Movies We Like
The Trouble With Harry
If it’s not Alfred Hitchcock’s most underrated film, than The Trouble With Harry is certainly his most unusual opus. In 1955, Hitch was in the midst of his unprecedented commercial and artistic hot streak; from '51 to '63 - Strangers on a Train through The Birds - he directed twelve films, a run that also included unquestionable masterpieces Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest, and Psycho (as well as a couple misfires, most disappointingly I confess). Somewhere in the middle is this odd little black comedy about murder, shot in lush autumn Technicolor by the great Robert Burks. It feels like both an Ealing comedy (the little English studio that made stars of Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers) and a precursor to the lighter fare of the French New Wave. It’s both romantic and filled with a sort of light suspense. Though very much American, the film is based on a British novel by Jack Trevor Story and that quirky '50s English humor is evident (think of The Lady Killers). It’s not a style you see very much on this side of the Atlantic in that decade.
Besides the lush photography, The Trouble With Harry has two very special tricks up its sleeve:
1) Though not quite as memorable as his score for Vertigo, the film’s soundtrack is by the genius Bernard Herrmann, and its vivaciousness gives the film a strength that helps elevate it above a trifle. And if you’re keeping score at home, it’s Herrmann’s first of his nine legendary outings with Hitch.
2) Its offbeat cast is filled with clever casting led by Edmund Gwenn (mostly remembered for his Oscar-winning performance as Kris Kringle in Miracle On 31st Street) and a sorta poor-man’s William Holden, John Forsythe (more famous from the TV shows Dynasty and his voice on Charlie’s Angels, though he is also very good in Hitchcock’s Topaz). Most importantly, it’s the film debut of the great Shirley MacLaine. She would go on to have a major career, but here you can see the invention of her “manic pixie dream girl,” an ingenue type for young actresses that she would take to the next level with her adorable performance in The Apartment and have aped by young actresses for decades, most notably in the films of Cameron Crowe. MacLaine’s voice and mannerisms in The Trouble With Harry are also nearly note-for-note copied by Patricia Arquette in True Romance, if you discount the Southern accent.
In The Trouble With Harry, a group of eccentric characters in a sleepy little Vermont hamlet keep stumbling upon a dead body alone in the hills. It's first discovered by a little boy (Leave it to Beaver’s own Jerry Mathers) and his single mother Jennifer (MacLaine), then by a lonely hunter, Captain Wiles (Gwenn), who assumes he accidentally shot the man. And finally by the town spinster Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick, who went on to get an Oscar nomination for playing Jane Fonda’s mother in Barefoot in the Park) who also believes she is responsible for the man’s death. It turns out the dead guy is Jennifer’s estranged husband and, of course, she believes she accidentally killed him as well. The four are eventually joined by the town’s painter Sam (Forsythe), a free-thinking artist, who advises them to hide the body from the part-time sheriff (Royal Dano). The fun is in how lightly the conspirators, who were basically strangers to each other, react to the death and find unlikely romance and friendship.
The Trouble With Harry marks his third of four pictures for Hitch with screenwriter John Michael Hayes, who would later move away from such fun to become a lurid melodrama specialist in the '60s, writing films like Peyton Place, Butterfield 8 and The Carpetbaggers. Far from serious, this is Hitchcock at his most frolicsome. There is a whimsy to the storytelling that he would turn up to eleven with the equally devilish North By Northwest four years later. This isn’t Hitchcock’s first out-and-out experiment (that would be Rope); many of his films have experimental elements. This also isn’t his first kinda-sorta comedy (Mr. and Mrs. Smith), but it is his first one that completely works. It’s a film about misfit friendships, one that the great Preston Sturges could have made, but add a dead body and suddenly it's something only Hitchcock could have done. That really is the magic of his films: all of them are so unmistakably Hitchcock.