The Trouble With Harry
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: John Forsyth, Shirley MacLaine
Remember the opening mob-scene in Frenzy where a floating corpse of a woman steals the thunder away from the street speaker? Or the scene in Torn Curtain, where a famous ballerina throws a tantrum on the boat? Or the crazy chemistry between the lead pair in 39 Steps and Family Plot? There were so many scenes from his celebrated mysteries and thrillers that showed Alfred Hitchcock’s unique flair for tongue-in-cheek dark humor. Mr. And Mrs. Smith- his only attempt at full- length goofball romantic comedy and often touted as his best comic film somehow failed to enthuse me. It was okay, even funny in parts but it seldom felt ‘Hitchcokian’! But then I saw The trouble with Harry and my faith in the ultimate master was restored!
The trouble with Harry- a 1955 film, presents a very different Hitchcock from the Hitchcock the world loves for Psycho, Rebecca, Birds or Vertigo. It is Hitchcock at his cutting edge cynical satirical humorous best. It is Hitchcock, who is not interested in enmeshing you in a web of suspense over a murder but whose only interest in a murdered man’s body is to make you smile at the quirky ways of a small-town world dealing with that body!
The film opens with the camera lingering on a small scenic sleepy town. A young boy- hardly around six years of age- is walking up the hill, going into the woods, holding a toy machine-gun. Then we hear three gun-shots and a thud! The frightened boy goes to check and finds a man’s body lying lifeless on the ground, with a bloodied wound on the forehead! As the boy runs off to fetch his mother, an old man emerges from behind the trees, holding a shotgun!
If you expected a tense murder-scene, this isn’t one. What follows later in the film is Hitchcock’s hilarious yet wonderfully subtle exploration of the event, its causation and its aftermath. With a bunch of typically small-town characters like an ageing gunboat captain, a middle-aged spinster, a naughty kid, his attractive single mother, a talented happy-go-lucky painter, an absent-minded doctor, a hard-nosed curio-shop owner and a none-too-bright deputy sheriff, the master tells a tale of a town thrown into a wild cat-and-mouse game over the dead man- Harry Worp! With confusion reigning over his killer and the possible legal repercussion, the town-folk – (some of them actively but innocently involved in the ‘murder’!), then go through a whole night of digging graves and burying, exhuming and reburying Harry’s body! With the deputy sheriff smelling something fishy in the goings-on and trying to investigate the matter, the whole exercise becomes crazier than ever!
The film is a clever mix of slapstick, mystery and romantic elements and is blessed with natural performances. But its main strength is in its situational humor and in Hitchcock’s superb characterizations that portray different human traits with astonishing clarity. It is dark humor yet never once turns repulsive. In fact, we never even get to see Harry's face in the whole film- except in a sketch!
While interviewing Hitchcock about this film, famous French director Francois Truffaut had remarked: “The whole humor of the picture hinges on a single device: an attitude of disconcerting nonchalance. The characters discuss the corpse as casually as if they were talking about a pack of cigarettes.” To which Hitchcock then replied: “That’s the idea. Nothing amuses me more than understatement.”
Using this understatement to great effect, Hitchcock spun this comic yarn based on a novel by Jack Story. It is not a fast-paced laugh-riot but rather a classically easy-paced comedy that stimulates your grey cells and repeatedly breaks you into smiles! The film received only a modest success but it remained Htchcock’s personal favourite. Incidentally Shirley MacLaine made her debut in this film, playing the single mother.
Agreed, it is a lesser gem from the master’s repertoire but a gem nonetheless! To me, it is Hitchcock’s best comedy!