Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Trouble with Harry

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
The United States of America

Capt. Wiles: Blessed are they who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed.

Throughout his extensive career, master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock developed a distinct brand of humor that he injected into many of his films. His theory was that humor was a critical element in the creation of suspense. He once said, “For me, suspense doesn't have any value if it's not balanced by humor.” But the humor in his films were never relegated to the world of one-liners. Instead, Hitchcock would be much more subtle. Irony and understatement, mayhem and misunderstanding, and finally juxtaposition and timing formed the foundation of Hitchcock's signature brand of humor. For example, in Foreign Correspondent (1940) Hitchcock interrupts a wild car chase with a drunk repeatedly trying to leave a tavern only to jump out of the way of speeding cars whenever he tries to enter the street. Another example is the fight scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) where James Stewart is attacked in a taxidermy shop. While he tries to escape, he is repeatedly accosted by various stuffed animals including one particularly large swordfish.

But the true delight in Hitchcock's brand of humor is found in wit. Hitchcock's public persona was molded on sophisticated British deadpan humor. When it appeared in his films, it frequently became macabre. One of Hitchcock's favorite subjects was the idea of murder, so there are several films where the characters have frank conversations on the matter. In Rope (1948) James Stewart (once again) has a playfully curt conversation during a party where he describes the perfect murder. He justifies the action with the idealogical concept of Nietzsche's Übermensch. The humor comes from the fact that everything he just described, from the murder to its justification, mirrors an actual murder that took place minutes before he arrived for the party. All the while the other guests munch on their dinners that they had been served from on top of a wooden chest where the body was being stored.

But if somebody truly wants to familiarize themselves with Hitchcock's style of humor, they need not look further than his 1955 comedy The Trouble With Harry. And yes, I said comedy. Unlike many of his other, more successful films, The Trouble With Harry was never meant to be a suspense picture or a thriller. It was designed to be nothing more than a comedy. Now, Hitchcock had experimented with the comedic genre before in the past with various results. While I personally enjoyed his attempt at screwball comedy with Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941), it is almost universally regarded as a critical and financial flop. But here, in The Trouble With Harry, did Hitchcock successfully fire on all cylinders. However, it was quickly forgotten about because it was also a box office flop and it happened to be sandwiched between two of his more successful thrillers, To Catch a Thief (1955) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). But in hindsight, The Trouble With Harry remains a treat for those willing to try something different from the master of suspense.

The story, appropriately enough, centers around Harry. Harry is a dead body in the middle of the woods.

The trouble is that nobody knows how he died and how he got there. He is first discovered by Captain Albert Wiles who thinks that he accidentally killed him while hunting for rabbits. He asks his friend Sam Marlowe to help him. Marlowe is a free-spirited artist who paints pictures that nobody seems to buy. But nevermind, he is always happy. So much so that he doesn't take the death of a strange man seriously at all. The first thing he does when he encounters the body is to sit down and draw a picture of him. Of course the problem is only exacerbated when a Miss Ivy Gravely comes forward and claims that she killed him after hitting him with a hiking boot after he attacked her. But later it is revealed that the man is the estranged husband of a young mother named Jennifer Rogers. Marlowe quickly falls in love with her and asks to get married.

That's pretty much summarizes the plot. It may seem strange to write it off so quickly, but in The Trouble With Harry, what happens isn't nearly as important as how the characters react to it. Nobody seems very distressed at the sight of a dead body. Instead of screaming or rushing for help, Captain Wiles' first reaction when he sees it is one of great displeasure at such a nuisance. Marlowe isn't any better; he is more concerned with Miss Rogers than he is Mr. Harry. At first, Captain Wiles' is terrified that he will be blamed for Harry's death, so he gets Marlowe to help him bury the body. Afterwards, he realizes through a series of mental connect-the-dots that he couldn't have killed him. But they can't leave him in the ground. It would look suspicious. So they dig him back up. But later they discover more incriminating evidence, so back into the ground Harry goes. But then more evidence to the contrary appears so Harry must be dug up again. This process repeats itself three times before they finally decide not to bury him after Captain Wiles' wearily cries out, “Oh please don't make me bury that body again.

The humor in The Trouble With Harry centers on how nonchalant the characters are at the discovery of a dead body. They treat it the same way they would an abandoned kite or baseball. There is no pomp or circumstance when dealing with the body; when it needs to be moved people drag him by his stiffened legs. Watching the characters bury him and dig him back up again becomes so ludicrous that we cannot help but laugh. But therein lies the charm: these people act completely contrary to how most people would if they discovered a dead body. We stare with mouths agape at the sight of people enjoying blueberry muffins and lemonade over discussions of violent homicide. We scoff in disbelief when they throw Harry's body around. But whatever our reaction, we feel awed by such an audacious black comedy by such an established director. But perhaps that's the final punchline...



  1. I cannot withhold my admiration for this shall we say brilliant essay about a film I too very recently enjoyed when I was on a Hitchcock spree, soon to be resumed. Yeah, everybody acts as though discovering a dead body were the most routine thing. Everybody is such a good sport, Wodehousian is the word, with the most scant regard for the law oh the land, or sympathy for the deceased corpse.

    Hitchcock could have been a great comic actor (is, in fact) hadn't he been what he is.

  2. Well keep in mind, if he was a comedic actor, we wouldn't have gotten horror and thriller movies out of him!

    A world without "Psycho" or "Vertigo."


  3. I very much enjoyed your review of THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, one of my favorite Hitchcock films! I'm a sucker for character-driven comedies and thrillers, so ....HARRY was catnip for me. I've always liked its droll approach to the Harry dilemma and the characters' charming eccentricity (kinda like my family, come to think of it :-)). John Forsythe delivers my favorite line in the film after Mildred Dunnock suggests that Sam (Forsythe) might want to try selling his paintings in New York City: "Ah, but what sort of people are they? What breed? I'll tell you: they're little people -- with hats on!" :-)

  4. That's a great line, too!

    But my favorite will always be "Please don't make me dig up that body again!"

  5. Perhaps "The Trouble With Harry" is one of Hitchcock's most misunderstood and neglected films however, according to an interview he gave for Higham and Greenberg's book "The Celluloid Muse", it was "one of his favourite pictures".

    Hitchcock found the story in a small English novel and, he changed the setting to Vermont in autumn, "because I wanted to counterpoint its macabre elements with beautifully coloured scenery".

    British wit and humour is something that often eludes some reviewers and audiences, and it is refreshing to read that you have recognised and appreciated this film to be one of Hitchcock's wickedly clever treasures.

    In the book, Hitchcock supposes that the reason for its failure at the box-office was the fact that, at that time, "it had no well-known stars on which it could be sold". To my way of thinking, Hitchcock was aware of the difficulity he would face in achieving popular success with this project, but allowed himself an indulgence, following the financial and critical rewards achieved from the release of "Dial M For Murder" (1954), "Rear Window" (1954) and "To Catch A Thief" (1955).

    Thanks for your perceptive review.

    1. Thank you for the great comment!

      I think one of the reasons why people didn't like this film was that they were expecting a traditional Hitchcock suspense film. THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY is such an abrupt change of pace from the films that made him famous that people didn't know how to react to it.