“Blessed are those who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed”
Alfred Hitchcock has helmed dozens of iconic classics of the macabre that are both chilling and wickedly funny. My expectations were high, so I was very disappointed by The Trouble With Harry! This was Hitchcock’s attempt at full-out comedy. It is, sadly, neither chilling nor very funny.
There is a dead body—Harry. Harry is found up on a hillside near a small rural community. There are some very apathetic people in this community, and each of them thinks they’re responsible for Harry’s death. Most of the humour comes from the nonchalant attitude exhibited by everyone who comes into contact with Harry’s dead body. Nobody seems particularly surprised, upset or troubled by Harry. The dialogue is often clever, but so self-aware and disingenuous that it looses most of its charm. This is odd considering the screenwriter is John Michael Hayes who wrote several Hitchcock films, two of which—Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much—are exceptionally funny and genuine.
The characters in most Hitchcock films find their lives disrupted by horrific circumstances. The humour often arises out of some gross misunderstanding or farcical attempts to control and correct some awful situation, but there is always the underlying idea that life is valuable, and that the loss of it causes pain, sadness and disturbance. The humour in The Trouble With Harry hinges on the absence of emotion. His body does cause some confusion and inconvenience, but there is nothing at stake. Life has no value in this story, so what are we to invest in? If Harry’s death had been a crime of passion, we might be more caught up in the plight of these characters. But nobody is particularly concerned with Harry, dead or alive. He’s really just a prop—something to trip over, something to hide, something to prove innocence or guilt.
Nowhere to be seen are the keen insights of Rear Window. In that film, we get caught up in the excitement and danger of trying to prove that a murder has taken place, and find the discovery of an evil deed absolutely thrilling. When the dubious detective thinks that it’s a load of paranoid hooey, we desperately want him to be wrong. Hitchcock knows how to play us, and isn’t afraid to point it out. Grace Kelly remarks to James Stewart:
“You and me with long faces plunged into despair because we find out a man didn’t kill his wife. We’re two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known. You’d think we could be a little bit happy that the poor woman is alive and well.”
This is aimed straight at us—the viewers, who very much want that woman to be dead so we can enjoy our murder mystery. The line is funny and scathing. We identify with Kelly and Stewart because, like them, we find ourselves feeling just a little bit guilty. Rear Window even allows us to identify with the killer because he is shown as a vulnerable and flawed, but very real, human being. The movie doesn’t justify evil, or condone it, but it does help us to understand. Rear Window has a conscience, and it is that conscience that gives the humour life. The humour in The Trouble With Harry is as dead as Harry himself.
The film is full of unrealized potential. The story wants very much to be charming, and it would be if only we could invest more in the characters. The romance between the aging Mrs. Gravely and Captain Wiles has potential. There is a wonderful scene early on, in the local general store, where the spinsterish Mrs. Gravely fixates on a teacup. She holds it out lovingly, and asks the young handsome artist, Sam Marlowe, to try it out. Confused, he holds the cup as she, in a trancelike state, studies the cup in his hand and asks him questions about how it feels in his grasp. It is an oddly sensual scene. The strangeness of the scene comes from our not knowing the intended purpose of the cup. Later, we discover that she plans to invite Captain Wiles over for tea, and she wanted to find the perfect cup to offer him. In retrospect, the moment becomes somewhat touching. The film is decidedly more concerned with these romantic revelations rather than suspense, but it is hard to enjoy these moments when the film trivializes life, death and even rape! Yes, Mrs. Gravely admits to hitting Harry over the head with her shoe after he, making “horrible masculine sounds,” pulled her into the bushes; We are meant to chuckle at this revelation.
There is an intriguing aspect to the scene where the deputy sheriff comes by to investigate a link between Sam Marlowe’s artwork and the dead body of Harry, but the moment is used for cheap effect, rather than the potential potent social commentary. There is a sketch of Harry’s dead face made by Sam, who claims to not know anything about the dead Harry. In order to ruin the evidence and distract the sheriff, Sam sketches over Harry’s eyes, making him look very much alive, while he goes off on a tangent about how his art is informed by his subconscious rather than any specific outside stimuli. The sheriff, not understanding Sam’s intellectual speech about art and creative impulses, is made very uncomfortable and retreats, feeling foolish and ashamed. The scene is designed to allow us to feel relieved that the law has been temporarily held at bay, but I felt oddly caught up in this sheriff’s plight. There is something heartbreaking about his pathetic attempt to uphold his authority amongst these disaffected townsfolk. Sam’s behaviour is insensitive, dismissive and disrespectful, but the film wants us to side with him and mock this hick sheriff who’s trying to investigate a crime. At this point, we know that none of the characters are actually responsible for Harry’s death, and so the film treats them as victims. However, each of them thought they were responsible, and their behaviour while under that impression should be taken into account. These people are irresponsible, dishonourable and morally corrupt. And the film celebrates their behaviour.
While the performances can’t be described as bad, they are certainly muted and unconvincing. The film features Shirley MacLaine in her first film role, and a very young, pre-Beaver Jerry Mathers. There is much written about Shirley MacLaine’s charming and spirited performance, but I didn’t find her at all engaging. She looks like she’s had a good shot of Demerol and is coasting through the film on a nice buzz. She’s so distant and distracted that even a marriage proposal elicits only a vague suggestion of pleasure. “Oh how nice,” her face suggests, “now I have something to do this weekend.” And Jerry Mathers is appropriately cute, but he’s really just a device the movie employs to set up some oh-so-precious zingers. Neither one of them is charming enough to compensate for the film’s disregard for the complexities of genuine human emotion.
Despite the beautiful landscapes and romantic ideals, the film is flippant and cynical. It pretends to be about members of a community brought together by a shared problem, but there is a disconnect between this sentiment and the film’s complete disregard for the loss of life that Harry’s body signifies. Granted, the behaviour of the characters is so unrealistic that it is clearly meant to be an abstraction. This prompts us to think about what the film means, and it is then that we realize that it is really just a cheap joke masquerading as witty social commentary. The Trouble With Harry ends with a very clever title card: “The trouble with Harry is over,” which suggests that it was meant only as a trifle. It is a shame that the film has little to offer us other than some droll banter that trivializes life and death.
The Trouble With Harry (1955)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: John Michael Hayes
Stars: John Forythe, Shirley MacLaine, Edmund Gwenn