Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
Hitchcock felt he deserved a rest. Or at least a change of scenery. He’d been on a nonstop run of thriller pictures (I Confess, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief), and it was time for a new approach. The resulting film, The Trouble With Harry, is a lovely and strange film with a warm black heart, a tale of how the discovery of a dead body in the Vermont woods creates a community and brings two couples together. It’s also significant because it represents perhaps the last time Hitchcock felt he could truly do whatever he wanted.
What do I mean by that? Hitchcock was a famously successful filmmaker; by the decade’s end he would be the most famous film director in the world. Surely there were no limits, no boundaries for Hitchcock.
Except for the limitations he imposed on himself. The Trouble With Harry was a project close to his heart; he loved the Jack Trevor Story novel it was based on and stuck closer to it than most of his adaptations. Hitchcock was hoping that the public might accept something a little different from him. Instead of thrills and suspense, he’d give them a black comedy with a surprising tenderness. There are no chase scenes, no show-stopping sequences, and no technical challenges. There’s not even a murder, not really. Screenwriter John Michael Hayes and the studio pressured Hitch to add more suspense, but Hitch was immovable. He even cast virtual unknowns in the lead roles, relying entirely on his name to sell the picture. He was sure that people would warm to his macabre comedy.
But they didn’t. The film was a box office failure, although Hitchcock would proudly point out that it played for years in Europe. It convinced him that people simply couldn’t accept a movie from him that didn’t have his trademark thrills. It’s a shame, because he shows a truly adept, light touch here.
Hitchcock had directed comedies before, although mainly in the silent era when he was finding his voice (The Farmer’s Wife) or as a favor to Carole Lombard (Mr. & Mrs. Smith). Yet all of his films contain comedic moments; at their best, films like The 39 Steps, Rear Window, or North by Northwest have multiple belly laughs.
But isolated against the rest of Hitchcock’s 1950s work, a period of his greatest sustained artistic triumphs, The Trouble With Harry is an anomaly. There’s no driving chase to propel the story; instead Hitchcock is relying on plot and character, something he rarely did. Tthe film is a well-constructed narrative machine as each new person in the story reveals why they might have killed “Harry,” resulting in the corpse being buried and dug up countless times. That sustained nonchalance is the most humorous thing about the film, perfectly illustrated when Edmund Gwenn, playing a retired sea captain, thinks he has shot & killed Harry by mistake. As Gwenn drags him into the bushes, Mildred Natwick, the town spinster, wanders by and asks matter-of-factly, “ What seems to be the trouble, Captain?”
It’s a very British type of music but it transplants perfectly to a small town in Vermont. The film exists in a kind of moral amorality. The characters are concerned about how things will look and doing the right thing, except when it comes to a literal dead body in their midst. It’s a calculated subversion of the normal roles of filmmaking; at one point Sam tells the local sheriff to “let me know if there’s anything I can do to make [your job] harder for you.” All of our amoral protagonists are charming, charismatic, and fun to be around; the lone voice of authority who does everything right in trying to solve a murder, is played as a clumsy backwoods hick with sinister motives. The discovery and disposal of a dead body is played like a romantic comedy. No wonder the public didn’t know what to make of it.
As much as Hitchcock might come across as imperious and implacable in interviews, it seems like he truly cared about the film becoming a hit. He was disappointed by the film’s reception and went so far as to say that he’d realized what the public wanted from him: a thriller with big stars and suspense. It’s sad to imagine him feeling painted into this corner, when the truth is that he had the power and clout to make any film he wanted. But like many artists, he secretly craved public acceptance and was disappointed when he didn’t get it.
Yet Hitchcock also craved a break and it made a wonderful change of pace. The location shooting in Vermont provided a respite from the hustle of Hollywood, although inclement weather meant that much of the film had to be completed back on soundstages. Much is made of Hitchcock’s industriousness is packaging up boxes of leaves from Vermont to staple to the trees on his soundstage; what’s even more brilliant is that in this outdoor scenes shot indoors, the leaves on the trees are still visibly moving. Whether through a fan or prop men shaking the trees, Hitchcock found a way to bring some reality to these scenes.
Obviously box office isn’t the best way to measure a film’s worth. By any other metric, The Trouble With Harry is a huge success. The cinematography by longtime Hitchcock camera Robert Burks is exquisite. It launched the career of Shirley MacLaine, literally a theatrical understudy with no credits to her name. It brought theater actor John Forsythe to prominence, and gave a major young to young Jerry Mathers (who achieve stardom two years later in the title role of Leave it to Beaver). It gave a leading role to legendary film actress Mildred Natwick beyond her usual character roles and gave Edmund Gwenn a career-capping triumph (he would die four years later). Mostly importantly it marked the beginning of Hitchcock’s association with Bernard Hermann.
Many directors & composers have longer careers working together, but it was rare for this kind of collaboration to exist in the studio era. Directors often had to accept whoever was available at the studio and had little to no control over when and where music would be used.
But Alfred Hitchcock in 1955 had enough clout to hire whoever he wanted. The brilliant yet combative Hermann may have seemed like a strange choice for the quiet yet equally stubborn Hitchcock, yet the two men hit it off instantly.
Hermann would compose the music for just seven Hitchcock films: The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and Marnie as well as working on the TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents and consulting on The Birds (which had no music, only a type of electronic score created from the sounds of bird calls). Three of these rank as some of the greatest film scores ever created: the brooding hypnosis of Vertigo, the propulsive excitement of North by Northwest, and the horror film intensity of Psycho. The other four are equally diverse and exceptional, and I’d argue that The Trouble With Harry ranks with Hermann’s best work.
Hermann deftly creates leitmotifs for each character and situation throughout the film while also establishing a light tone that supports but doesn’t comment on the comedy. There aren’t trombone notes or big obvious punctuations to jokes, as in many Hollywood comedies. His score remains light and pop-influenced enough to carry along the romance, balanced against moments of bombast when the body is revealed. It’s breezy enough for a comedy but subtle enough to underscore the delicate moments of the film.
And The Trouble With Harry is a film made up of small details and charm; the way Edmund Gwenn casually leans on the breasts of the female figurehead in his house, Shirley MacLaine flopping down on the sofa, John Forsythe’s jaunty rendition of “Flaggin’ the Train to Tuscaloosa” (which was a source of endless amusement for me and my friend Steve in college), or Forsythe and the shopkeeper banding together to make over Mildred Natwick for her date with Edmund Gwen.
Let’s talk about Mildred Natwick for a moment. A brilliant actress, she played mainly on stage for the first part of her career until she started popping up in small roles for John Ford (Hitchcock was an admirer of Ford and quite possibly saw her in a film like The Quiet Man). Natwick would go on to be nominated for multiple Tonys, play Jane Fonda’s mother in Barefoot in the Park, win an Emmy for her role in The Snoop Sisters, and appear in the 1988 Dangerous Liasons. Think of her as a kind of American Maggie Smith.
However, Natwick wasn’t a conventional beauty which relegated her to character roles. To illustrate the kind of raw deal that Mildred Natwick and actresses like her got (and still get) in Hollywood, let’s look at the age of her romantic interest in this film. At the time of filming, Natwick was 47, while Gwenn was 78. Make no mistake; Edmund Gwenn was a terrific, versatile character actor who could play charming (Miracle on 34th St) and menacing (Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent) and everything in between. But 31 years age difference? Damn. Still, Natwick takes what could be a potentially thankless spinster role and turns it into comic gold. As good as MacLaine and Forsythe are, I’d gladly watch a film with just Natwick & Gwenn, especially when Natwick, telling how Harry swore at her before she hit him with her shoe, describes his swearing as “horrible, masculine sounds.” Great writing and great delivery.
It’s also among the sweetest Hitchcock films, which is a bizarre thing to say about a movie centered around a dead body. While Hitch may borrow some of the black comic tone of British comedies, the sweetness is all Hollywood. At one point, a literal deus ex machina drives into town, a millionaire with his own art critic who thinks that Forsythe’s abstract paintings (which had previously existed only as a source of comedy) are brilliant, and he wants to buy all of them. It’s a tongue-in-cheek moment that gets even sillier when Sam turns down riches in favor of simple requests for his new friends (a box of strawberries each month, a new cash register, and “a double bed” for him and Shirley MacLaine). It’s an odd moment that unites everyone as a family, none of them obsessed with material wealth, just eager to find happiness. Now if they could just get rid of this dead body.
When I started Hitchcock 52, my goal was to recharge my writing batteries (to use a favorite Hitchcock phrase). My hope was that it would get me thinking and writing critically again, something I hadn’t done in years. Maybe I could parlay this into some kind of writing job when I was done.
Well, it did get me thinking again. And while I still love writing and thinking about work from a critical point of view, I’m not sure that’s the endgame anymore.
Spending days, weeks, months, and eventually an entire years watching Hitchcock’s work has changed me. So has trying to dig deep into my own conceptions of film and art.
And it’s led to this: I think I want to try to make a film. Observing the minutiae of Hitchcock, thinking about how he works and what I like about him has stirred it up inside me again.
I don’t know what my film will be, although I have lots of ideas. I just know that I feel like I never truly gave it my shot, and that’s not good enough for me anymore. Stay tuned.
The Trouble With Harry is not streaming on any services. It’s available to rent on iTunes or Amazon, or is available from your friendly local library.