The Trouble With Harry

US (1955) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock does comedy! The “Master of Suspense” tries his hand at making us laugh. Can you believe it? Unfortunately the US film goers back in 1955 didn’t believe it either and in the middle of his hot period of unequivocal classics, Hitch had a rare flop on his hands with this dark comedy adaptation of the novel by Jack Trevor Story.

In the woods of small hamlet of Highwater, Vermont, Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) is out shooting rabbits, but when he goes to claim his prey he instead finds the dead body of Harry Worp (Philip Truex). Convinced he shot Harry Wiles tries to hide the body but is interrupted by spinster Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick) who turns a blind eye to the body and invites the Captain over for tea later.

Then young Arnie Rogers (Jerry Mathers) arrives with his mother, Jennifer (Shirley Macline) who seems overly pleased that Harry is dead. After the absent minded Doctor Greenbow (Dwight Marfield) trips over the corpse while reading his book, and a tramp (Barry Macollum) steals Harry’s shoes, struggling artist Sam Marlow (John Forsythe) stumbles upon Harry and decides to draw him. he and Wiles team up to bury the body to avoid the local deputy sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano) from finding out, but it seems the cause of Harry’s death won’t allow him to rest in peace.

Being brutally honest this doesn’t feel like a Hitchcock film, instead drawing comparisons to the classic British farce, but no-one can blame Hitch for wanting to try something different for a change. It is not as if his works haven’t featured some kind of cheeky undertone, more often than not involving his now legendary cameos. The Trouble With Harry was designed to be a straight up comedy but it seems audiences at the time weren’t ready for what Hitch had in store for them.

This is a shame as it is a perfectly serviceable comedy with a well crafted story that sees Hitchcock remain in close proximity to his much favoured murder mystery comfort zone while simultaneously branching off into new territories. While feeling a little stagey at times, due to the small sets and single camera sets ups, the idea of the tiny community where everybody knows everybody else’s business serves to represent the small working area and need for a minimal cast.

Acting as the conceit of the story is not so much the cause of Harry’s death but the reasons our principal cast have for covering it up and how wiling they are to do so without a hint conscience for taking a human life. I don’t want to spoil it but three of the four main players are suspects with a cause to be worried while the fourth, Sam, is wilfully dragged along for the ride.

With the story told over the space of one day, two loving relationships are amazingly formed in short time while poor Harry is buried and exhumed on a seemingly regular basis with each new revelation coming to light. It may not seem like a prime source for humour but it works in this context, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it had some influence over the famous Kipper And The Corpse episode of Fawlty Towers and the 80’s comedy Weekend At Bernie’s.

Despite nobody being in the least bit concerned that a man has died, in many ways this tale is a quirky celebration of community spirit in how everyone comes together to help each other out. Sam and Jennifer don’t know each other at first while Wiles and Miss Gravely become better acquainted as a result of this, so Harry dying did some good. And when Wiggs arrives to investigate no-one shies away from doing their bit in helping to cover up their misdeeds for the sake of the others.

Perhaps not laugh out loud funny, the script it is very astute and full of witty one liners and great interplay between the characters, all of whom are well drawn and defy convention. The pace is brisk from start to end and the developments come at nicely timed intervals to create a “here we go again” feeling, but in a good way of course.   

One thing this film has going for it is how it is arguably one of the better looking of Hitch’s colour films, looking remarkably fresh and vibrant despite celebrating its sixtieth anniversary. The opening external shots of the rural hamlet are spectacular and sumptuously rendered in all their glory, the sun beating down on the lush greens of the trees and grass to replicate the idyllic and rural sensation of the novel’s original English countryside setting.

Reportedly the original outdoor settings of Vermont didn’t have the requisite foliage Hitchcock wanted so filming was resumed on sound stages back in LA. With some grim irony, while filming inside a gym, a heavy overhead camera fell and missed Hitchcock by a hair’s breadth, which would have made for an ominous story had the master been offed while making a film based around a corpse!

Veteran Edmund Gwenn heads this solid cast with his avuncular portrayal of Wiles, creating two fun partnerships with Mildred Natwick as the deceptively bold spinster Miss gravely and a young John Forsythe as Sam. Having only seen the latter in Dynasty as  a child, it was a shock to see him with dark hair but that voice is instantly recognisable from Charlie’s Angels. Here he is like a young but more dashing Bogart.

Making her screen debut was Shirley Maclaine and while there were a few nerves, the potential that Billy Wilder would fully exploit later was definitely present here. Her son Arnie was played by future US TV star Jerry Mathers.

It is fair to say that The Trouble With Harry was ahead of its time which might explain its initial failure but it is a rare side of Hitchcock that offers much more than its reputation would suggest.