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With all humor, you either get the "joke" or you don't. If you don't,
no amount of explaining can change your mind. If you do, the details
are endlessly enjoyable.
Part of the joke that's "The Trouble With Harry" is that "nothing happens." Hitchcock's "anti-Hitchcock" film defies expectations for action, shock, mayhem, suspense, spectacular climaxes on national monuments, etc. Instead, it's a New England cross-stitch of lovingly detailed writing, acting, photography, directing and editing.
Saul Steinberg's title illustration tells you exactly what you're in for. One long pan of a child's drawing of birds and trees . . . ending with a corpse stretched out on the ground as "Directed by Alfred Hitchcock" briefly appears.
So meticulously is "The Trouble With Harry" conceived, the only two images in the title art that are NOT trees, plants or birds are a house with a rocking chair on its porch and that corpse. The film literally plays in reverse of the title sequence -- from little Arnie's (Jerry Mathers, pre-Beaver. The boy who drew the titles?) discovery of the corpse, back to the home with the rocking chair, as Hitchcock's final "joke" puts the audience safely to bed. A double bed, in this case.
What's the film about? Oh, Great Big Themes like Life and Death, Youth and Age, Love and Hate, Guilt and Innocence, Truth and Lies, Art and Pragmatism -- packaged with deceptive simplicity.
The "hero," Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), is an artist. The man the "child" who drew the titles (Arnie, or someone like him) might have become. His name is an amalgamation of two of hard-boiled fiction's greatest detectives: Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Indeed, Sam Marlowe functions here as a "sort of" detective. But enough of pointing out the detailed construction of this script and film: repeated viewings yield far greater pleasures.
"Introducing Shirley MacLaine" in her first screen role threw that enduring actress into an astounding mix of old pros: Edmund Gwenn, Mildred Dunnock, Mildred Natwick and Forsythe. That MacLaine held the screen then, and still does 50 years later (name another major actor who can say that), validates Hitchcock's astute casting.
In fact, TTWH is a tribute to cinematic "acting" as much as anything else. These are among the finest performances ever captured of these terrific actors. Since there are none of the expected "spectacular" Hitchcock sequences, nor his nail-biting tension, all that's left is for the actors to fully inhabit their characters.
That they do with brilliance, efficiency and breathtaking comic timing. No pratfalls here. Just nuances.
Edmund Gwenn and Mildred Natwick are the real stars. Had Hitchcock said so, the film would never have been produced. Their scenes (they receive as much if not more screen time together than Forsythe and MacLaine) are possibly the most delightful (and yes, romantically and sexually tense) ever filmed of courtship in middle-and-old age. Perfectly realized in every intonation and gesture. Occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.
Theirs is paralleled by the courtship of the younger "stars," Forsythe and MacLaine. "Love" at both ends of life, young and old, and love's wonderful humor and mysterious redemption, even in the face of death -- that inconvenient corpse on the hill.
Perhaps the most surprising and powerful undertow in "The Trouble With Harry" (one hesitates to name it because it's handled so delicately) is Sex.
It is only barely present in the lines given the characters, but the subtext is always there. Occasionally, it boils over into an infinitely subtle burlesque, as in the exchange between Gwenn and Forsythe about crossing Miss Gravely's (get that name?) "threshold" for the first time.
The look in Gwenn's eyes and the repressed joy and romantic hope in his face -- even at his stage of life -- is bliss.
The coffee cup and saucer "for a man's fingers;" the ribbon for Miss Gravely's newly-cut hair (Wiggy cuts it in the general store -- Mildred Dunnock in another unbelievably subtle performance -- muttering, "Well, I guess it will grow back."); Arnie's dead rabbit and live frog; the constantly shifting implications of guilt in the death of "Harry" up there on the hill; the characters' struggles to regain innocence by "doing the right thing"; the closet door that swings open for no apparent reason (never explained); the characters' revelations of the truths about themselves; their wishes granted through Sam's "negotiations" with the millionaire art collector from the "city" -- ALL portrayed within the conservative but ultimately flexible confines of their New England repression and stoicism (yes, the film is also a satiric comment on '50s morality) -- these details and more finally yield a rich tapestry of our common humanity, observed at a particular time and place, through specific people caught in an absurd yet utterly plausible circumstance.
Nothing happens? Only somebody who doesn't know how to look and listen -- REALLY observe, like an artist / creator -- could reach that conclusion about "The Trouble With Harry." Only a genius, like Hitchcock, would have the audacity to pull the rug out from under his audience's expectations at the height of his career by offering a profoundly subtle morality play in the guise of a slightly macabre Hallmark Card.
When the final "revelation" arrives, in the last line that takes us home to the marital bed where love culminates and all human life begins -- yours and mine -- and draws from us a happy smile of recognition, so Hitchcock's greatest secret is revealed, more blatantly in this than any of his films.
"Life and death -- and all of it in between -- are a joke! Don't you get it?" It's there in all his pictures. Nowhere more lovingly and less showily presented than in "The Trouble With Harry." Thank you, Hitch.
The Trouble With Harry is a comedy film about a dead body. Alfred
Hitchcock makes the macabre concept deliciously funny and entertaining
in his unique style. Helping Hitchcock to turn this unlikeliest of
premises into an enjoyable film are Bernard Herrmann (providing
fabulous music scoring), and a cast of winning actors who judge to
perfection how far to push their tongues into their cheeks.
A dead body turns up on a patch of grass near the top of a wooded New England hill. Various people have reason to believe that they're responsible for the man's death. Septugenarian ex-sea captain Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) is worried that he might have accidentally shot the man while hunting for rabbits. Old spinster Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick) fears that when she whacked the man over the head with her shoe, she may have done more damage than she intended. And single mother Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine) has even greater cause to feel responsible, for she is the dead man's wife. During an argument, she smashed a bottle over his head and is now almost sure that he died as a result. Local artist Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) decides to help his neighbours to cover up the crime, but after burying and digging up the corpse several times, the truth behind "Harry's" death is finally revealed.
No Hitchcock film divides viewers more than this one. Some consider the film a masterpiece of understated black comedy; others deem it a plot less, pointless time-waster. The film was a fairly massive box office flop at the time (audiences obviously felt from the movie poster that they were going to see a murder mystery, and were disappointed to actually find themselves experiencing a bizarre, off-kilter black comedy). In retrospect, I'd say The Trouble With Harry is a great film that was probably a good two decades ahead of its time. The performances are wonderfully outrageous, especially the elders (Gwenn and Natwick) who give perceptive comic turns that actors nowadays just don't seem to have the range to do. Forsythe and MacLaine are delightful too (the latter in her movie debut), and Royal Dano rounds off the cast as a gullible cop who nearly finds out that the other four have been up to no good. There's no doubt that The Trouble With Harry is an acquired taste; but if this taste is to your liking then you're in for a delectable treat!
I've been a big fan of Hitchcock as long as I can remember, but I only had the opportunity to see The Trouble with Harry recently. I never knew the film was a comedy before I began watching, so you can imagine my surprise when one innocent character after the next stumbled upon a brutally murdered corpse and react in the very least expected ways possible. It was almost as surpring, however, when I read the comments on IMDb and realized that a large portion of Hitchcock's audience simply didn't "get it". Of course the character's are not reacting the way real people would in these circumstances! How many of Hitch's characters actually would? The Trouble with Harry is Hitchcock's own jab at himself, at the entire suspense film genre, and a wonderfully inspired satire on the implications of desensitization. The film is not that simple though, for even in addressing these objectives Hitch tantalizingly avoids any answers or definitive statements. Its a difficult film to describe, but definitely worth seeing as it confirms Hitchcock's dual mastery of comedy and suspense. Watch it for the social commentary, the sleepy New England setting, but above all else, for the blissful irony that fills its every crevace. It is the kind of irony that makes shows like Family Guy so popular today. A wonderfully surpring film in every way!
One thing I really admire about Hitchcock was that he was willing to experiment, and wasn't content to make the same movie over and over. This meant that he sometimes made movies that puzzled his audiences, and several of them were out and out flops. But the passage of time has been kind to many of these movies which can be enjoyed for what they are, not what the audience WANTED them to be. 'The Trouble With Harry' is a great example. Many of Hitchcock's movies have humour in them, but an actual comedy was a bit left field for him. And not just any kind of comedy, a very black one. Humour is very subjective, but I found this movie to very clever and a lot of fun. It gets off to a bit of a shaky start with John Forsythe's character coming out with some unfunny lines and bits of business, but once the story kicks in and the characters played by Edmund Gwenn and Mildred Natwick are introduced, the movie becomes very amusing. Forsythe is technically the star of the movie, and Shirley MacLaine (in her movie debut) the leading lady, but Natwick, and especially Gwenn, steal the picture, and to me have the best lines. Edmund Gwenn was also in the underrated 1950s monster movie 'Them!', and I'm really fond of him. I also get a kick out of Royal Dano who plays the sheriff. Dano was a very interesting character actor who was in everything from 'Moby Dick' to 'Drum' to 'Killer Klowns From Outer Space'. To be totally honest 'The Trouble With Harry' wouldn't make it into my Top Ten Hitchcock movies, but that is only because he made so many great ones, and it's tough to choose, not because this is poor movie. If you want an edge of your seat thriller then maybe this isn't for you, but if you thought Hitch's droll introductions on his TV show were entertaining, then you should check this one out, as it's cut from the same cloth.
This movie is fantastic. I don't think anyone except Hitchcock could have made such humour out of a dead body. Shirley MacLaine (in her first role) is delightful and Edmond Gwenn perfect. You'll see a young Jerry Mathers pre-dating Leave it to Beaver by a few years. Don't miss this little gem, it's as funny today as it was in 1955 and I suspect for a long time to come.
This is a real change-of-pace from Hitchcock, and some of his most devoted
fans do not really enjoy "The Trouble With Harry", but it is quite
entertaining if you appreciate Hitchcock's subtle British sense of humor.
There are funnier black comedies, but this one holds up pretty well, and has
a number of things going for it.
'Harry' appears only as a dead body, discovered at the beginning of the film in a clearing outside a picturesque New England town. More than one of the residents feels responsible for Harry's death - so, just by being there, Harry sets off a lengthy chain of events in the lives of several persons in the town. There are no tremendous laughs, but a lot of good low-key wit, much of it having to do what the situation brings out about the various characters' perspectives on themselves and others. The cast is pretty good, and the scenery is beautiful, some of the best in any Hitchcock film.
There is not the action or suspense in this one that most fans associate with Hitchcock. But if you appreciate Hitchcock's sense of humor - for example, the kinds of subtly ghoulish remarks that he used to make on his television shows - give it a try.
This film is a deviation from Hitchcock's normal subjects. Sure, there is
murder and intrigue, yet somehow a strange comical effect.
The trouble with Harry is black comedy at its finest. Nobody but good old Sir Alfred could make a mockery of a dead body lying in the woods. But Hitchcock revels in the role, displaying wit and character to a timeless film. He's done it again!
When I read the box at the video store, I thought it sounded a little silly,
but since it was directed buy Hitchcock, I decided to give it a try. I was
glad I did!
This film does a good job at showing what life is like (in a twisted way) in a small American town. Of course the whole thing is a black comedy about a corpse, but it's great fun, and suspenseful too, especially when Calvin is in the room, questioning everybody. I didn't understand why the door kept opening, but maybe it was just a joke - normally the door would signal a killer entering or something like that - but the door is never any cause for alarm.
All the actors are good, especially Gwenn, and Mrs. Gravely was so endearing. Don't ignore this lesser known Hitchcock movie. It's a treat to watch and is genuinely funny.
Everyone who had something to do with Harry just can't figure out if he should stay buried or dig him up. From there, Hitchcock's black comedy brings about tension and giggles. Seems that everyone had a reason for wanting Harry out of the picture, only trouble is, Harry is more trouble dead than alive. A light film for Hitchcock, but it does contain the transference of guilt theme, and the guilt bounces all over our main players. A small gem of a film that often gets overlooked, watch this one and you'll be charmed by the trouble that Harry causes.
The Trouble with Harry could well be one of the funniest films I have ever
seen. It's a case of Alfred Hitchcock successfully parodying himself, while
in the meantime offering some memorable cinematic moments.
Perhaps the most memorable is the screen debut of Shirley MacLaine, who is extremely cute and animated and fun to watch. It's easy to see why Hollywood fell in love with the elfin elder sister of Warren Beatty. Her performance betrays her inexperience in front of the camera, but you'll be too busy watching her facial expressions to care.
The rest of the cast is also excellent, with the actor who plays the captain deserving special recognition for his calm and cool demeanor throughout.
As far as the script goes, I think David Lynch must have had Trouble with Harry in mind as one of the inspirations for Twin Peaks. The dialogue is hilarious, with non-sequitors coming out of nowhere, as well as one-liners that will have you backing up the DVD/video saying "did I really hear that?" For one thing, the film is surprisingly risque for 1955 -- there's a boob joke involving a statue that could easily fit into an Austin Powers movie, and a pre-Beaver Jerry Mathers gets some of the film's biggest laughs with some perfect comic timing.
It's a mystery to me why this film bombed in its initial release. True, it's leisurely paced in comparison to other Hitchcock films, and there are no scary moments to be found. Instead, this is a film that is fun to watch, and provides laughs at the most unexpected places. Highly recommended.
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