Friday, April 8, 2011

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY: Dig That Crazy Grave!

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 comedy The Trouble with Harry (TTwH) truly lived up to the movie poster’s assessment: “The Unexpected from Hitchcock!” The novel was based on British pulp writer Jack Trevor Story’s 1949 novel, but Hitchcock transplanted the action to a picturesque Vermont hamlet in autumn, full of likable eccentrics who find themselves playing hide-and-seek with titular corpse Harry Worp (the uncredited Philip Truex). Instead of the sleek, sinister suspense that was Hitchcock’s trademark, TTwH is more like an Ealing comedy with a gleefully puckish sense of gallows humor. Vinnie and I have always enjoyed well-played comedy with a slow fuse, so TTwH endeared itself to us right away. No wonder Hitchcock showed TTwH to the writers on his long-running TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents; what better way to show the writers exactly what Hitch wanted from them? Even though TTwH wasn’t a box office hit during its original U.S. theatrical release, it was a smash in France for a record-breaking 18 months, and much like Hitchcock’s 1958 spellbinder Vertigo, TTwH finally has the acclaim it always deserved!

Renowned illustrator Saul Steinberg's slyly funny opening credits sequence sets exactly the right tone. Cute little tyke Arnie Rogers (Jerry Mathers, pre-Leave It to Beaver) is the first to find Harry. The kid’s just minding his own business, dashing around the countryside with his toy space gun and his own scrambled way of telling time, when he hears the sound of gunshots and a man’s angry voice yelling, “Okay, I know how to handle your type!” Soon there’s a *thud,* and before Arnie can say, “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet” (no, smarty, not Pennsylvania’s governor!), the lad discovers Harry lying supine in a clearing. I love how Arnie innocently stands over Harry’s corpse in a way that looks like they’re sharing the same body. Nobody points fingers at Arnie (what do you think this is, The Bad Seed? J), but many of the townspeople seem to have potentially murderous motives. There’s Captain Wiles (appealingly played by that Oscar-winning Kris Kringle himself, veteran Hitchcock supporting actor Edmund Gwenn), who was out hunting and fears he accidentally bagged Harry instead of wild game. But the game gets plenty wild soon enough, in its own droll, understated yet cheeky way. Could that have been Harry’s angry voice threatening one of the other townsfolk, Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick, one of Team Bartilucci’s favorite character actresses)? A gentle lady of a certain age, Miss Gravely admits that the then-alive Harry had “annoyed” and attacked her for no apparent reason; did her sensible hiking shoes multitask as murder weapons? If so, Harry’s outburst might have been a case of mistaken identity (after all, this is a Hitchcock movie, “unexpected” or not! J). Apparently Harry was really looking for Arnie’s pretty young mom, Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine, making her film debut fresh from the Broadway hit The Pajama Game), who happens to be Harry’s estranged wife. Arnie was the son of Jennifer’s late husband Robert, Harry’s brother. Jennifer had truly loved the late Robert, but Harry, not so much. Still, Harry was all set to marry her just to be noble, so Arnie would be a little dickens and not a little bastard. Alas, Harry ducked out on Jennifer on their wedding night, citing a horoscope warning: “Don’t start any new projects…They could never be finished.” After all that, I don’t blame Jennifer for “knock(ing Harry) silly” with the nearest milk bottle once he finally showed up out of the blue to reboot the loveless marriage. Well, good riddance—any man who’d abandon a sweet dish like Jennifer on account of some silly horoscope prediction doesn’t deserve her, especially considering she’d gone to great pains to show off her nightie to its best advantage! Just as well, since Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) is developing a case on our Jen. No, not that kind of case! Although Sam’s name evokes Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett (as well as being the name of the protagonist of Andrew J. Fenady’s 1980 comedy-mystery The Man With Bogart’s Face…but I digress), Sam isn’t a detective; he’s a handsome abstract painter who takes wry amusement in helping his friends scramble around alternately burying and exhuming Harry’s corpse as needed.

Meanwhile, Hitchcock’s subtle humor steadily tickles our collective funny bone throughout the film, while good-natured eccentricity abounds and romance blossoms for young and old as Harry goes from dust to dust. Much as I adored MacLaine and Forsythe as the younger romantic leads, I’d go so far as to say that TTwH’s most charming and satisfying romance belongs to Gwenn and Natwick! The dry-humored Mrs. Wiggs, a.k.a. “Wiggy” (Mildred Dunnock of Death of a Salesman fame), postmistress and proprietor of the Wiggs Emporium general store, teams up with Sam to give Miss Gravely a makeover that’ll “take ten years off your birth certificate.” (What would What Not To Wear’s Stacy and Clinton think?
J) Now if only Sam would stand still long enough for that New York millionaire (Parker Fennelly, from Fred Allen’s “Allen’s Alley” radio troupe) to buy his paintings, maybe both he and the preternaturally patient Wiggy could make a few bucks!

Harry may be dead, but there’s plenty of life in the characters around him. The denizens of the hamlet treat Harry’s corpse like a whimsical prop, tripping over him (Dwight Marfield cracks me up as absentminded Dr. Greenbow, who I suspect would be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome today), swiping his shoes, making dates over his corpus delicti—if they’d had WiFi back then, no doubt some enterprising jasper would have built a Starbucks around Harry! As the befuddled Captain Wiles mutters at one point, “Couldn’t have had more people here if I’d sold tickets.” How’s that for recycling?
J  Harry’s done the hard part by dropping dead—the real challenge is not only putting him six feet under, but keeping him there! Good thing the action took place in the cool fall instead of Indian Summer, otherwise our heroes wouldn’t be able to keep Harry’s death a secret for long, especially with wary Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano) making like a bloodhound! I love Jennifer’s wry take on the “paranoia explanation,” too, but that’s a blog post for another time. J.

Hitchcock teamed up again with screenwriter John Michael Hayes, who also did the honors for Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), and the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Hitchcock’s trusty Director of Photography Robert Burks captured the beauty of the location’s autumn colors brilliantly. I’ve always liked the irony of the leaves being at their most colorful during a season in which the plants are in fact dying. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hitchcock had been thinking along those lines, too, scamp that he was! Even the costume designs by the ever-wonderful Edith Head all have fall colors or earth tones to some degree.

The TTwH ensemble cast is spot-on, working beautifully together. That said, I’ll admit that when I first saw the film in the now-defunct D.W. Griffith Theater in New York City during my college days, my reaction to Forsythe reminded me of a line from Diva (1981): the role suited him so badly that it suited him very well. But Forsythe’s performance has grown on me over the years, and anyway, I’ve always liked his piquant chemistry with MacLaine. By the way, before MacLaine was cast, Hitchcock’s first choice was Grace Kelly (who’s surprised? Anybody? Anybody? J), but she wasn’t available. Besides, in my opinion, much as I like Kelly, I think maybe she was a bit too regal for the wholesome yet quirky Jennifer.  Hitchcock also briefly considered Brigitte Auber from To Catch A Thief, but decided Auber’s strong French accent would be too distracting for what had become a very American story.

As fans of Raymond Scott’s music, Vinnie and I loved the song “Flaggin’ the Train from Tuscaloosa,” with Scott’s music and Mack David’s lyrics. TTwH was the first score that Bernard Herrmann had ever composed for a Hitchcock film! Herrmann and Hitchcock worked together on 8 more scores, including my favorite, North by Northwest, until their unfortunate falling-out during the making of Torn Curtain in 1966. Herrmann’s score was replaced with John Addison’s, although the unused Torn Curtain score is available on Amazon.com for completists (like me J).