The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: Trouble erupts in a small, quiet New England town when a man’s body is found in the woods. The problem is that almost everyone in town thinks that they had something to do with his death.
James: Man, I was pleasantly surprised by The Trouble with Harry. Early on, I wasn’t sure where it was going. But as I came to understand the tone of the picture and get to know the characters, this film really took off. There are so many great moments in this film. And great shots, too.
Jason: I love this film. I love the quiet, black comedy of it, the way it seems to capture the essence of Hitchcock’s sly humor. I like the way it introduces that unique British comedy to American audiences and prefigures the tone of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents show. I love many of the choice lines throughout, and I love all the sexual innuendo, which often comes juxtaposed with thoughts of death or even delivered right over the corpse!
James: The sexual undertones are magnificent. Actually, I was surprised by some of the innuendo. Hitch really pushed the limits in this film. Well done.
Jason: Apparently, the source novel by Jack Trevor Story was a first novel that was really short and actually read like a film treatment, so Hitch didn’t deviate much from it at all. That being said, you can really tell that the movie has the mark of screenwriter John Michael Hayes, who also brought a lot of sexual innuendo to To Catch a Thief and Rear Window. The next movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much, will be his last as screenwriter, because of a falling out between him and Hitch.
James: I’m actually surprised this story came from a novel. It seems more like an original script. I mean, how would this read as a book? I don’t think it’d be nearly as fun.
Jason: Is the story of The Trouble with Harry the ultimate MacGuffin, or what? The film is about a group of people in a small northeastern town who have to deal with a dead body they find up in the woods, and they treat it with amazing nonchalance. Of course, that’s part of the great black humor of this movie, but it also makes for an incredible MacGuffin. The Trouble with Harry is much more about its characters and their relationships than about the central (and titular) dead man.
James: That’s classic. The dead guy is a centerpiece to the entire story, yet he means next to nothing. The characters don’t seem to really notice him, as you noted. I like how, throughout the film, they’re burying him and digging him up and discussing what to do next as if they’re at a dinner table talking about the weather. It’s this attitude that really makes this film fun and starkly different from other Hitchcock films.
Jason: And we not only get a romance plot behind the main MacGuffin action but a double romance, both involving much innuendo. Not only do we get the expected romance between Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) and Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine), we also get the frisky old-timers, Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) and Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick). Some of the ribald lines that pass between both couples is outrageous. I howled as Sam is talking to Captain Wiles about his date later in the afternoon—a date he makes with Miss Gravely directly over the corpse! Sam asks, “Do you realize you’ll be the first man to cross her threshold?” Wiles answers, “It’s not too late, you know. She’s a well-preserved woman, and preserves have to be opened some day.” Utterly fantastic.
James: Those frisky old-timers were so perfect for their roles. There’s so much spark to all the characters. But the pizzazz of the Wiles and Gravely relationship was particularly surprising.
Jason: I knew I was going to like them the moment Miss Gravely walks up to Captain Wiles and says, “What seems to be the trouble, Captain?” And there he is, dragging a corpse behind him. In fact, it was at this moment that I knew I would love the movie. Did you recognize Edmund Gwenn from Foreign Correspondent? He played Rowley, the assassin who falls from the bell tower. (And of course he also played Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street.)
Jason: Did you have a problem with the scene just after Sam finds the body? Captain Wiles meets him there and tells him that he thinks he (Wiles) shot Harry with one of his three rifle shots. And he and Sam try to figure out what to do. Then, suddenly, Sam seems to know about all the people who have seen the corpse already, even though Wiles hasn’t told him outright. Sam says, “What about the woman and the little boy, and Miss Gravely, and the tramp, and Dr. Greenbow?” And he even mentions the envelope in Harry’s pocket with Worp’s name on it. And he knows that Jennifer called the corpse “Harry.” I was really mystified by this scene at first, until I watched again and noticed a subtle fadeout near the beginning of the sequence, suggesting that Wiles must have told Sam the whole story. But it was jarring.
James: Yeah, I noticed that too, but I caught the fade. Still, it could’ve been better. Even a throwaway line like, “Now you know the whole story,” or something.
Jason: Here’s another question. At the very beginning of the film, as Arnie Rogers (Jerry Mathers) is walking through the forest and hears the three fateful shots, we actually hear a voice, which I can only assume is Harry Worp’s before he’s killed. He says, “Okay, I know how to handle your type!” Considering the way the mystery unfolds (not that it really matters, being the MacGuffin), that’s confusing. Are we to assume that’s what Worp says to Miss Gravely after she hits him? Then she hits him again, killing him?
James: That’s exactly what happens. I watched that scene over again, and that’s just the way I understand it. Interesting how the mystery of who killed Worp just sort of goes away. I mean, Miss Gravely just admits to doing it. Her admission is so routine! Hilarious! That kind of reaction is what makes this film’s humor interesting and unique, compared with Hitch’s previous films.
Jason: Hey, wait, this just occurred to me. Late in the film, doesn’t Dr. Greenbow insist that Worp died of natural causes? How does that fit in with that bit of dialog? Is he just a buffoon? I mean, the protagonists are banking on that diagnosis, considering how they have Arnie rediscover the corpse at the end.
James: I just assumed the doctor didn’t notice the swelling on Worp’s head. I mean, if you get hit on the head, maybe it looks like natural causes? Who knows? It’s possible you’re thinking too much about the MacGuffin.
Jason: I’m sure you’re right. By the way, did you catch the hidden meaning behind Captain Wiles’ line, “Next thing you know, they’ll be televising the whole thing”? He says this after a bunch of people have accidentally happened upon the crime scene. The ulterior meaning is that the Alfred Hitchcock Presents show would feature this same kind of humor in spades. I just wonder if that “meaning” was entirely intentional. I would bet that it was.
James: Ah, interesting. I’m sure that’s what Hitch meant, though.
Jason: You know what strikes me about The Trouble with Harry? It’s such an astounding shift in tone from To Catch a Thief. How many directors can turn on a dime like this? He’s gone from ultra-posh celebrity-focused lark to ultra-small modest rib-tickler. It’s a complete 180. I mean, that’s the mark of a great director, isn’t it? The ability to create something altogether different from anything else he’s done—and do it so well, without regard for how it will be perceived?
James: Actually, The Trouble with Harry might be the film that defines Hitchcock’s personality for me. Before this little education, I had no idea he had such a dark sense of humor. And this film definitely speaks to the fact that he was just a fun, creative guy. I agree that it took a hell of a director to follow To Catch a Thief with this sort of comedy, but I also think, to a point, that Hitch was waiting his entire career for something like The Trouble with Harry.
Jason: I agree that The Trouble with Harry could be considered a “signature” film for Hitch, but at the same time, he never really returned to this kind of mood, except for his TV shows. Which begs the question, Are his TV shows really the purest representation of his black humor?
James: To be honest, I’m not very familiar with his TV series, so I can’t even speak to any of that. But if it’s got more of this dark humor, I’m really looking forward to seeing it on DVD.
Jason: Back to the movie. It’s nice to see the police return to their usual thick-headedness in The Trouble with Harry. But here’s something interesting that just occurred to me. In this film, the local lawman, Calvin Wiggs (veteran character actor Royal Dano), could be called the villain of the film, and yet he’s the only character remotely connected with reality. I mean, he’s a very straightforward, enterprising man, involved with his own business and actually adhering appropriately to the law, and yet all the other characters mock him or disparage him. It’s interesting to think about.
James: That’s intriguing. In a way, Harry Worp is a villain, too, but that’s all touched on after he dies. As far as Calvin goes, there’s really no reason for the group to mock him the way they do. He’s just doing his job, and on a normal day, no one would mind at all.
Jason: But do you see what I’m getting at? Isn’t it interesting that our group of protagonists seems completely divorced from logic or reality—burying and digging up Harry’s corpse for weird private reasons, interacting with each other in some kind of fantasy world in which everything is a kooky joke—whereas Calvin is firmly rooted there? What is Hitch saying with that? I can’t quite grasp it yet.
James: I’m not sure Hitch is trying to say anything. Since this is a comedy, I’m not entirely certain we can look at it the same way we do with the others. The whole group is a bit nutty, as you said, but looking at it too closely might lead me to find holes in their logic.
Jason: Maybe it’s just something as simple as showing that these quirky people do indeed live in a world of their own. If we didn’t have the contrast of Calvin as the lawman, this film would feel completely disconnected, more of a fantasy. But there’s something even weirder about the idea that the rest of the world, outside this town, is completely normal, while this Vermont town of Highwater is isolated in its strangeness.
James: Something I’ve been thinking about is the fact that the sex talk in this film, although veiled to some degree, is pretty much right there in the open. We know that. But so is murder. Death. I mean, we have these two relative strangers talking about sex while burying a guy who might’ve been murdered. And under the noon sun, too. I’m not sure where I’m going with this exactly. It’s just interesting that, in other movies, murder is always shown at night or in some secret, out-of-the-way place. But in this one, the dead guy is right up there, front and center.
Jason: Do you think a comparison could be made with Rope? Both movies feature a death at the very start, and both have a corpse hanging over the proceedings at all times. The difference is that the murder in Rope is central to the story, whereas the murder in The Trouble with Harry is completely beside the point. The two movies contrast each other nicely.
James: Interesting Rope comparison. Death is right there in the foreground with both, but they’re done completely different. Definitely a nice contrast. Good point.
Jason: But yeah, I agree with your thoughts about the film’s out-in-the-open preoccupation with death. I read somewhere that the film’s autumnal Vermont setting is appropriate in this regard. I mean, the cinematography is beautiful, with all the fall colors, but autumn is the season of dying.
James: Speaking of that, I loved the look of this film. The fall colors really added something that’s been lacking in the previous Hitchcock films. Most of the films before this have seemed drab and gray (for obvious reasons), but this one is bright and colorful. And as I said before, it feels so open and free, unlike Hitch’s more claustrophobic films. I think his use of some great location shooting really opens this film up a lot, which helps lend it a more fun, light quality.
Jason: The film does look gorgeous. Kind of a trend taken forward from the French Riviera setting of To Catch a Thief? What I mean is, Hitch is finally really paying attention to setting. Same thing in the Man Who Knew Too Much remake, which follows this. Lots of attention to the Marrakech setting. But regarding The Trouble with Harry’s look, I read last night that Hitch was all excited about shooting in New England, but then his hopes were dashed when a huge storm hit the area and decimated the fall foliage. He ended up getting some exterior shots, like those with that Mathers kid and others with stand-ins, but mostly he recreated the look on a soundstage, using boxes of leaves carted from Vermont!
James: I read about the storm wreaking havoc on this film. But I’m just glad Hitch managed to get a few wide location shots of the country. Nice! Without that, he would’ve had the same old silly-looking backgrounds and process shots.
Jason: Getting back to what you were saying, though, The Trouble with Harry actually deals with the themes of sex and death in a surprisingly mature way, as a part of life rather than as forbidden subjects. These characters are completely at ease with both subjects, which is something you can’t say about Puritanical American culture in general. Maybe this is another reason the film didn’t connect with audiences here. But yeah, this is something I admire about the film. It’s pretty fearless in its themes and humor.
James: I couldn’t agree more. It’s refreshing to watch a film in which these themes are right there in the open. We’re so used to seeing these topics hidden or discussed in hushed tones. Yet here it is, all out in the open. In the daylight. The best aspect is that both of these elements are right there on the surface, yet we’re not really hammered with them. What I’m saying is that they’re right there, yet also somehow subtle. The sexual innuendo is obvious, yet the characters are still modest about it and use witty word play. And death is at their feet, too, but it’s casually dismissed. So it’s all laid out, but hidden at the same time. Anyway, you know what I mean.
Jason: Yep, and as you pointed out, this attitude of openness and light is completely in line with the cinematography and setting. Very refreshing, indeed. Another line that speaks to this is when the kid takes Jennifer to see the body. She looks it over and says casually, “Well, let’s go have some lemonade.” Life goes on.
Jason: Let’s talk about Sam’s art. I think it’s interesting that he’s not really interested in selling his art at all. Maybe this is in tune with the fact that these characters just aren’t connected with the real world. Early in the film, the millionaire is out at the cider stand, ready to buy, but Sam is oblivious, caring more about giving Miss Gravely her makeover for her date with Captain Wiles. Sam’s art is an important part of the MacGuffin story—he draws a portrait of the corpse’s face and then playfully destroys it when it becomes evidence. And when the millionaire returns, in that unlikely scene at the end, Sam only wants strange, idiosyncratic gifts for his friends.
James: I see how that creates that disconnected feeling, or rather continues that feeling. But for me, it’s more like a metaphor. In a way, Sam is a caricature of the typical artist. He’s concerned with art and love and life, not about payment. I can’t remember the specific instances, but a number of times in the film it’s pointed out that he has an artist’s outlook on the world and that his response is almost expected. In a way, that ties into the fact that this film didn’t perform so well at the box office. Maybe Hitch, too, had the notion of “art for art’s sake,” just as Sam does. I particularly liked when Sam disregards the millionaire’s art critic. That seems to echo how Hitchcock must have felt about movie critics.
Jason: You make a solid point. I think I was just initially confused by the beginning, when we meet Sam and he makes a big deal out of selling his paintings to make a living. At the beginning, money seems important to him, but in the end, it’s trivial in the face of the new relationships he’s made. Maybe that’s one of the points of the film.
James: I don’t disagree with you about Sam. His introduction makes him seem to be concerned about his art not selling, but for me, he’s a little friendly and jokey about it, too. Almost as if he’s putting up a front. But maybe, as you said, he’s interested in money at the start, but his new friends matter more in the end.
Jason: I just about bust a gut when Sam drew a couple of feet into his landscape sketch and only then realized that there was a corpse laying in front of him.
James: You know, I didn’t really like that shot of Sam drawing the feet. In retrospect, it’s kinda funny, but as I was watching it, I thought it felt overly silly. Too much so.
Jason: Fair enough.
James: Okay, I have to say that I absolutely loved Shirley MacLaine in this film. She was the cutest thing ever. She has this sort of innocent, sexy vixen mixture going on. At one point early on, I thought maybe she was bordering on bad acting, but her style grew on me pretty fast. She has an energy and relaxed nature about her that totally works for this fun picture. She completely inhabited the Jennifer character, bringing her to life in a way that I wasn’t expecting in a Hitchcock film.
Jason: MacLaine was a revelation. This was her first movie, too. She was discovered by the producer when she was an understudy for a play called The Pajama Game. I read a fitting quote about her: “Shirley MacLaine was kooky before that word came into vogue—impish, offbeat, disconnected, and beautiful in her own way.” I agree with every part of that. I also agree that her performance was off-putting at first, but then that impish way of hers came to define the character. She was wonderful in this film, absolutely perfect in an unpredictable way, and unexpected as compared with Hitch’s typical leading ladies.
James: Did you happen to notice that in the scene on Jennifer’s porch, you could see the lace of her bra? Not a big deal, but I thought it was a good indication that Hitch was pushing the boundaries a bit with the ratings board and that he could now get away with a tad more in his movies.
Jason: I didn’t notice that lace bra, but I wouldn’t put it past Hitch. Especially with this film, which has a lot of sex on its mind.
James: Mmmm, lacy MacLaine bra.
Jason: Here’s a bit of trivia from the bio I’m reading: Hitch was still chasing after Grace Kelly, and he originally wanted her for this role.
James: Kelly for this role? Hitch is a fool. He liked Kelly way more than he needed to. I’d go as far as saying that the Jennifer character was the most important in the film. Had she come off as stiff or more formal in any way, the entire dramedy would’ve collapsed.
Jason: No way would she have nailed the role like MacLaine did.
James: What did you think of Jerry Mathers (later of Leave It to Beaver fame) as little Arnie Rogers? I loved when Captain Wiles asks Arnie what the kid calls his rabbit. Arnie answers, “Dead.” That cracked me up.
Jason: You know, I thought Mathers was just a terrible little actor. I couldn’t get past a lot of his line readings, even though some of his dialog was very funny. But he was wooden, awkward, and brittle.
James: Ah, who cares if he was a bad actor? He’s just some bratty kid. I thought it actually worked for this film. Had it been a more serious role, then no, but as it is, I’m all right with his brittleness.
Jason: Okay, fine, I suppose he had a certain humor to him.
James: And what did you think about zany Dr. Greenbow (Dwight Marfield)? I loved how he ended up walking out, mumbling to himself at the end. Totally solidified the character for me. Earlier, while he was walking and reading and stumbling over the body, I wasn’t so sure he worked for me. But when he finally spoke and took on a more important role, it all came together.
Jason: I liked that doctor, but you’re right, his introductory shots—walking through the woods, reading and stumbling over the corpse—were pretty silly. He was definitely in the same fantasy world as the protagonists, never taking the predicament seriously. I loved MacLaine’s line as the doctor leaves the house: “He’s kinda strange, isn’t he?” I think it’s appropriate that his car had only one headlamp lit.
James: I loved that the car only had one working headlamp. That was great. I actually laughed and pointed it out to Stephanie.
Jason: Sort of reinforced his own kookiness.
James: There’s an interesting moment near that point in the film, when Sam is leaning against the closet door toward the end. It happens just as Calvin barges in to the house, looking for answers. I was fooled by that closet door. I thought the body was inside there. And I’m sure that’s what Hitch wanted us to believe. But as it turns out, the corpse is in the tub and all the clothes are hidden in odd, random places around the room. That was well done. Added a bit of tension to the scene.
Jason: I’m sure Hitch meant for us to think that they’d stuffed the body into that closet. What confused me is that Hitch, in two earlier scenes, very deliberately showed that closet door swinging open as if by a ghost. I guess I thought the story was going in another direction at that point. I mean, why show the door open like that and not really follow through on the meaning of it? Is it just to add to the suspense when Sam is leaning against it, trying to keep it closed?
James: You know, I thought maybe the boy was hidden in there, but that never came to be either. Maybe it was just one more element to make Jennifer a bit more kooky? And then, of course, to help create the necessity for Sam to block the door later . . .
Jason: It just seems like there should have been more to that plot detail.
James: Oh, I can’t believe I haven’t asked this. What did you think of Wiles’ whisper at the end: “A double bed!” Do you think it shouldn’t have been loud enough to hear? I’m torn. I like knowing that Sam asked for the bed (as payment from the millionaire for his art), but a big part of me wanted to have that be a secret. Something my mind would have to work on.
Jason: I like finding out that Sam has asked for a double bed, but I don’t like the way the whisper is an obvious dub. Normally, I’d be with you and want this detail to be left to our imagination, but in this case, I love the sexual forwardness of the line and I’m glad it’s audible. Maybe it would have worked better to have a final shot of the millionaire in a bed shop, right after Miss Gravely asks what Sam asked for.
James: Yeah, I don’t think my problem comes from finding out he wanted a double bed, because quite frankly, that’s impressive. But like you said, it’s how it was done. It seemed off in some major way. Perhaps it was the dub. Perhaps it wasn’t. Heck, maybe it’s the simple fact that Wiles whispered it—by the end, all four of them knew what he asked for, so why whisper?
Jason: Just found this quote from Hitchcock: “I think The Trouble with Harry needed special handling. It wouldn’t have failed commercially if the people in the distribution organization had known what to do with the picture; but it got into the assembly line and that was that. It was shot in autumn for the contrapuntal use of beauty against the sordidness and muddiness of death. The Trouble with Harry is very personal to me because it involves my own sense of humor about the macabre. It has in it my favorite line of all the pictures I ever made: when Teddy Gwenn is pulling the body by the legs like a wheelbarrow, and the spinster comes up and says, ‘What seems to be the trouble, Captain?’”
James: Why didn’t The Trouble with Harry do well? Because people were led to believe it wasn’t a comedy?
Jason: I think The Trouble with Harry failed commercially because its type of humor (featured in the trailer) was so foreign to American audiences. They didn’t know quite how to respond to it. Plus, no big stars like James Stewart or Grace Kelly. Of course, the Hitchcock humor would gradually grab hold of American audiences in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, so maybe The Trouble with Harry was just a little ahead of its time . . .
James: Hitch? Ahead of his time? No way.
Jason: Loved the Bernard Herrmann score. This was his first Hitch flick—the beginning of a long and storied partnership. He also did the Alfred Hitchcock Presents theme, at about this time. He’s about to bring a whole new personality to Hitch’s movies. I also noticed the name Raymond Scott in the credits. He wrote the song that Sam sings at the beginning, “Flaggin’ the Train to Tuscaloosa.” Raymond Scott did a lot of quirky, jazzy Warner Brothers animation music.
James: The score was top-notch. Definitely. Seems that Bernard was a bit of a hard case on the Paramount orchestra. I find that interesting. Also interesting that he stole from himself when coming up with the theme. Still, I think it’s a huge, important score. Glad to see Hitch and Herrmann get together.
Jason: I wrote down a few funny lines from the film. I loved when Sam asks Jennifer what Harry Worp looked like. After all, Sam has only seen him dead, on the ground. She says, “He looked exactly the same when he was alive, except vertical.” And another one, during Captain Wiles’ little afternoon snack of blueberry muffins with Miss Gravely, when he asks her how her husband died, adding that he hopes it was a peaceful death. Miss Gravely responds calmly, “He was caught in a threshing machine.”
James: Hahaha. Yeah, there are some great lines in this film. The Trouble with Harry is by far the best Hitch film as far as that goes.
Jason: Here’s a good Hitch quote about this movie’s tone: “Nothing amuses me as much as understatement.”
James: It’s funny how, in many ways, The Trouble with Harry has all the typical Hitchcock elements—the MacGuffin, the romance, murder, dark humor. But the tone is so completely different. I mean, I was surprised by the feel of this movie. Is this Hitchcock’s only outright comedy? I know there have been some lighthearted films, but this was definitely played for laughs.
Jason: I would call Mr. and Mrs. Smith the only other outright comedy, although Rich and Strange comes close.
James: Did I mention how much I love Shirley MacLaine?