Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Trouble with the Trouble with Harry

The Trouble with Harry is great fun. Though I've known the basic plot outline for years, in its incarnation as one of the best episodes of my favorite show, Remington Steele, I only took the trouble to watch the Trouble with Harry today. (And if you think that's the last time I'm going to use that overburdened sentence construction, honey, you just don't know me!)

It fits in perfectly with the other two Hitchcock films I've been talking about this week, Notorious and The Lady Vanishes. Those two movies balance comedy, romance and thrills with Notorious being heavier on the romance and thrills and The Lady Vanishes being more about the funny. The trouble with Harry upends the balance much more toward comed. There is very little suspense, no horror and nary a thrill in sight. Audiences responded by staying home in droves and Hitchock, I guess felt he'd learned his lesson and returned to more conventionally Hitchcockian plots. Only Mr and Mrs. Smith, is further from feeling like a Hitchcock picture.

The story follows a long day in the life of a sleepy New England town after a body is discovered in the woods. The main joke of the film, which gets told in the first five minutes and then is simply repeated in variation throughout, is that no one gets too bent out of shape about the body. The victim's wife, played by Shirley MacLaine, seems overjoyed, but not in a ghoulish, murderous way. The man who discovered the body, Captain Wiles, (Edmund Gwen, whom I know best from his role as Mr. Bennet in the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice) assumes that he accidentally shot the man, and seems only bothered that he might get mixed up in a police inquiry. Sam Marlowe, the local extroverted bohemiam painter played by John Forsyth, decides to help hide the body out a growing romantic interest in the widow. A local spinster, Miss Gravely, played by Midred Natwick (Widow Trillane from The Quiet Man) also finds romance by being bound up in the conspiracy.

Hitchcock is always sympathetic to the plight of single women. It's one of the reasons I've continued to love him over the years. I've always wondered if that was the influence of his wife and writing partner, Alma Reville. At any rate, Shirley MacLaine plays a single mother with a complicated back story that just skirts the edge of Fifties family content and her son, played by none other than Jerry Mathers, "the Beaver," is the product of her brief first marriage that inexplicably also ended in death. Maclaine in her debut film role plays Jennifer Rogers as breezy and nonchalant despite her bad luck with husbands. Her answer to every crisis is to make lemonade. As a parent, I can appreciate this. There's almost nothing that a nice glass of lemonade can't fix. Hitchcock doesn't push Ms. Roger's sexuality. There are few close-ups, Edith Head's costumes are uncharacteristically restrained and the kisses are all well-chaperoned. In short, he does everything he can to keep her from becoming a stereotypical Black Widow.

Miss Gravely is my favorite character in the film. Seen by the town as an uptight spinster, Sam Marlowe gets his kicks by giving her a make-over in the general store after humiliating her by guessing her age as 50. She tells him, clearly stung, that she is 42, and perhaps out of guilt, he proceeds to arrange a haircut and make-up for her to "take ten years off her birth certificate." Ironically, Natwick was 50 when she played the role and her character has already done the job of attracting Capt. Wiles long before her make-over. Gravely maintains her dignity throughout and Hitchcock never turns the romance of the older couple into a cheap joke. Consequently they are simply a less glamorous counterpoint to the more worldly youngsters who frequently make-out in their presence.

The dilemma about what to do with the body is the Macguffin which drives forward most of the plot. It's hardly the uranium ore of Notorious and even the town cop is more concerned about maintaining his old jalopy than proving foul play. This lack of urgency is what gives the movie such a pleasant, leisurely pace. One has plenty of time to enjoy the technicolor autumn in New England as the conspirators mosey up and down the picturesque lanes burying and exhuming the titular character. The comedy is loose and laid back, too. There are no Week-end at Bernie's antics and the corpse is allowed to maintain his dignity mostly by being seen only in wide-shots that don't ever dwell on his face. I suppose, that audiences found with the Trouble with Harry to be too out of character and too light-hearted. The trouble with the Trouble with Harry is that there's really no trouble at all.

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