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.