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The Trouble With Harry (1955)

October 27th, 2007 · 3 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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Waddling through the woods of autumn time New England, a boy (Jerry Mathers) discovers a dead man. He runs home. The first adult to stumble across the corpse is Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), an old hunter shooting at rabbits. Searching the dead man’s pockets, he learns the stranger is “Harry Worp” of Boston. The Captain believes he fired a fatal shot and intends to dispose of the body, but keeps being interrupted.

Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick) doesn’t express much shock when she finds the Captain hauling the body away. When the boy returns with his mother Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine), she identifies the corpse as a friend, and doesn’t appear troubled by the death either. A tramp comes along and steals Harry’s shoes, while the town’s absent minded doctor stumbles across the scene oblivious to the body.

Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), a starving artist, composes a sketch of the dead man and offers to help the Captain bury it. Marlowe visits Jennifer and learns that Harry was her estranged husband. She believes that she killed him, as does Miss Gravely, who hit Harry on the head with the heel of her hiking shoe. All four conspire to bury the body, but a part-time deputy sheriff named Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano) becomes suspicious.

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Production history 
Director Alfred Hitchcock had wanted to make a film version of a 1949 debut novel by Jack Trevor Story titled The Trouble With Harry since he read the galleys. The story concerned the discovery of a body in the woods, and the hysteria of the local townsfolk, who each believe they are responsible. When the director arrived at Paramount, the studio was not enthusiastic about the project, which Hitchcock referred to as “a nice little pastorale.”

Screenwriter John Michael Hayes began adapting a screenplay while in the French Riviera with Hitchcock shooting To Catch A Thief in the summer of 1954. Hayes relocated the story from the English countryside to New England. He pressed Hitchcock to let him add something in the way of action or suspense to the story, but Hitchcock loved the book’s black wit, and wanted that to be the focus.

Grace Kelly was not eligible to star due to her ongoing contract dispute with MGM, while another cast member from To Catch A Thief – Brigitte Auber – had too thick of an accent for Vermont. Producer Hal Wallis recommended a 20-year-old Broadway understudy named Shirley MacLaine who had no resume. Hitchcock met with the actress once and decided to cast her. He considered William Holden for the male lead, but budget and scheduling became an issue, so John Forsythe was cast instead.

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St. Johnsbury was selected as a location, then Hurricane Carol hit in September 1954. Instead of filming a picturesque autumn in Vermont, Hitchcock found a cold and wet New England. Shooting commenced later in the month, before winter drove the production back to the Paramount lot. Weather not withstanding, the film ran smoothly. By the end of 1954, Hitchcock was editing To Catch A Thief and The Trouble With Harry at the same time.

The film’s color palette – in glorious Technicolor – is breathtaking, noticeably in the exterior shots of Vermont. Equally attractive is Shirley MacLaine, who made her screen debut here. Watching her perform romantic comedy in her prime is always a treat, but the script is just a trifle, with nothing in the way of satisfying comedy or suspense either way. John Forsythe’s character is given some of the goofiest dialogue in any Hitchcock film, which may be the first in the director’s career to qualify as “cute.”

The Trouble With Harry is a textbook case of “lesser Hitchcock,” but like all of the director’s films, it’s filled with treasures for Hitchcock fans or movie geeks. Hitchcock didn’t have much of an ear for music, and the scores for his films had rarely satisfied him. This picture marked his first collaboration with composer Bernard Herrmann, who turns in a beautifully acute score. Along with a playful opening credits sequence, Herrmann’s music is the chief reason to seek this movie out.

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Brian Webster at Apollo Movie Guide writes, “This is a quirky and surprisingly low-key comedy that’s more amusing than funny; it’s witty, but rarely hilarious … director Alfred Hitchcock is more interested in getting us acquainted with the eccentric characters than in building a compelling plot.”

“Hitchcock didn’t make many comedies and that’s a real shame. He displays an honest to goodness black comic touch in The Trouble With Harry that’s hard to deny,” writes Lisa Skrzyniarz at Crazy For Cinema.

Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews writes, “People familiar with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series will see the many similarities … As a murder mystery, it’s not really all that compelling, although it is somewhat amusing to see a switch in the conventions of the genre, where everyone in the cast is taking responsibility for the murder.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: 24 hour time frame · Based on novel · Black comedy · Murder mystery · Paranoia · Small town

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adam Ross // Oct 27, 2007 at 11:14 pm

    I love Shirley MacClaine in this — and John Forsythe, silliness and all. I love the bit with the body in the house, it seems like something from a Neil Simon play.

  • 2 Damian // Oct 28, 2007 at 4:41 pm

    I don’t have much to say here as this is one of the few Hitchcock films that I’ve not yet seen. It always looked like “Hitch lite” to me, but then again I really loved Family Plot (another example of “lesser Hitccock” but which turned out IMO to be thoroughly delightful), so there was a good chance I’d enjoy Trouble with Harry as well. As a Hitchcock completist I know I shall have to see it someday but–based on your remarks, Joe–I shall keep my expectations low.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Oct 28, 2007 at 6:13 pm

    Adam: Shirley MacLaine has had an interesting career. She seemed to go from kooky roles in her youth to kooky grandmother roles overnight. I don’t recall her giving a bad performance though, and she’s irresistibly cute in this movie.

    Damian: I’m sure Hitchcock intended The Trouble With Harry to say nothing and prove nothing, but at 100 minutes, it is harmless. As a film music fan I have a feeling you will enjoy Bernard Herrmann’s wonderful score here at the very least.

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