A Movie A Week: THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955) He looked exactly the same when he was alive, only he was vertical.
Published at: Sept. 28, 2009, 6:02 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the next installment of A Movie A Week.
[For those who new to the column, A Movie A Week is just that, a dedicated way for me explore vintage cinema every week. I’ll review a movie every Monday and each one will be connected to the one before it via a common thread, either an actor, director, writer, producer or some other crew member. Each film, pulled from my DVD shelf or recorded on the home DVR (I heart TCM) will be one I haven’t seen.]
There’s a wealth of possibilities to take a jab at the bossman with this week’s title, as was pointed out in last week’s talkback. But I will take the high road and focus only on the movie of the week, Alfred Hitchcock’s comedy THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY.
Plus I write this while I’m smack dab in the middle of Fantastic Fest, seeing 5 movies a day and getting about as many hours worth of sleep a night. So, any tangents will only serve to steal precious sleep minutes from my deprived brain.
I’ve covered a lot of Hitchcock in my AMAD and AMAW columns and I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. I haven’t even really dipped into his really early work outside of the odd film, like THE 39 STEPS, SHADOW OF A DOUBT or BLACKMAIL. And that’s with me having grown up with his more popular films like PSYCHO, THE BIRDS, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, VERTIGO, etc.
A lot of people make a big deal out of THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY because it’s Hitchcock doing comedy. I actually didn’t find it all that surprising. Almost all his films have a dark sense of humor to them anyway so this one feels like a movie just with that black humor.
The basic plot is comically over-convoluted, a device we’d see repeated some 53 years later when the Coens did THE BIG LEBOWSKI. Didn’t think I’d namecheck that one, did you? You were expecting WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S, right?
So yeah, the movie’s about a tight knit group of people in Smalltown, USA who have to deal with a dead body that pops up in the woods. Simple, but the complications pile on until everybody’s paranoid, confused and unsure.
I really liked the movie, but I agree with a lot of the criticism I heard before screening it. The film is very uneven, with a lot of the humor not quite connecting. But much like Hitchcock’s ROPE the movie starts going and doesn’t slow down until the end, so for every joke or moment that doesn’t work there’s another one ready to step up to bat.
Everybody is good in the movie, but some of the chemistry doesn’t work as well as others. For instance, Edmund Gwenn plays an older sailor who is illegally hunting rabbits at the start of the film. He thinks one of his stray bullets killed the poor schmuck lying toes up on the forest floor. Gwenn is really good in the movie, but for some reason his scenes with John Forsythe’s leading man fell flat to me.
Forsythe plays a struggling artist who also happens to be incredibly charming, suave and confident. He’s great in the movie, especially when paired with Shirley MacLaine, but while he and Gwenn are both good in their scenes togther there’s something that just doesn’t quite connect.
That’s not true of his scenes with MacLaine, playing a single mother (or so it appears), and her young son (Jerry Mathers… yes, The Beaver!) which are hilarious… especially when he discovers Mathers’ grasp of time is… different to say the least.
Speaking of MacLaine this is the film that gets to put “And Introducing Shirley MacLaine” in the credits. Good lord, people. The more early MacLaine I watch, the more infatuated I get with her at that time and place.
It’s no wonder she became a huge star. She’s so perfectly quirky, pixie-ish and full of cuteness energy. She radiates adorability.
When the humor works in this film it works because of just how dry and matter-of-fact it is. When Mildred Natwick’s Miss Ivy Gravely stumbles upon the distraught Edmund Gwenn trying to hide the body of the man he’s sure he accidentally shot she just kind of looks at it and talks about it like it was a parcel delivered by the postman. “Is that your body?”
That seems to be the immediate reaction of everybody in the town, actually. And they all seem to pop up at the exact wrong time for Gwenn who just wants to get the body buried. It becomes such a constant stream of townsfolk walking this usually empty trail that Gwenn even falls asleep while waiting for the coast to be clear for him to hide his crime.
But is it his crime? We come to find out he may not have killed poor Harry. MacLaine has a motive, but seems to be brutally honest when confronted about it… so maybe it’s not her afterall… Even the old maid-ish Natwick might be complicit in the death of poor Harry.
The threat of the movie resides in the stick-in-the-mud town sheriff/auto-mechanic played by Royal Dano. Now, Royal Dano has always been an old man to me. When I came of age he was making memorable appearances in movies like KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (the clowns take his dog at the beginning), SPACED INVADERS, HOUSE 2 (co-starring Bill Maher. No shit! Look it up!), SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES and appearances on AMAZING STORIES.
I didn’t recognize him when he first popped up in this movie, but the second he spoke I placed the voice immediately. It’s odd to finally visit these older films and find surprises like that, great early work from some of my childhood favorite character actors.
An interesting side note, this was the first time Hitchcock teamed with composer Bernard Herrmann who would go on to compose 7 films for Hitch, including his iconic Psycho score. Herrmann’s work here is actually very strong and was Hitch’s favorite of any of his films.
Longtime Hitchcock cinematographer Robert Burks shot this film and the Technicolor is that perfect Hitchcock hue. You know what I’m talking about? I can spot a Hitchcock color movie a mile away just in the way Burks shot it. The colors seem to bounce off the screen in a different way than with other Technicolor features. Whether it’s THE BIRDS or NORTH BY NORTHWEST or REAR WINDOW, you can tell it’s a Hitch/Burks collaboration just from a few seconds of footage.
Final Thoughts: The romance of the film works, at least it does for me because I was already smitten with MacLaine and Forsythe does a great job holding the movie together. You can tell Hitch was having some fun with in this different genre, using it as an excuse to slide some really dark humor in under the censors’ radar. For every one thing that doesn’t work or doesn’t work completely in THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY there are two things that do. And I get the feeling this will be one of those that grows fonder in the memory as well. I’m sure I’ll be revisiting this one in the coming years.
Also, you should check out the original theatrical trailer for this movie. I love Hitchcock trailers!
This week sees the arrival of October and along with it the return of Horror Movie A Day! Here’s the first 7 titles:
Thursday, October 1st: NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT
Friday, October 2nd: BEWARE! CHILDREN AT PLAY (1989)
Saturday, October 3rd: CAMERON’S CLOSET (1988)
Sunday, October 4th: AFRAID OF THE DARK (1991)
Monday, October 5th: THE PIT (1981)
Tuesday, October 6th: BRAIN DAMAGE (1988)
Wednesday, October 7th: BRAIN DEAD (1990)
As you can see a variety of genre titles. I’m looking forward to jumping back into the daily grind for October and digging up some (hopefully) fun horror flicks! See you folks in a few days for the very first one, the Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee UK horror flick NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT!
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