Wednesday, July 2, 2008

CS Presents: The Trouble With Harry

I decided to undertake something only slightly less harrowing and much more enjoyable than studying for the bar exam this summer: watching as many Alfred Hitchcock movies as I could get my hands on via my Blockbuster subscription. I will review the movies after I watch them as a way of actually posting here. I grade each movie simply on how much I liked it in relation to the others. SPOILER ALERT: If you don't want to know what happens in a movie, then don't read my reviews. There will be no SPOILER ALERTs within the reviews.

The Trouble With Harry (1955)

It's easy to forget that Hitchcock was English and not American. His films were American, his actors were some of the biggest stars this country has ever produced and they were released by American studios. Because his films are American national treasures, it is easy to assume that Hitch is one as well. His national treasure status is an honorary one and watching The Trouble With Harry quickly reminds you of Hitch’s roots.

The Trouble With Harry couldn’t be more of a British comedy if it involved John Cleese and a dead parrot. Its subject matter is macabre as a small child (The Beav, Jerry Mathers, in his first role) discovers a dead body in an idyllic Vermont wooded area. The man is laying there with dried blood on his forehead from some kind of deep wound. The hard luck rabbit hunter believes he fired the fatal shot that killed the well-dressed stranger. The man’s estranged wife believes she killed him when she knocked him loopy by hitting him in the head with a milk bottle. A local spinster, who the victim mistakes for his wife in his delirious state, believes she killed him when she defended herself by striking him in the head with a spike at the heel of her shoe.

None of the characters are that broken up by his death. To the hunter and the spinster, he’s just a body. The estranged wife says she doesn’t care if they stuff him as long as he remains dead. And the local artist wants to use the situation to get closer to the new widow. The boy, the widow’s son, isn’t the least bit disturbed by finding the body. He’s weird enough as it is. There is no horror or revulsion at dealing with a dead body, burying and exhuming it several times within 24 hours. The only concern is in not having to explain themselves to the local deputy sheriff, a Barney Fife without the charisma and charm. There is so little crime in the town that he gets paid by the arrest.

The humor is filled with the kind of non-sequiters loved in Britain. When Jerry Mathers shows off his dead rabbit, the kindly hunter asks him, “What do you call it?” The boy looks at him, matter-of-factly, and replies, “Dead.” An American film would have the film’s final joke be one designed to get guffaws. Hitchcock goes for the rimshot instead.

A typical Hitchcock dame was mysterious and alluring. She had a tough exterior, but retained all of her feminine wiles. Think of Eva Saint Marie in North by Northwest. Shirley MacLaine’s character was none of that. In the space of one day, she went from having her first conversation with the suave artist to being engaged to him. It is difficult to see why she was such a catch. If the typical Hitchcock leading lady was the girl in high school who smoked, dated college guys and had a cold sensuous nature, MacLaine’s character was the girl with the boyish haircut who had a facial tic and was prone to blurting out non-sensical answers in class. Yes, she might be endearing, but she isn’t someone you trip over yourself to land.

This wasn’t a film Paramount was tripping over itself to make. Hitchcock wanted to make it ever since he read the original story. Had anyone but Hitchcock proposed it, Paramount would have rejected it with record speed. This was a film that only Hitchcock could make. Paramount was willing to indulge him in order to maintain good relations.

This is a film that you will either like or despise. I don’t mind dark comedy in small doses, so I chuckled a few times and would watch it again if I saw it on cable. This is the kind of film that cult followings are made of, so I imagine it has some devoted fans.

Grade: B-
Up Next: Vertigo
Rear Window