20 December 2008

The Trouble with Harry (1955)

d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 99 mins.


What's the difference between tragedy and comedy? Charles Chaplin famously said it was the difference of close-up and long-shot. But if you're Alfred Hitchcock, it all has to do with how many times the body gets buried.

The Trouble with Harry is the director's only official Hollywood comedy. (It was also his first collaboration with composer Bernard Herrmann.) Hitchcock had made lighter fare in England while he was honing his skills, and all of his films often have macabre and bawdy humor, but few can be labeled straight up comedy. There's no doubt this is Hitchcockian comedy, though: a group of rural Vermonters find a dead man's body in the woods. Concerned with how any of them might be implicated in the death of the gentleman (but really not concerned with the fact that he's dead), they hatch a few schemes to avoid being investigated by the authorities. The dead man, Harry, gets buried a few times, dug up a few times, hidden in a bathtub, hidden in a closet, and so on and so far. "A nice little pastrole," as Hitchcock called it.

Harry, it turns out, is the now-late husband of a young woman named Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine, in a role Hitchcock wanted for – you guessed it – Grace Kelly), and he wasn't a particularly good man. Because this was the 1950s in Hollywood, his death was accidental, and many of the locals fear they've had something to do with it. A hunter (Edmund Gwenn, in his forth Hitchcock film) thinks he has accidentally shot the man, and a local spinster (Mildred Natwick) thinks she accidentally killed him with her hiking boot. As they seek to rid themselves of the body, they turn to a carefree painter (John Forsythe) to guide them and help them evade the dimwitted police.

Although Hitchcock was a great cinematic experimenter, all of his projects don't merit attention today. (Waltzes from Vienna, for example, that disastrous Hitchcock musical.) The good news is that The Trouble with Harry is both a curious trip outside the director's norm and a generally enjoyable one. It's is not a terrific Hitchcock film and it's not a terrific comedy, but it succeeds where the two overlap.

It's funny, which is important, and the acting is smooth and comfortable. Hitchcock never saw The Trouble with Harry as anything more than a break from his traditional work, which was probably for the best. That casual attitude seems to serve the film well. It's been called underrated, but that implies a certain amount of excellence that isn't entirely present here. It improves on multiple viewings, yes, but after two or three, it hits a ceiling. The screenplay was adapted by John Michael Hayes from a slim novel by Jack Trevor Story, and there's a hefty amount of Hayesian tongue-in-cheek humor. (If Hayes could do anything as a screenwriter, it was writing a good double entrendre). Robert Burks – Hitchcock's A-list cinematographer – turns in another beautifully shot film. Rural Vermont in the autumn perhaps has never looked so gorgeous than here in Technicolor and VistaVision. Hitchcock's wife, Alma, served as editor. But the film's crucial collaboration came about through happenstance. When post-production on To Catch a Thief slowed, composer Lynn Murray recommended his friend Bernard Herrmann to take over.

Hitchcock worked with many of the same crew members from film to film, but unless you've combed through his film's credits or dived into the man's biography, you might only recognize the reappearing faces of his favorite actors: Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, James Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, etc. The one exception is Bernard Herrmann, whose scores are as instantly recognizable as the faces of any of those actors. Today when we think Hitchcock and music, we think Herrmann's work on Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho. His scores gave so much depth to many of Hitchcock's greatest films that it's a shame they didn't come into contact with each other until the mid-1950s. (Coincidentally, they both arrived in Hollywood within only a year of each other.)

Hitchcock biographer Patrick McGilligan notes that Herrmann might have been one of the director's unlikeliest collaborators despite their tremendous success with each other. Both men were egotistical and occasionally moody, but they also both had a mutual comfort with artists they liked and admired. Even after Herrmann and Hitchcock had a bitter falling out in 1966 after a grand clashing of egos, the composer said, "Many directors can make one or two good movies, but how many can make fifty great ones like Hitchcock?"

Yet the same might be said of Herrmann, perhaps Hollywood's greatest composer. Before teaming up with Hitchcock, he had not only won an Oscar for The Devil and Daniel Webster, but composed scores for Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, among others. Strangely enough, The Trouble With Harry has a slight score that doesn't stand out, but these sorts of collaborations have to start somewhere.

I suppose it's a good thing the film has a dead body to keep us otherwise preoccupied.

3 comments:

MovieMan0283 20 December, 2008  

And then later composed his final score for Taxi Driver!

As for Hitchcock & A Trouble With Harry, I've never seen this film, but despite its poor reputation I've wanted to for a while. Why? I think it's simply because every still from it I've seen looks gorgeous. Also, I have some obscure critical book from the 60s which lauds Trouble as one of Hitchcock's fullest, most satisfying works.

MovieMan0283 20 December, 2008  

T.S., you should make your way over to The House Next Door, where some Hitchcock-related controversy is brewing. The first post is here:

http://www.thehousenextdooronline.com/2008/12/understanding-screenwriting-12.html?showComment=1228485240000#c209607229143336768

With a follow-up here:

http://www.thehousenextdooronline.com/2008/12/understanding-screenwriting-13.html

At issue is Hitchcock's direction of actors, which Tom Stempel called "terrible" (attributing all the good performances to Hitchcock's screenwriting collaborators), specifically citing Kim Novak, which started the ball rolling.

Now a commentator has left this turd:

"For all the ridiculous over-thinking about Hitchcock, he's been completely misinterpreted as some kind of artist on the highest level -- when, in fact, he was nothing more than a self-promoting ulta-mainstream filmmaker of glossy thrillers."

Which got me going. Your knowledge and thoughtfulness about the master would be greatly appreciated over there.

NoirishCity.... 20 December, 2008  

Hi! T.S.,
Once again a well written and very
thought provoking writing about Hitchcock's 1955 film "The Trouble With Harry."

A film that I must admit that I have watched Only once!..on the "box" therefore, I must pick up this film on dvd.(Thanks to you, Joel Gunz and author Dan Auiler.)I am beginning to "truly" reexamine all of his (Hitchcock) work on film. Especially, as your
"Retrospective" about Hitch and his film(s) is coming to an end this month.

This is why I printed out yours' and Shawn writings about Hitchcock, in order to read different perspectives about Hitchcock films especially,
as I begin my reexamining of his films.

Btw, Just like author Dan Auiler,
I don't know when my interest in Hitch's film(s) "began" and when my interest in his films will "end" I hope not any time
soon!

Tks,
dcd ;-)

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