Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry
****/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring Edmund Gwenn, John Forsythe, Mildred Natwick, Shirley MacLaine
screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on the novel by Jack Trevor Story
directed by Alfred Hitchcock
by Walter Chaw Once I realized the person I'm supposed to suture with in Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry is the title character, the middle of Hitchcock's three dead protagonists (sandwiched between Rebecca's Rebecca de Winter and Psycho's Mother), the rest of the movie began to make sense to me. Not a literal sense where the characters' behaviour is reasonable, thus making the narrative intelligible in a rational way, but an absurdist, Lewis Carroll nightmare sense, where language is revealed to be meaningless and unstable enough to destabilize perceptions of time and space as well. The Trouble with Harry casts Vermont in fall as Wonderland aswarm with madness and violence, lodged in a time-loop and peopled by a gallery of hatters and dormice (and even an Alice, completely over-the-rainbow insane) preserved in an autumnal, solipsistic amber of their own deconstructionist, semantic derangement. The closest analogues in movies are Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup and Michel Soavi's Dellamorte Dellamore: the former echoing The Trouble with Harry's thesis that if reality is defined by language, then reality is as subject to slippage as language; the latter harking back to this film's snow-globe meta-fiction, where life and death play out its meaningless permutations in a philosophical exercise inside an alien terrarium. The Trouble with Harry would play well in a double-feature with Scorsese's existentially terrifying After Hours. Godard's Alphaville, too--a noir about the prison of words where every room contains a "bible," which, in reality, is a dictionary with telltale words removed (like "poetry" and "love"), thereby eradicating them from the minds of a citizenry enslaved by a machine god.
Put yourself in the mind of Harry: possibly murdered, definitely dead guest at an eternal tea party--and not even the guest of honour. If you're Harry, suddenly the mordant humour of The Trouble with Harry vibrates at the right frequency, like when spinster Miss Gravely (Mildred Gatwick) comes upon doddering Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) dragging your corpse off behind some trees and, rather than remark on what she's witnessing, prods you with her foot before asking the Captain if he'd like a date later that night after he's finished doing whatever he has planned for your body. It's only in acquiring empathy for Harry that the monstrousness of The Trouble with Harry's gentle, twee politesse overrules the need for a mystery and motive. This is my body; what the hell is wrong with you? Challenges to bedrocks of social stability (the police, the church, marriage, and the family), Hitchcock's best films are similarly invasive violations. He corrupts landmarks with assassinations and other effronteries, the dinner table with talks of murder and nudge-nudge wink-winks at how hunger and thirst are mere metaphors for animal want and rut. I would argue, though, that nothing else he made is quite as baldly violating as The Trouble with Harry.
The same year as The Trouble with Harry, Hitchcock directed an episode of his TV show "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" called "Breakdown," starring Joseph Cotten as a disagreeable businessman involved in a terrible traffic accident that has left him "locked-in" to his body--conscious and aware, yet incapable of indicating such to the attending physicians or, eventually, the mortician who's about to cut into him. He's saved, just, when someone notices he's crying. No such luck for Harry Wort (Philip Truex). We first learn his name because the Captain, who thinks he's shot him while hunting rabbits, searches his person and finds a letter addressed to him in his lapel pocket. It never crosses his mind to save the address, should he want to inform a widow or orphans somewhere down the line. In fact, Hitchcock is careful to show the Captain putting the letter back where he found it. The plan is for Harry to disappear at the hand of a few of the nicest people you'll ever meet. This is the third time Gwenn, Miracle on 34th Street's Santa Claus, worked with Hitchcock. The first was The Skin Game, where he played an evil capitalist putting farmers out of business, and the next was Foreign Correspondent, where he played a murderer who meets a rather shocking end. His Captain is harmless and adorable, and doesn't care at all about Harry.
Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine in her film debut) doesn't care about Harry, either, although she claims that Harry is her second husband, the brother of her first, dead husband. "Harry's dead, too," says local bohemian Sam (John Forsythe), the guy who paints things no one knows what they are and tries to sell them at the local grocery. Harry's death isn't even a minor inconvenience to them. It's no inconvenience at all. Jennifer's little boy, Arnie (Jerry Mathers, two years before "Leave it to Beaver"), stalks about the oil painting in which they live with his little pop gun, a toy pistol stuck in his waistband. He's the first to discover Harry and, alarmed, runs home to tell his mother. Arnie, throughout, is the only character aware of the strangeness of The Trouble with Harry, an awareness that has resulted in not sobriety but adaptation. He is the Cheshire Cat. He reminds me of doomed Detective Walinski (Colin Friels) from Dark City, who has it all figured out and thus appears unhinged to everyone else. Arnie has this conversation with Sam on a porch swing after he's traded a dead rabbit (the "late" rabbit from Alice in Wonderland?) for a frog:
Arnie: Why haven't you visited before?
Sam: Perhaps I'll come back tomorrow
Arnie: When's that?
Sam: Day after today.
Arnie: That's yesterday, today is tomorrow.
Same: It was.
Arnie: When was tomorrow yesterday, Mr. Marlowe?
Arnie: Oh, sure. Yesterday.
Jennifer interjects here: "You'll never make sense of Arnie, he's got his own timing." If the "day after today" is yesterday, and today is tomorrow, Arnie is describing time running in reverse. Sam gets it immediately: they've become unstuck in time, and there is no longer any concept of the present. The River Styx, as they say, flows upstream, and this film is more Samuel Beckett than Daphne du Maurier. The local constable, Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano), son of the grocer where Sam's hocking his art, drives a 1913 Buick Model 30, for instance, while Sam's grocery list of "bacon, beans, cabbage, sugar, salt, tea, oleomargarine...and half a pack of cigarettes" comes to $2.05, which is, well--those are prices closer to 1945 than to 1955. I wonder if the look and feel of The Trouble with Harry were inspired by the 323 "Saturday Evening Post" covers Norman Rockwell painted in his 47 years with the publication, spanning from 1916 to 1963. That could begin to explain why the film feels both out of time and, like Rockwell's work, the more insidious for its forced quotidian normalcy. It's interesting that Miss Gravely asks Sam to guess her age. "How old do you think I am, young man?" He says, "Fifty. How old do you think you are?" 50 is the age of the actress playing her, but the character is 42. Does Sam see the actress and not the character? Miss Gravely refers to Sam as "young man," though Forsythe's actual age is 37--only five years younger than Gatwick's character, though he is presumably supposed to be younger ("'bout thirty"), because MacLaine, the woman portraying his love interest, is 21. Sam, on the same wavelength as Arnie, is a visitor here and, accordingly, is most often shot entering scenes or passing through. He wears a watch, like Arnie does. Of course it's broken.
Sam discovers Harry when he stops to sketch a landscape and "accidentally" sketches Harry's feet sticking out from behind a bush. This is a lot like David Hemming's photographer in Blowup accidentally photographing what he believes is the upper torso of a corpse that's been hastily dragged behind a bush, but not all the way. (There's a scene like this in Blade Runner, too, where the snake-dancer replicant is accidentally photographed in the reflection of a mirror.) But what does it all mean? Captain Wiles wakes from a nap to confess himself to Sam and ask for help in erasing his crime. They bicker about it good-naturedly, but they don't stop to consider justice for Harry or closure for his loved ones. Harry becomes a landscape figure for Sam to draw. A still life. Very still. The Captain tells a story about seeing a "double-breasted robin, drunk as a hoot owl from eating fermented chokecherries. Right away, I knew somebody was in trouble." Hitchcock suggests the passage of time here, and we're left to infer that the Captain has launched into a long story about robins, symbolic of rebirth and divine sacrifice (see also: Blue Velvet). When the film fades back in, Sam has almost finished a sketch of the dead man's face. The Captain says, "Nothing these days stands to reason." There's much to unpack here from all this talk of intoxication, portents, artful renderings, and the decay of reason. The Captain has more to confess--"Sammy, I haven't got a conscience"--and he assures us he'll never see Heaven, although it's left for us to fill in whether he knows he's going to Hell or he's an atheist. The dialogue is absurd, infernal, disconnected nearly to the point of non-sequitur. It reminds me of this, from Carroll:
A loaf of bread,' the Walrus said,
Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed —
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.'
But not on us!' the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!'
The night is fine,' the Walrus said.
Do you admire the view?
Sam tells the Captain that he believes Miss Gravely to be a virgin: "Do you know you'll be the first man to...cross her threshold?" This follows:
The Captain: It's not too late, you know, she's a well-preserved woman.
Sam: I envy you.
The Captain: Yes, very well-preserved. And preserves have to be opened...someday.
This is Hitchcock at his most disgusting, indulging in his fetishization of food and its conflation with carnal indulgence. Earlier, Miss Gravely asks Sam to hook his finger through a mug's handle to test the fit's tightness. During her date with him, the Captain hastily hides his longjohns from her shocked gaze before leaning casually against the bosom of the wooden female figurehead he has in his home. He compliments Miss Gravely by remarking how they'd gotten to this point of consummating a relationship that had only really started earlier that afternoon. "I knew you weren't as prim and starchy as they made out. Not by a long shot." This spurs her confession that it is her belief she has killed Harry in the act of Harry attempting to rape her in the woods. Her idea of repaying the Captain is inviting him for "blueberry muffins and coffee" as gratitude/exchange for his hiding her victim. In her story, Harry charged at her and insisted they were married. "He swore at me--horrible, masculine sounds." She says she feels obliged to the Captain and insists on repaying her debt. "After we've dug him up, we'll go back to my place and I'll make you some hot chocolate." Who is the Captain, ever the gentlemen, to refuse such an offer? It's not every day that a well-preserved woman invites you to plunder her grave.
Hitchcock transitions from Miss Gravely's invitation to the Captain overseeing the digging of a makeshift grave to Jennifer serving Sam coffee. ("Sugar?" "No, black thanks.") There are jagged crags attached to the exchanges going on here. Upon first meeting the now twice-widowed Jennifer, Sam remarks rapturously about her beauty and says he would like to paint a nude portrait of her. She rebuffs him and goes into the house as Arnie exits it. He's carrying a dead rabbit, which is key to the plot in clearing the Captain of Harry's murder, but interesting if we carry the Lewis Carroll connection in The Trouble with Harry to Alice in Wonderland's white rabbit, who, checking his pocket watch, declares he's late, causing Alice to follow him down a hole beneath a tree trunk into Wonderland. Jennifer tells Sam she's glad Harry's dead because he was too good to live. In fact, "horribly good." He compliments her mouth; she offers him more lemonade. They're talking past each other. Asked what she thinks they should do with the body of her dead second husband and brother-in-law, she says, "You can stuff him for all I care, stuff him and put him in a glass case." This prefigures Psycho, of course, and Marnie as well, just as the reference to robins behaving oddly--and Jennifer calling Miss Gravely "free as a bird"--portending a major event presages The Birds.
"What did he do to you, besides marry you?" Sam asks, underscoring Hitchcock's already emergent suspicion of marriage and the adverse effects matrimony has on a woman's independence. In telling the story of her first marriage (which ended in the murder of her first husband) and Harry stepping in out of a sense of duty, she is essentially warning Sam away from his attentions. She says it was on her second wedding night that she learned the truth, and Sam says, "You didn't learn on your first?" What is he asking her here, if we presume the question's not simply quirk for quirk's sake? I had always hated this film when I thought the picture's abundant riddles were cockteasing and mind-fuckery. But what if there's a "truth" Sam believes you receive on your wedding night? She tells a story about a horoscope and how Harry's vulnerability to astrology meant she wouldn't be able to control him. Based on how most of the story is about her wearing a nightie and ramping up "considerable enthusiasm" at the thought of his arrival to their marital bed, I think Jennifer is saying she's afraid Harry would one day be unable to satisfy her sexually and therefore left him. "There are some things I just don't like to do by myself," she says. She's talking about dishes...or is she?
Jennifer is much like Kasey Rogers's Miriam Haines in Strangers on a Train or Grace Kelly's Lisa Fremont from the previous year's Rear Window in that domestication is a kind of death for them, literally or metaphorically, and so they only play at domestication. They are, in reality, as dangerous and untameable as Mark Rutland's mythical jaguarundi from Marnie. Jennifer agrees to marry Sam before Harry is officially pronounced dead, which is interesting. Though she gives him a couple of reasons, a few are apparently "better left unsaid." She says Sam would make a good father for Arnie, perhaps observing how they share the same relationship with time and reality. He seals it with a kiss, and she says, "Lightly Sam, I have a short fuse." MacLaine is incandescent here. The sexual magnetism most often credited to her brother is in full, almost overwhelming evidence. Hitchcock gets it. (Billy Wilder got it, too, when he cast her in Irma la Douce (1963), and Vittoria Di Sica got it when he cast her in Woman Times Seven (1967).) Remembered for her sunniness and innocence in this role, what she is in The Trouble with Harry is ripe.
At the one-hour mark, Jennifer, Sam, Gravely, and the Captain leave to bury Harry again, for the third time, as a matter of expediency, with neither sentiment nor empathy on the docket. As they leave the house, a door opens, and Bernard Herrmann, collaborating with Hitchcock for the first time, makes it clear there's something sinister about the door. Harry is the absent mover--like Rebecca in Rebecca, say--and he is us, the audience, listening in as these people do everything except act like human beings. Harry's last name, "Worp," is a word that with its spelling means either "throw" or the act of giving birth in mammals. (It can also refer to the mammal's litter.) It's too strange a name not to hold some significance. Given the setting and the fixation with rabbits, it's fair to wonder if a part of the picture's peculiarity doesn't have something to do with it being folk horror. Whatever the case, The Trouble with Harry refutes any notion of normality. When a millionaire offers to buy all of Sam's work at any price, Sam goes around the room asking his friends what they would like. Gravely wants a "hope chest, full of hope." Jennifer would like fresh strawberries the first of every month regardless of the season. The Captain asks for a traditional hunting outfit and a new shotgun. Mrs. Wiggs (Mildred Dunnock), proprietress of the local grocery, wants an old-fashioned cash register. Sam himself, as a secret, asks for a double-bed on which to claim Jennifer.
Sam tells Jennifer, "If you married me, you'd keep your freedom," describing what feels like the most fantastic fantasy of Hitchcock's--or someone's (Alma's?)--wildest dreams. Jennifer says she doesn't care what happens to Harry, so long as they don't bring him back to life, and the door suggests how Harry might be alive already--or, at least, present. Consider what we know at this point about Harry. He is a superstitious rapist who appears to have been driven mad by his sister-in-law blue-balling him. Rejected for his amorous advances, he set upon the next woman he passed in the forest. Calvin, on the trail of a missing corpse a tramp has described to him, uses Sam's sketch as some kind of evidence. When Sam is confronted with this sketch, he re-draws Harry's eyes to be open, in essence resurrecting Harry, certainly as an object of interest. Eyes and ways of seeing are a thematic obsession of Hitchcock's--his bespectacled characters, seeing as they do through lenses, are often his avatars. When Harry's eyes "open," it's the point at which he intersects at last with addled Dr. Greenbow (Dwight Marfield), who, through his thick glasses, has managed somehow to overlook a body he has, to that point, tripped over twice. (As a director, he has presided over a film whose main plot device is a thing everyone in the picture overlooks for the bulk of it.) Greenbow is the recipient of Jennifer's final explanation in an expository scene reminiscent of Simon Oakland's wrap-up at the end of Psycho: both lay out the narrative; neither provide useful insight.
And yet The Trouble with Harry emerges as the superior evocation of Hitchcock's brief obsession with Freud, compared to the earlier Spellbound. Look how the doors of perception fly open at key moments of guilt and revelation; how two doorways are transgressed when Sam and the Captain go to retrieve the freshly-chthonic/newly-liminal Harry (naked now and equated with Arnie's frog) for the last time. Because time runs backwards in this place, Harry has returned to a birth state, submerged, cleaned by a team of attendants, and introduced into the world anew. The doctor wants nothing, at last, to do with this tea party and leaves, declaring, "This is the first nightmare I've had in twenty-five years." Jennifer laughs. Their plan, in the end, is to put Harry back where they found him in the first place for Arnie to stumble on, again, in a time he will define as two days before the next day. They will reset time. And this time, when Arnie discovers Harry's corpse, Jennifer will report it to Calvin, and the loop will be closed. Harry will be declared dead of natural causes, freeing Jennifer to marry Sam. Sam, who, not heeding Jennifer's warning that she will stop caring at all about him once he cannot satisfy her at her command, has confidently ordered a double-bed from a rich man.
The first crack in their engagement emerges almost immediately when Sam calls Arnie a "little creep" before correcting to "son." "Go on Arnie," Jennifer says, "run home and tell me about it." She makes no attempt to leave her hiding place to get home before Arnie does; now I'm of a mind of Lost Highway and its Mystery Man's promise that a phone call home will find the Mystery Man answering it. Reality is cracked in The Trouble with Harry, unmendable and illogical. It calls to mind Camus's "The Myth of Sisyphus" in its attack on language and reason, and it also reminds of a quote from The Stranger that reads, "I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world." The Trouble with Harry is a comedy about how the universe doesn't care about you, about how even the nicest, prettiest, gentlest people you meet are largely indifferent to your life or death. It's about insignificance and how rather than being the creators of a reality in which we are each the centre, there is an objective reality in which you are nowhere near the centre. You could die on a well-travelled path in the most beautiful place imaginable and no one will wonder if anyone loved you or will miss you. At best, The Trouble with Harry says, your death helps people find happiness; more likely it's just an irritant. The film is Hitchcock at his most perverse and abstract, a comedy of our irrelevance that feels exactly how it feels to read Alice in Wonderland. In a career littered with experiments that succeed to different degrees, this is one that really worked.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Universal brings The Trouble with Harry to 4K UHD disc in a standalone release or as part of a five-film box set of remastered Hitchcock titles. The 1.85:1, 2160p transfer, featuring HDR10 enhancement, does nothing to contradict the maxim that UHD and VistaVision go together like peanut butter and jelly. A fine layer of grain rests atop an incredibly crisp image that renders every leaf with pinprick clarity, while the extended colour gamut broadens and deepens the autumnal palette and even restores some fieriness to MacLaine's trademark red hair. The characters all tend to be attired in purple, and there's more variation to the individual shades than is evident in previous editions. Sometimes the wrong thing is brought into relief, such as the occasional seam in Forsythe's pancake makeup, and the specular highlights threaten to blow out in sun-drenched scenes, with early shots of Sam's paintings on display in an outdoor kiosk losing detail amid the intensely bright reflected light. Too, the early dissolves look peculiarly artificial, like they were digitally reconstructed to reduce optical artifacts--which might well be the case. Still: a mesmerizing presentation from beginning to end. The attendant 2.0 DTS-HD MA track is deceptively full-sounding for a monaural mix, especially where Herrmann's score is concerned. There's depth to it whether one chooses to listen with two speakers or compact everything to the centre channel--though the latter is probably recommended, given that dialogue drives the bulk of the film.
Standard-def extras dating back to the DVD era launch with Laurent Bouzereau's "The Trouble With Harry Isn't Over" (32 mins.), a retrospective making-of that recounts the production's location shoot in Vermont and subsequent move to the Paramount backlot when the New England weather became uncooperative. (A process that involved importing truckloads of foliage from Vermont.) Many of the unused second-unit shots of Vermont, we learn, wound up in Peyton Place two years later. Typical of these docs, much of the piece is irritatingly devoted to recapping the movie's plot; of greater interest is John Forsythe's declaration that The Trouble with Harry is "not at all sexy." That may be true, strictly speaking, but it misses the point that this film about disturbed narcissists falling in love with their own images reflected back in the faces of others is randy as fuck. That being said, I was charmed by Forsythe's gentility, his poor imitation of Hitchcock, and the obvious pleasure he takes in remembering the great man's company. Several times he says he loved Hitchcock, and I believe him. And some of his offhand observations--that Hitchcock had a "fixation" on death, for example, or that MacLaine was "so kooky and strange and funny"--are intriguing despite that no further clarification is ever forthcoming. Easily the most substantive and gratifying aspect of this featurette is Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith's discussion of Herrmann's participation and score--ultimately Hitchcock's personal favourite of their scores together, even though Herrmann recycled a good portion of it from the music he composed for the CBS radio drama "Crime Classics". I wish there were more attention paid to Jerry Mathers, particularly his character's connection to Sam and why Jennifer thinks Sam would make a good father. An animated "Production Photos" gallery (6 mins.) encompassing international posters, lobby cards, and many prefab publicity stills joins the clunky and degraded theatrical trailer (2 mins.) in rounding out the 4K platter. Blu-ray and digital copies of The Trouble with Harry are included with a purchase.
99 minutes; PG; UHD: 1.85:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), HDR10, BD: 1.85:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); UHD: English 2.0 DTS-HD MA (Mono), French DTS 2.0 (Mono), Italian DTS 2.0 (Mono), German DTS 2.0 (Mono), Japanese DTS 2.0 (Mono), BD: English 2.0 DTS-HD MA, French DTS 2.0; UHD: English SDH, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish subtitles, BD: English SDH, French, Spanish subtitles; UHD: BD-66, BD: BD-50; Region-free; Universal