*. I think most people agree that Hitchcock’s filmography runs hot and cold. His output was highly variable, especially when he strayed from his comfort zone, which was the exploitation of an audience’s discomfort.
*. Among those of Hitchcock’s films that David Thomson rates as “thumpingly bad” he places The Trouble with Harry, and it’s a judgment I’m happy to sign on to. At least to my eyes this is a movie that doesn’t work at all. But just to play fair, it does have its fans and was apparently one of Hitch’s own favourites. And it still has its admirers today. Edward White, for example, in his recent biography The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock calls it “a much-overlooked gem of the Hitchcock canon, valuable not only because it is well structured and highly and entertaining but also because Hitchcock felt it reflected much of his personality.”
*. I want to stick with White’s book for just a bit, in part because I think it may be true that this is a movie that reflects much of Hitchcock’s multifaceted personality, but more because of what Thomas has to say about Hitchcock as entertainer, and specifically as a funny man. This gets to the core of where I think The Trouble with Harry goes wrong.
*. “Hitchcock wouldn’t be Hitchcock if the brooding darkness weren’t undercut by humor,” White writes. “In Hitchcock’s mind, humor wasn’t simply a garnish of color or light relief: it was the silver thread that ran through most of his best work.” His comic sensibility is said to have “stayed conspicuously constant across six decades of filmmaking — in fact, it might be the most recurrent element of his artistic style, even more than the suspense on which his legend has been built.”
*. Pointing out Hitchcock’s sense of humour is fair game, but I think it would be wrong to elevate it to this level of primacy. I bring all this up because The Trouble with Harry is a comedy, and not even remotely a suspense thriller. You have to judge it as a comedy, not a movie with some comic bits thrown in meant to leaven the horror. And judged by those standards I reckon it a total failure, as there is nothing funny about it.
*. Part of the problem is the script, which I wouldn’t have thought full of comic potential. It’s based on a novel by the English writer Jack Trevor Story that was set in England. Hitchcock transplanted the action to New England (Vermont), but kept a British actor, Edmund Gwenn for one of the leading parts. Gwenn isn’t funny, but he isn’t the only one left out at sea. There’s no black humour in just trying to get rid of a corpse again and again, and even the double entendres littering the script fall flat. Hitchcock could work sex and jokes into his thriller plots, but not the other way around.
*. I think everyone knows the real essence of comedy is timing. And I’d argue timing is the essence of suspense as well. But they’re different sorts of timing, and while Hitchcock understood the latter, he seems to have had no sense or feel at all for the former, at least in this movie.
*. Everything else about the film seems clunky too. There are continuity errors, problems with the sound, and crudities that you just wouldn’t expect in such a production. Like the jarring cuts from shots of the countryside back into the studio (complete with painted leaves). Or the way the lemonade sits without moving in the glasses of Sam and Jennifer when they’re talking together on the porch. I don’t know why that bugged me, but it did. Also bugging me was the way that they were supposedly digging a grave in a forest with a flat coal shovel as well as a spade. Good luck with that! Not going to happen.
*. Hitch wanted Cary Grant for the lead, but he’d gotten too expensive. John Forsythe struggles with the part, but I think Grant would have too. It’s just a ridiculous role and I don’t know how anyone could have played it. Shirley MacLaine is terrific in her screen debut, but the part of Jennifer wasn’t quite as hopeless.
*. That’s Jerry (the Beaver) Mathers playing Arnie, though this wasn’t his first movie. It was, however, Hitchcock’s first collaboration with composer Bernard Herrmann. Aside from Hermmann and MacLaine though I don’t think there’s anything worth noting here. Paramount didn’t want Hitchcock to make it, but they had a deal. As is the case more often than they get credited for, the suits were right.