Sunday, December 30, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock | The Trouble with Harry

burying the dead
by Douglas Messerli

John Michael Hayes (writer), based on a novel by Jack Trevor, Alfred Hitchcock (director) The Trouble with Harry / 1955

Soon after filming To Catch a Thief in the beautiful Riviera landscape, Hitchcock and company were summoned to Vermont, location experts claiming that the leaves were in their full fall color. The world presented in the 1955 film, The Trouble with Harry, could not be more different from that of the wealthy citizens of Monte Carlo, Nice and Cannes of the former movie. If guilt—guilt both for having great wealth and guilt for stealing it from others—is a major theme of To Catch a Thief, the prelapsarian world of upstate Vermont is one in which none of the small town citizens seemingly has any money—and no reason, accordingly, for guilt.

     Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), a retired captain, lives, as he puts it, in a man’s world without any woman’s homey touches; his hunger for food, indeed, begins the series of events at the center of the story.  Mrs. Wiggs (Mildred Dunnock) runs the local general store without even a cash register, with many of her customers, such as artist Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), unable to pay her; in an attempt to raise money for him and herself, she exhibits his paintings alongside the vegetables and cider she sells to the few tourists passing through town. Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine) gets by, supporting herself and her young son the best she can, on her dead first husband’s insurance money.

We soon realize that for all but one of the town’s citizens, the lack of money presents no real difficulties, as they barter for goods and services—Sam promising his paintings as credit for his groceries, the young Arnie trading a dead rabbit for a frog and two blueberry muffins—and are seemingly ready to exchange whatever little they have with one another. Only Calvin Wiggs—whose very name suggests the religious roots of American financial “accomplishment”—is in search of money, working as a policeman by the “piece” and attempting to sell remodeled antique cars. Calvin has what Sam describes as a misunderstanding of art—not just of visual art, but a miscomprehension of the art of living.

   Even more remarkably, the citizens of this idyllic village seem to be the most placidly content folk on the face of the earth. The fact that the Captain has accidentally shot and killed a man in his hunt for a rabbit is met with utter complacency by the near army of people who pass by the body lying in the woods. As the Captain vaguely contemplates how to cover up his “crime,” Miss Gravely greets him with friendly hauteur: “What seems to be the trouble, Captain?”  After explaining the situation to her, she acceptingly replies, “If I were going to hide an accident, I shouldn’t delay.” Indeed, not only is her demeanor imperturbable, but she uses the opportunity of encountering the “murderer” to invite him for blueberry muffins and coffee, with, perhaps, some elderberry wine.

    Arnie, the child who has originally discovered the fallen man, returns with his mother in tow. Jennifer Rogers not only complacently accepts the reality of the man’s death, but seems absolutely elated by it; it is an act of “providence,” she declares; the world has seen the last of Harry (we later discover he was her second husband, brother to her first) as he lies in “a deep wonderful sleep.” When the child asks if he will get better, she replies, “Not if we’re lucky.”

    The local doctor, Greenbow, wandering the fields while reading Shakespeare’s love sonnets, trips over the body, his near-sightedness allowing him to not even recognize it as a dead man. A local tramp is delighted by the discovery of the corpse which provides him with a new pair of shoes.
    As the captain notes, “Couldn’t have had more people here if I’d sold tickets.” And, later, as the final witness to his supposed crime, Sam Marlowe, is seen approaching, he quips, “Next thing you know they’ll be televising the whole thing.” Sam, like the others, unruffled by the sight of a dead man, simply takes out his drawing pad and charcoal to begin a sketch.

    This general imperturbability of the film’s characters—the source also of much of the picture’s dark humor—has been misunderstood by many otherwise perceptive film critics such as Time Out’s Geoff Andrew, as representing “British restraint” and a “discreet style” that makes for “wooden” performances and “coy and awkward” situations.

     As the excellent film critic Lesley Brill has argued, however, the people of Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry are so in touch with nature that death and resurrection is seen as absolutely natural: “Death passes and life renews without effort or anxiety. The bland tone of The Trouble with Harry constitutes more than comic technique; it results from a profound confidence that death lacks the power to destroy and that hope can scarcely help but prosper.”

     We soon discover that the dead figure at the center of this masterwork, an outsider to this paradisiacal society, is named Harry Warp, and as quickly as we learn his name we realize that in our interaction with the various Vermont characters we have entered a sort of “time warp,” a world bent differently from the one most of us inhabit, a place where—as the young Arnie puts it—“today” is “tomorrow,” and “tomorrow” is “yesterday,” in short a world without time, where past, present, and future come together to create a near Edenic universe. Upon the Captain’s question, “What time is it?” Sam looks to his empty wrist and then to the sky, “I’d say about noon.” And from that instant forward, Hitchcock weaves a sense of timelessness through his work as the major characters, each intent upon resolving their relationships with the dead, bury Harry, dig him up, bury him again, dig him up, and bury him once more, before resurrecting the body, washing it, redressing it, and returning it one final time to its original resting place in the open field where it was originally discovered. Rather than resulting in what, in our fallen world, might be negative consequences for their involvement, each of Harry’s resurrections results in rewards for the members of this small funereal band.

In a series of absurd events, Jennifer Rogers has hit Harry over the head with a milk bottle, in response to which the stunned man, stumbling about the woods and determined to find his wife to restore his sexual rights, encounters Miss Gravely, whom he attacks, she driving the heel of her shoe into his head; meanwhile, the Captain, in search of prey, shoots three times. The three major suspects in Harry’s “murder,” accordingly, are each forced to lackadaisically address his or her connection to the corpse, to recount their “trouble” with Harry.

     With Sam’s help, the Captain attempts to hide the evidence of his crime; but when he discerns that he is innocent (recalling that his first shot hit a beer can, the second a sign, and the third Arnie’s rabbit), he is insistent upon disinterring Harry. His reward, in turn, for that burial and resurrection comes in the form of the restored Miss Gravely and their budding relationship.

     Miss Gravely’s belief that she has killed him results in the Captain and her returning to bury the body once more. Upon further reflection, however, and with the recognition that in hiding her evidence she may lead the police to find her guilty, she also demands Harry’s resurrection, which is rewarded, perhaps, by the sale of Sam’s paintings to a millionaire. In this non-capitalistic world of barter, however, Sam accepts payment by granting the desires of his friends: a box of monthly strawberries to Jennifer, a smelly chemistry set for Arnie, a chromium-plated cash register for Wiggy, a gun and hunting outfit for the Captain, a hope chest “filled with hope” for Miss Gravely, and a double bed for himself and Jennifer, his soon-to-be wife.

    Later, when the group considers the fact that the somewhat seamy details of Jennifer’s marriage to Harry may come out with the discovery of the body, she is faced with the decision that leads to Harry’s third burial. But again new doubts arise as this small society recognizes that Jennifer will be unable to marry Sam without the evidence of her second husband’s death, and the grave diggers, appearing in the film like the “dance of death” figures of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (a film released two years later), unbury the corpse one last time. After depositing the body in Jennifer’s bathtub, they discover, upon the doctor’s investigation, that the cause of death was a natural one: Harry simply had a bad heart.

    We have already perceived, from Jennifer’s testament, that Harry was heartless, with little appetite for the flesh she represents, while Sam, on the other hand, is nearly ready to pounce. “I’d like to paint you in the nude,” he announces upon their first meeting. Later, as he moves in for a kiss, she commands: “Ignite me, Sam. I have a very short fuse.”

     Freed now from any of the negative responses from the world outside their own, and having nothing to hide (Brill points out the comic use throughout The Trouble with Harry of a door that repeatedly opens to reveal only an empty closet), these fortunate few have successfully restored their world to the way “things happen(ed),” revealing the course of nature. As Sam has argued early in the film, Harry’s death is perhaps an “act of God,” “Heaven’s will…done.”  Now filled with love for one another, the four await the new day that is tomorrow, the yesterday that is today. As the film’s end announces, “The trouble with Harry is over.”

Los Angeles, January 7, 2003    

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