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Hitchapalooza 3: The Trouble With Harry June 24, 2008

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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Another of the Hitch films that somehow got under my radar all these years, The Trouble With Harry from 1955 gives us another example of Hitchcock-lite that usually only appeals to longtime fans and devotees of the guy’s work, so that must be why I wound up liking it.

Harry began as a short British novel, and though Hitchcock moves the setting to New England, the tone and manner of the entire thing plays like British black humor – very understated, droll, and elegantly fatalistic. It might have been more easily understood by American audiences if it had been set in England with an all-British accent cast and wound up getting lumped together with other Brit black humor comedies of its day like Kind Hearts & Coronets or The Ladykillers, but instead it didn’t do too well with American audiences used to & expecting the good old Hitch suspense, and had to make its money back with long runs in France and elsewhere.

Ah, but there was a reason for the New England setting – with a story concerning two pairs of romantically repressed people nervously opening up to each other in the omnipresence of a corpse that complicates things by needing to be buried and dug up repeatedly over the course of a day, Hitchcock gets to juxtapose the darkness of the situation and the darkness of death itself against a beautifully multicolored background of turning-leaves New England autumn. This way, we get the picturesque postcard views of small town New England (seeing this always makes me somewhat homesick for where I grew up – it’s easily the prettiest time of the year), yet we’re reminded that those colorful turning leaves actually illustrate a season’s end, a death.

It makes a lot of sense that Hitchcock picked this and Shadow Of A Doubt to be his favorites among his films when they’re both so similar in this regard – the dark secrets of an idyllic small town, people’s reactions to death ranging from the expected to the unexpected, along with the “What do you do with a corpse?” possibilities that repeatedly turn up in his films, whether it’s the speculations of Jimmy Stewart & Thelma Ritter in Rear Window or the ways in which murdered wives inevitably become basement flooring in far-too numerous episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

And then there are the manners. Oh, those manners! Emily Post could take lessons from these characters in delicate ways to deal with a decaying stiff. All that’s missing is advice from a serene Martha Stewart, but if you imagine Martha telling you the best way to dispose of a body, or perhaps how she put her monogram on a shiv back in prison before stabbing some tatooed lifer in the shower with the exact same cadences as she’d tell you how to arrange the embroidered napkins at grandma’s thanksgiving dinner, you’ll get an idea of how people talk to each other in this movie. The stereotype of Brits in movies, at least for us Americans, is usually people overly polite & repressing all of their obvious emotions to the point of embarrassing themselves miserably – all because of the societal expectations to avoid embarrassment at all costs – so where else but Puritan New England would this motif work for an American setting? Is this the reason for all the establishment shots of old New England white churches? Perhaps not – but it’s certainly helps explain the self-denial and whispering between the two would-be romantic couples in the film, both of whom grow closer together because of a dead body. We get love & death together a lot in this movie, along with reflections on the lengths some people go to avoid both due to fears and hesitations, despite their both being a part of life. The catalyst in getting the others to take those first few steps towards confronting both love & death is the Sam Marlowe artist character played by John Forsythe. Who better than an abstract artist to bring Shirley MacLaine back to the world of the loving after a failed marriage, or to egg on Mildred Natwick to get a make-over for her date with Edmund Gwenn? When Sam discovers Harry’s body in the woods and hears Gwenn’s mistaken confession, he places Harry’s death into the grand scheme of things, opining to Gwenn that even if Gwenn has indeed shot Harry by accident, who’s to say whether or not that’s in the grand scheme of things? We’ve all got to go sometime. So, on they go, being non-chalant about burying the body and merely moving on with things. Or, perhaps digging him up and moving on with things… or burying him again and…

Well, you get the idea.

It’s not a hysterical romp, to be sure. Other than a bit with Harry’s body in the house, most of the comedy come from subtle lines and unexpected reactions and will only bring a smile to your face as opposed to rolling in the aisles. It’s basically a 100 minute version of the sort of humor Hitchcock used in his intros to episodes of his television show, which not so coincidentally began airing while this movie was being made. I can sum up my review in the three words I said right after my screening of this ended: “That was cute.”

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