The illustrated opening credits of The Trouble with Harry, featuring cartoonish countryside drawings designed by Saul Steinberg, conclude on an amusingly lifeless body, a crudely sketched frame lying horizontal and rigid and looking quite at peace. When the film proper begins, shots of vibrant fall hues drench rolling Vermont hills in shades of similarly pastoral tranquility. In spots, the multicolored leaves have fallen indiscriminately to the ground. In one spot, there is the more conspicuous corpse of ill-fated Harry Worp (Philip Truex). In what might be the most overtly humorous camera angle of his career, director Alfred Hitchcock positions the image at ground level, leaving Harry’s feet thrust forward in the frame, protruding upwardly and comically erect.
It’s a funny, unusual way to start a film, but it’s visually striking, with an ample VistaVision rendering of scenic splendor and lush cinematography by Robert Burks (his fourth picture with Hitchcock), and it establishes a droll tone that persists, unrelentingly so, throughout this 1955 Paramount release. Hitchcock, the beloved Master of Suspense, had always had a witty way about him, even with his more sober fare, but this is something else. In an idyllic setting, the village of Highwater, a tucked away hamlet ripe for escapist scandal, the discarded cadaver of Bostonian Harry is about to live up to the film’s title (if, that is, a dead body can live up to anything), causing nothing but distress for all involved. For the residents of this small village, he’s a nuisance, and for Hitchcock, he’s essentially a diverting MacGuffin, a gimmick to hang the film’s ostensible plot on while it moves along to other things. For the audience, though, the incidental victim initiates one of the great director’s most underrated and distinguishing features.
First on the scene is Captain Albert Wiles, a jovial older man played by Edmund Gwenn, a familiar Hitchcock face from as far back as 1931’s The Skin Game (his final role would be in a 1957 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents). The unsuspecting skipper had been out rabbit hunting, absent-mindedly it appears, and upon discovering lifeless Harry, he hastily believes he missed a hare and the errant bullet instead laid the stranger down. Soon joining the bemused Albert, as he struggles to drag the body from sight—naturally, as one does—is the elderly Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick). Matter-of-factly, in the dry, casual manner of most in the film, she observes the apparently criminal endeavor and before coolly concluding it’s merely an embarrassment for the man to have died the way he did, she addresses her neighbor and delivers the line Hitchcock says evokes the “spirit of the whole story.” Taking in the homicidal sight, she questions, oh-so-delicately, “What seems to be the trouble, Captain?” For no good reason, really, she seems perfectly OK with the cover-up—“Do as you think best,” she concurs, though she does suggest Albert hurry it up. More pressing is whether he would like to join her for blueberry muffins and coffee afterwards, an incongruous invitation extended as the recently departed rests irrelevantly at their feet. The rendezvous sounds like a good idea; as Albert comments later, Miss Gravely is, after all, “very well-preserved. And preserves have to be opened some day.”
Hitchcock doesn’t entirely disregard the situation’s potential for suspense, or at least he doesn’t forgo a sampling of intrigue just for the sake of the comedy. There is still the question of who Harry is and how he was killed (despite Albert’s supposition, it’s unlikely he took the fatal shot), and as Albert attempts to conceal the body, there are several moments of trifling anxiety, as a parade of wandering residents threaten his security. Filmed with a sort of medium-range, deadpan detachment, a tramp played by Barry Macollum also comes upon Harry and nonchalantly steals his shoes, and the town doctor, Dr. Greenbow (Dwight Marfield), his nose pressed firmly in a book as he takes a stroll, stumbles over the inert remains not once but twice, thinks nothing of it, and continues his trek. The real opacity of Harry’s demise, however, is enhanced by the appearance of Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine, in her screen debut), who is guided to the site by her four-year-old son, Arnie (Jerry soon-to-be-of-Leave-It-to-Beaver-fame Mathers). Harry, now in what Arnie is told is a “deep, wonderful sleep,” was Jennifer’s estranged husband and she, like everyone else so far, is remarkably dismissive of his death. What is more, she’s quite pleased. The final figure to emerge in this perplexing and increasingly compelling setup is Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), a starving local artist and relative newcomer to Highwater. He, too, takes it all in stride.
Hitchcock has assembled a quaint, genial group, their overriding decency and curious carelessness allied by the pure giddiness of getting away with it, especially after Albert’s innocence is affirmed and Harry is now, in Sam’s opinion, somebody else’s “bad habit.” Jennifer assumes some responsibility (she had recently struck her husband), as does Miss Gravely (she had also hit him)—what has Harry been up to? Although The Trouble with Harry has to this point developed into a murder mystery nobody is any rush to solve, they’re nevertheless in quite the pickle, and as they all go about their business and engage in idle banter (at one point, Albert rambles on so much Hitchcock just fades to black until he’s finished), the elephant in the room is always the corpse in the grass. The only one truly intrigued by the subsidiary state of fatal affairs is snoopy deputy sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano), but just as the primary characters dismiss his meddling inquisitions, so too does the audience: He’s going to end up ruining the fun.
What really matters as The Trouble with Harry plays out is the love that blooms swiftly, preposterously but still pleasingly, between Sam and Jennifer. If this impetuous courtship works, though (and in a film this preoccupied with the improbable, why wouldn’t it), it’s first because of Forsythe’s performance. As Sam, whose fiercely colorful portraits are supposedly the result of his recent “tortured mood” (which should say something about how gloomy the movie is), Forsythe is the definition of a “lead.” His confidence and energy motivate by association, inspiring action, consideration, and engagement from those around him, while his wisecrack delivery and unconventional conduct contribute to a marginally abnormal disposition: his first instinct upon seeing Harry is to sketch the body, and his natural inclination upon meeting Jennifer is to calmly submit, “I’d like to paint you … nude.”
Which then gets to the second reason this relationship is so instantly and fluently satisfying, against all odds: the introduction of Shirley MacLaine. Inimitably cute and effortlessly charming, MacLaine was cast only after first choice Grace Kelly was unavailable (Hitchcock had just worked with the iconic blonde on To Catch a Thief, also released in 1955). And that happened only after The Trouble with Harry’s cast and crew was already en route to New England, and after chorus girl MacLaine caught the eye of producer Hal Wallis, who saw the Broadway hopeful in The Pajama Game (and this only occurred because dancer Carol Haney was sick, which allowed understudy MacLaine to take the stage). In any event, if there was doubt about her acting talent, it would be handily assuaged by the end of the film, as her quirky talents are confirmed by Jennifer’s distinctive and delightful summary. The only one not convinced of Jennifer’s appeal is son Arnie, who tells Sam that if the prospective suitor thinks his mom is beautiful, he should see the boy’s slingshot.
Based on a 1949 novella by British author Jack Trevor Story, adapted by Hitchcock’s go-to screenwriter at the time, John Michael Hayes (Rear Window, 1954; To Catch a Thief; The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956), The Trouble with Harry was beset with obstacles. Inclement weather forced part of the shoot indoors, into an impromptu set housed within a local gymnasium, where the rain’s rooftop pitter-patter interfered with the sound and a large camera fell from the ceiling and nearly crushed Hitchcock. Eventually, the team relocated back to California, where authentic autumnal leaves were painstakingly affixed to studio trees. Then, to cap it all off, The Trouble with Harry fared poorly with critics and at the box office; it performed better in Europe, especially in England, where Story’s text was originally set and where the understated humor of the picture proved more palatable, but it was still a letdown from the likes of Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. More positive was the experience in that The Trouble with Harry became the first of seven Hitchcock films to feature music by composer Bernard Herrmann, one of the director’s most essential collaborators, here providing a jaunty, surreal counterpoint to the film’s morbid subject matter, buoying the characters’ dithering nonchalance in the process. With this offbeat offering, Hitchcock said it was as if he had, “set up a murder alongside a rustling brook and spilled a drop of blood into the clear water.” These contrasts, he adds, “establish a counterpart; they elevate the commonplace in life to a higher level.”
Though a rare, straight comedy from Hitchcock, where technical flourish is ancillary to the film’s peculiar personalities and the explicit humor of its narrative concept, The Trouble with Harry shouldn’t be all that surprising, given his penchant for gallows humor and flair for double entendre, no matter the tone otherwise. Furthermore, the police presence of deputy sheriff Wiggs (not included in the Story source) yields a minor variation on Hitchcock’s judicial unease, even if the characters play it off quite well, ambling about with shovels in hand and not a care in the world. And together with wry genre chestnuts like a randomly opening closet door, The Trouble with Harry is one of the most emphatic examples of Hitchcock’s affinity for people talking about murder, deliberating the multiple burials and resurrections that occupy the picture, working out a disposal strategy, and debating violent methodology; think Rear Window, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Rope (1948), and Strangers on a Train (1951), but with less at stake and more simplicity. As reflective of his own temperament as something like Vertigo (1958), The Trouble with Harry is an exemplary Hitchcock feature: subversive, inviting, entertaining, and containing a throwaway bathtub gag to complement the shower terror of Psycho (1960).