Hitchcock Collection: The Trouble With Harry Review

The Trouble With Harry is an agreeably companionable film. It’s a very minor work for Hitchcock and easily the least interesting film of his golden decade (roughly 1954-64). But it sees the director in a mellow, humorous mood and Hitch is clearly having so much fun that it seems churlish to resent him the enjoyment he so richly deserved after a masterpiece like Rear Window and a sedulously furbished star vehicle like To Catch a Thief. Although it’s a nothing of a film in many ways, it is technically brilliant, sometimes beautifully acted and marks the beginning of a collaboration which would prove a key element in some of Hitchcock’s very best movies. For that alone, The Trouble With Harry deserves credit.

The storyline of the film is quite loose. One morning, a young boy discovers a dead body in the New England countryside, disturbing the hunting of Captain Wiles (Gwenn), who worries that he might have shot him. He attempts to hide the body but is interrupted and gradually it becomes apparent that the trouble with Harry is that his body simply won’t go away. As the day wears on, we discover that most of the inhabitants of the small town have good reason to have hated Harry, whose corpse keeps popping up at unexpected moments. However, the storyline doesn’t really matter. Much of the fun here comes from a couple of delightful performers. Principal amongst these is Edmund Gwenn, a veteran British actor who had worked with Hitchcock on Foreign Correspondent. He tended to get cast as boffins of one stripe or another – memorably in Them - and he seems to enjoy the opportunity to play an out-and-out comedy part. The opening, where he acts as the conduit for introducing us to the local oddballs, is unconscionably protracted but Gwenn makes it worthwhile.

He has a great double-act with the peerless Mildred Natwick too - “Perhaps you would care to come over for some blueberry muffins and coffee…” she says with a seductive undertone as Gwenn blusters in a mixture of glee and embarrassment. The film also introduced cinema audiences to Shirley MacLaine and she’s wonderfully funny and completely charming as the woman with a big secret that concerns the dead man. There are nice bits from Mildred Dunnock too. Even the usually wooden John Forsythe, still looking like a prosperous preppie in the unlikely role of a struggling artist, has some good moments. Forsythe later helped to ruin Topaz and only became bearable in later years when he made Scrooged and discovered self-parody but he’s quite funny here, especially when watching Gwenn dig Harry’s grave.

Hitchcock, of course, adored the kind of black humour which is the cornerstone of The Trouble With Harry. He relishes the idea of a death being nothing more than mildly annoying and clearly enjoys the indignities heaped upon poor Harry’s corpse – not least the rather hideous blue and red socks which are often placed centre-stage in close shots.

What’s a little odd is that you tend to get the impression that he’s holding back a little bit, perhaps for reasons of good taste or maybe (as the Time Out critic has suggested) because of some traditional English restraint. I don’t buy that suggestion incidentally. Hitchcock’s restraint was superficial at best, as a look at his best films indicates – he could do all-out black comedy, as he did in Psycho and parts of Frenzy (where the business with dead bodies takes its cue from this film but goes much further) land he was more than capable of a very un-English emotional blow-out like Vertigo. I suspect that the explanation for The Trouble With Harry never going quite far enough is that Hitch was dipping a toe into the water to see what he could get away with. The film seems like a joke, nothing more, but Hitchcock does reveal himself a little in the character of Captain . When the elderly gentleman – of Hitch’s general physical build – speaks about being nervous when speaking to the police, that seems to echo Hitch’s own famous terror of getting into trouble with the law. In real life, when faced with a dead body, Hitch would no doubt have been horrified – it’s in comedy like The Trouble With Harry that these fears are exorcised, just as they are in the elaborate murder scenes that made him famous.

What makes The Trouble With Harry more than just a macabre bit of fluff is the brilliance in all technical departments. John Michael Hayes, in his third film for Hitchcock, keeps the dialogue light and funny while developing some very broad characters. Robert Burks’ shooting makes the Paramount studios (a hasty replacement for Vermont) look like the fields of heaven, with reds and oranges so potent that you can almost reach out and touch them. The editing by Alma Macrorie (a part-time actress who only did one film for Hitch) makes sure that the jokes are hit dead-on and avoids dead spots and the art direction by Hal Pereira and John Goodman is typically accomplished. The most important collaborator, however, turned out to be Bernard Herrmann, embarking on his remarkable work for Hitchcock which lasted until Marnie in 1964, after which they had a major disagreement when Herrmann’s score for Torn Curtain was rejected. This first score is playful and witty with certain similarities to Herrmann’s music for North By Northwest and Psycho - both of them black comedies, the latter far, far blacker than The Trouble With Harry could ever hope to be. Herrmann captures the tone of the film to perfection and it’s not surprising that Hitchcock would find him such a valuable colleague – although the relationship was as stormy as it was productive. When they broke up, HItch never quite got over it no matter how many strong denials he made and the films were the poorer for Herrmann’s absence.

The Trouble With Harry didn’t do too well on first release and, due to the legal wranglings between Universal and Paramount, was unseen for a number of years. But the droll sense of humour which it highlights proved highly influential on Hitch’s later work and particularly on the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV show. The persona which Hitch developed in his introductions to the TV shows was readily identifiable from this film. If you see it in the context of a period which produced Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho then it’s bound to look like a disappointing change of pace. If you look at it with an indulgent eye, however, then you should find it an amusing and ingratiating film which reveals Hitchcock’s playful side and gives him a chance to indulge his black sense of humour.

The Disc

The anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 transfer of the film is, quite simply, gorgeous. It’s one of Hitchcock’s most visually lush movies and this DVD gets this across beautifully. The colours are eye-poppingly rich with the shades of a New England Autumn coming across very strongly. The level of detail is very satisfying and there is little trouble with artifacting, excessive grain or obvious print damage. I thought this was one of the best transfers in the ‘Masterpiece Collection’ boxset and internet reviews suggest that it’s a big improvement on the 2001 release – I haven’t seen the disc myself but there are comparisons at the Alfred Hitchcock DVD Information Site. The mono soundtrack is excellent with Herrmann’s score coming across very strongly – it’s often featured on its own in scene transitions and is worth savouring.

As with many of the discs in this set, the extras are not extensive but the standard of what we get is generally high. The centrepiece is, as usual, a documentary. “The Trouble With Harry Isn’t Over” features good interviews with John Michael Hayes, John Forsythe, Herbert Coleman, Patricia Hitchcock-O’Connell and Herrmann’s biographer Steven C. Smith. The pick of the contributors, surprisingly, is Forsythe who reveals a very fetching dry wit and does a cracking imitation of Hitchcock. There’s not a great deal to say and the 32 minute running time does stretch things out a bit but it’s a pleasant piece. We also get some brief but informative production notes, a few unremarkable photographs and the original trailer which is too long and gives too much away.

Once again, Universal give us optional subtitles both for the film and the extra features.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 07:28:26

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