Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sundays with Hitch: The Trouble with Harry (1955)

Everyone has their limits, some act of cruelty that they don’t care to see rendered onscreen. For me it’s any disrespect paid to a dead body. I’ve never watched Weekend at Bernie’s for that reason. Much less Weekend at Bernie’s II. My God, what that poor man went through …

It’s therefore a sign of Alfred Hitchcock’s skill that I was able to enjoy his black comedy The Trouble with Harry, in which the entire plot revolves around a corpse that is buried and dug up repeatedly.

Gorgeous credits establish the mood, Bernard Herrmann’s first score for the Master playing over a child’s drawing of the bucolic setting in which mystery man Harry turns up stiff. We transition to the leafy magnificence of the Vermont locations, the screen bursting with color. Harry’s dead up in the woods, and most of the local residents have a reason to blame themselves for his demise. Hence the repeated spadework.

Harry has a very English feel - that’s where the original novel by Jack Trevor Story unfolded - and would function better in that setting. The dynamic in the town would certainly make more sense, as would the madcap painter who comes across as a neo-Beat. Cary Grant or David Niven, for instance, would have been ideal. (Dream actor for the role: Leslie Howard.) Still, the very American John Forsythe does his best with a tricky characterization. And the rest of the cast – Edmund Gwenn, Mildred Natwick, and especially Shirley MacLaine in her screen debut – is perfect.

The shenanigans start out as arch, occasionally veering into twee. But Hitchcock eventually establishes a more interesting tone, using fades between scenes to lend the film the feel of an adult fable. By the close, it has struck a note of silliness spiked with gravitas. Life goes on in the midst of death, and Hitchcock finds the notion both right and rather amusing. Harry is a slight bit of business, but it’s a film no one else could have pulled off.