Reviews & Commentary

The Trouble with Harry (1955)

Jack Trevor Story (novel), John Michael Hayes (screenplay)
Alfred Hitchcock
Edmund Gwenn, John Forsythe, Shirley MacLaine, Mildred Natwick, Mildred Dunnock, Jerry Mathers, Royal Dano
Bernard Hermann

The trouble with Harry, not to put too fine a point on it, is that he’s dead. And not only is he dead, he was inconsiderate enough to leave his body lying around, causing no end of problems for the living. 

Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) thinks he accidentally shot Harry while rabbit hunting, Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick) thinks she killed him with a hiking boot, and Harry is found and hidden, buried and unburied, more times than anyone cares to remember. Captain Wiles, Miss Gravely, artist Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), and Harry’s estranged wife, Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine), try to figure out who exactly killed Harry, what to do with his troublesome body, and how to keep Deputy Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano) in the dark. Meanwhile, love blossoms between Sam and Jennifer and between Captain Wiles and Miss Gravely, and a millionaire art collector (Parker Fennelly) becomes interested in Sam’s work.

A lot of Alfred Hitchcock’s films have an undercurrent of dark humour, but The Trouble with Harry is one of his few pure comedies. As you’d expect, he approaches comedy from an unexpected angle, mining humour from well-drawn characters and their idiosyncratic reactions to Harry’s death. There’s something Weekend at Bernie’s-esque about all these people lugging around Harry’s body, which is used more as a prop than anything else; it’s a troublesome dummy (though played by a real man, Philip Truex) more than it is a corpse.

Whenever I feel like watching a movie but can’t decide which one, I tend to go with The Trouble with Harry; I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the film I’ve seen most times. There’s a sweetness to the film; watching it never fails to make me smile. It is grounded in characters and situations rather than in a plot; John Michael Hayes’ screenplay takes some well-defined characters, drops a body in among them, and sees what happens. The film, and Hitchcock, loves the characters and their comical exasperation with the trouble Harry’s body causes. A lot of the film’s humour comes from the matter-of-fact way the living treat Harry’s body. Hitchcock, as always, is more interested in film-making than he is in mundane reality, and proves once again that there’s a vast difference between believability and realism; the characters’ behaviour is perhaps not realistic in the strictest sense, but because Hitchcock is a good director and because Hayes is a good writer, the characters are believable and they do follow a logic internal to themselves.

This is helped along in no small part by the actors, who not only have a sense of comedic timing but are also able to make the characters believable. Edmund Gwenn’s Captain Wiles is a sweet old man, who’s melancholy nostalgia for a youth he never had is broken through by the reserved Miss Gravely, played by Mildred Natwick as a woman bewildered by the chance for love she thought had passed her by. John Forsythe as Sam is a charming leading man with a streak of mischief, bordering on anarchy, in him. Shirley MacLaine walks a very tricky tightrope, playing Jennifer; she balances just on the right side of the line between quirky and annoying, helped in no small part by Leave It to Beaver‘s Jerry Mathers as her son, Arnie, whose idiosyncrasies finally prove key to solving the titular troubles.

The Trouble with Harry is one of Hitchcock’s most underrated films, and proof that he could have had a career as a director of quirky black comedies if he’d wanted to. It’s also his first collaboration with Bernard Hermann, whose score cements his place as one of the première film composers of all time.

Written by Kalle on Wednesday September 9, 2009
Permalink - Category: Film - Tags: 1950s, comedy, alfred-hitchcock

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