit concession to the idea of just how much fantasies of death and killing are part of human nature. From there the film follows with jovial concision this thesis: birth, creativity, death, and around again. As in classical drama, the film’s very structure contains this circular idea, as it describes the arc of a full 24 hours everything is back in place at the conclusion, but only after having been completely rearranged. The very first shot of the film is of the town’s church, traditional crucible for life starting and finishing. As in the Elizabethan pastoral, the characters congregate for a time and without actual reason in the woods where anything can,and does happen. Normal social mores slip away, and life reinvents itself.

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Not that the guilty Catholic Hitch is entirely absent: it’s just that he plays a game here with the nature of guilt. His characters are on the retreat from being anyone until they think they’ve killed Harry. It takes sin (that is, experience) to know life and then discover redemption. Although animated in the lightest of fashions, Wiles and Gravely can only really escape their rut through believing in their guilt; Jennifer can only breathe easily once Harry is dead; and Sam’s life and art only make a breakthrough once he’s committed himself to other people. Present is a curious, contradictory ethic: the living are responsible to each other. The dead body is trouble precisely because it’s an encumbrance apt to cause legal difficulties. But Harry’s passing also liberates and draws together people; his being dead is both the end of one type of responsibility and the beginning of another. Justice looms in the ineffectual form of suspicious hick deputy Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano), who gets a whiff of a possible crime and thinks he has evidence in the sketch Sam has made of Harry’s face.

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Of course no one has actually committed a crime: Harry’s death was natural, though possibly exacerbated by various wallops on the head, and the much ado about nothing finds a gentle conclusion. Harry is a film about and full of small pleasures. The action climax is Sam altering his portrait of Harry and so ruining it as potential evidence, and its most vital moment is when Miss Gravely weighs up a coffee cup she’s considering buying for when she asks Wiles around to her place, a moment of crystallisation so sacrosanct Sam and Mrs. Wiggs fall silent and watch.

Screenwriter John Michael Hayes, who died last November, wrote four superb scripts for Hitchcock in a row at this time, which probably made him Hitchcock’s most reliable of writing collaborators (apart from his wife, Alma Reville), though he’d later disgrace himself with the deadly awful Peyton Place (1957) and Butterfield 8 (1960). Though the story ambles a bit slowly to its conclusion, his crisp dialogue is peppered with double entendres (“Do you realise that you’ll be the first man to…cross her threshold?” Sam asks Wiles when he finds the Captain has a date with Miss Gravely). The cast, even the peculiarly cast Forsyth, as well as MacLaine, delightfully, deftly dry in her screen debut, assay their roles with perfect poise.

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Hitchcock is at his least showy throughout most of the film, but even his minimalism emphasises his mastery when he delivers such humorous and telling framings as when Arnie stands over Harry’s body, his boyish amazement framed by the two vertical shoes of the very dead man, or when the camera pans slightly from a laboring shovel to take in Wiles watching with a content expression, and we realise it’s Miss Gravely digging up the body this time. He lets you see Harry’s face early on, but later deliberately masks and avoids it, as Harry fades further from being any more than just a body, and becomes an abstraction. Otherwise, Hitchcock is perfectly content soaking up the langorous air of New England, the widescreen planes of his landscape absorbing and contrasting raw natural beauty with the tidied geometric forms of farmland divided by rows of trees and fences, emphasising the patterns created by a fecund interaction of mankind and environment. (This stylistic patterning anticipates how he would build a rather more urgent tale of death and nature in The Birds). Harry also claims a very important place in Hitchcock’s oeuvre for the very simple reason that it’s his first film with a score Bernard Herrmann, the composer who seemed, within a couple of movies, to have joined at the hip with Hitch.

Like the Doctor with Harry’s body, Harry’s a film that is always ready to surprise me when I stumble over it. l

  • MovieMan0283 spoke:
    10th/03/2009 to 11:55 pm

    A very intriguing review. I’ve actually been wanting to see this for a while – at least since I picked up an obscure, random “auteur” book by a British film critic from the early 60s at a used bookstore. It rather perversely (but again, intriguingly) calls The Trouble With Harry Hitch’s masterpiece. And I love MacLaine in Some Came Running, so her performance here should be a treat.

  • Rod spoke:
    12th/03/2009 to 9:21 am

    I wouldn’t call it Hitchcock’s masterpiece, but it’s a film that feels very close to his innate sensibility.
    Yeah, MacLaine steals Some Came Running. The less said about Martha Hyer, the better.

  • Dan Sneed spoke:
    5th/04/2010 to 3:36 pm

    I’m a Hitch fanatic and have been for almost 40 years. If I had to make a list of favorite Hitch films Harry would be in the top five. Following To Catch a Thief, which followed Rear Window, it’s another remarkable example of Hitchcock’s incredible cinematic versatility. And what a beautiful, funny and touching film it is, exuding a warmth akin to that generated by Young and Innocent. And of course the perfect pairing of Hitchcock and Herrmann started with this film. It quite simply is a masterpiece from one of the most versatile artists of the 20th Century.

  • Rod spoke:
    5th/04/2010 to 10:08 pm

    Very few directors have ever had such a run of brilliance as Hitchcock had in the mid-to-late’50s, that’s for sure. Who the hell else could claim films as good as Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Wrong Man within a mere three-year period?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/04/2010 to 9:13 am

    Hitch produced brilliant films throughout his career. After reading Hitchcock/Truffaut recently, I was very struck by how clear Hitch’s goals and attitudes to film making were to him. He paid attention to fads only insofar as he could incorporate them into his worldview, not the other way around. CGI, for example, has so many directors by the tail, not the reverse.

  • Rod spoke:
    7th/04/2010 to 12:04 am

    Yeah, that’s a good example, because one of Hitch’s most distinctive traits is the way he never seemed to particularly care whether a special effect was “convincing” in the standard fashion, but whether or not it contributed to the force of his vision. The Birds is the most significant example, but possibly the most relevant is that Dada-esque chase scene in Number Seventeen.

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