With all humor, you either get the "joke" or you don't. If you don't, no amount of explaining can change your mind. If you do, the details are endlessly enjoyable.
Part of the joke that's "The Trouble With Harry" is that "nothing happens." Hitchcock's "anti-Hitchcock" film defies expectations for action, shock, mayhem, suspense, spectacular climaxes on national monuments, etc. Instead, it's a New England cross-stitch of lovingly detailed writing, acting, photography, directing and editing.
Saul Steinberg's title illustration tells you exactly what you're in for. One long pan of a child's drawing of birds and trees . . . ending with a corpse stretched out on the ground as "Directed by Alfred Hitchcock" briefly appears.
So meticulously is "The Trouble With Harry" conceived, the only two images in the title art that are NOT trees, plants or birds are a house with a rocking chair on its porch and that corpse. The film literally plays in reverse of the title sequence -- from little Arnie's (Jerry Mathers, pre-Beaver. The boy who drew the titles?) discovery of the corpse, back to the home with the rocking chair, as Hitchcock's final "joke" puts the audience safely to bed. A double bed, in this case.
What's the film about? Oh, Great Big Themes like Life and Death, Youth and Age, Love and Hate, Guilt and Innocence, Truth and Lies, Art and Pragmatism -- packaged with deceptive simplicity.
The "hero," Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), is an artist. The man the "child" who drew the titles (Arnie, or someone like him) might have become. His name is an amalgamation of two of hard-boiled fiction's greatest detectives: Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Indeed, Sam Marlowe functions here as a "sort of" detective. But enough of pointing out the detailed construction of this script and film: repeated viewings yield far greater pleasures.
"Introducing Shirley MacLaine" in her first screen role threw that enduring actress into an astounding mix of old pros: Edmund Gwenn, Mildred Dunnock, Mildred Natwick ("old" in more ways than one) and Forsythe. That MacLaine held the screen then, and still does 50 years later (! Name another major actor who can say that), validates Hitchcock's astute casting.
In fact, TTWH is a tribute to cinematic "acting" as much as anything else. These are among the finest performances ever captured of these terrific actors. Since there are none of the expected "spectacular" Hitchcock sequences, nor his nail-biting tension, all that's left is for the actors to fully inhabit their characters.
That they do with brilliance, efficiency and breathtaking comic timing. No pratfalls here. Just nuances.
Edmund Gwenn and Mildred Natwick are the real stars. Had Hitchcock said so, the film would never have been produced. Their scenes (they receive as much if not more screen time together than Forsythe and MacLaine) are possibly the most delightful (and yes, romantically and sexually tense) ever filmed of courtship in middle-and-old age. Perfectly realized in every intonation and gesture. Occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.
Theirs is paralleled by the courtship of the younger "stars," Forsythe and MacLaine. "Love" at both ends of life, young and old, and love's wonderful humor and mysterious redemption, even in the face of death -- that inconvenient corpse on the hill.
Perhaps the most surprising and powerful undertow in "The Trouble With Harry" (one hesitates to name it because it's handled so delicately) is Sex.
It is only barely present in the lines given the characters, but the subtext is always there. Occasionally, it boils over into an infinitely subtle burlesque, as in the exchange between Gwenn and Forsythe about crossing Miss Gravely's (get that name?) "threshold" for the first time.
The look in Gwenn's eyes and the repressed joy and romantic hope in his face -- even at his stage of life -- is bliss.
The coffee cup and saucer "for a man's fingers;" the ribbon for Miss Gravely's newly-cut hair (Wiggy cuts it in the general store -- Mildred Dunnock in another unbelievably subtle performance -- muttering, "Well, I guess it will grow back."); Arnie's dead rabbit and live frog; the constantly shifting implications of guilt in the death of "Harry" up there on the hill; the characters' struggles to regain innocence by "doing the right thing"; the closet door that swings open for no apparent reason (never explained); the characters' revelations of the truths about themselves; their wishes granted through Sam's "negotiations" with the millionaire art collector from the "city" -- ALL portrayed within the conservative but ultimately flexible confines of their New England repression and stoicism (yes, the film is also a satiric comment on '50s morality) -- these details and more finally yield a rich tapestry of our common humanity, observed at a particular time and place, through specific people caught in an absurd yet utterly plausible circumstance.
Nothing happens? Only somebody who doesn't know how to look and listen -- REALLY observe, like an artist / creator -- could reach that conclusion about "The Trouble With Harry." Only a genius, like Hitchcock, would have the audacity to pull the rug out from under his audience' expectations at the height of his career by offering a profoundly subtle morality play in the guise of a slightly macabre Hallmark Card.
When the final "revelation" arrives, in the last line that takes us home to the marital bed where love culminates and all human life begins -- yours and mine -- and draws from us a happy smile of recognition, so Hitchcock's greatest secret is revealed, more blatantly in this than any of his films.
"Life and death -- and all of it in between -- are a joke! Don't you get it?" It's there in all his pictures. Nowhere more lovingly and less showily presented than in "The Trouble With Harry." Thank you, Hitch.
No Hitchcock film divides viewers more than this one. Some consider the film a masterpiece of understated black comedy; others deem it a plot less, pointless time-waster. The film was a fairly massive box office flop at the time (audiences obviously felt from the movie poster that they were going to see a murder mystery, and were disappointed to actually find themselves experiencing a bizarre, off-kilter black comedy). In retrospect, I'd say The Trouble With Harry is a great film that was probably a good two decades ahead of its time. The performances are wonderfully outrageous, especially the elders (Gwenn and Natwick) who give perceptive comic turns that actors nowadays just don't seem to have the range to do. Forsythe and MacLaine are delightful too (the latter in her movie debut), and Royal Dano rounds off the cast as a gullible cop who nearly finds out that the other four have been up to no good. There's no doubt that The Trouble With Harry is an acquired taste; but if this taste is to your liking then you're in for a delectable treat!
Before I begin in earnest on this review, I must point out that in the future, I'm expecting this review to have received many "not helpful" posts. That's because with many famous directors (such as Godard, Bergman and Hitchcock), there is such a perceived aura of greatness associated with their films that they have many rabid followers who will not allow any criticism of any of their films. While I can in some ways respect their loyalty, these fans seem like cult members the way they attack honest attempts to critique the films. In other words, if you disagree with them, it seems to be a personal attack!! Well, here goes--and in a couple years I'll need to check back with this review and see how poorly it faired.
THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY is probably the strangest and most daring film Hitchcock ever made. While he did occasionally inject some comedic moments into some of his films (such as his deliberately including phallic imagery into NORTH BY NORTHWEST, the odd romantic comedy of MR. AND MRS. SMITH and the kooky moments in his last film, FAMILY PLOT), none of his films were as comically dark and absurd as THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY. Additionally, there were no big-name stars associated with it--something only repeated a few times in his films (such as in FRENZY).
The only problem with this experiment is that the overall effort, at least seen more than fifty years later, isn't all that funny nor involving. Sure, I laughed here and then, but rarely were the laughs all that strong and the film seemed rather forced.
In some ways, the film reminded me a lot of a French film, BUFFET FROID, as both were absurdist films. In other words, when events occurred, people responded in completely unpredictable and confusing ways. When people discovered Harry's body, no one seemed the least bit concerned to find a dead man! In BUFFET FROID, after a man's wife is murdered, the murderer meets the husband and confesses--and they both go out on a road trip together! Some think such scenes are brilliant--I just got tired of it after a while because the shock value subsides very quickly and there isn't a whole lot of depth to it.
Now all this isn't to say this is a bad film--after all, I scored it a 6. It's just that it is far from a great film and isn't much better than a time-passer. Cute at times and very strange, the film never rises near the level of greatness. Of interest to the curious and Hitchcock fans--all others may find this one a bit tedious and unfunny.
* Director Cameo: [Alfred Hitchcock] about 20 minutes in, walking past the limousine of a man looking at the paintings.
* The film was unavailable for decades because its rights (together with four other pictures of the same period) were bought back by Hitchcock and left as part of his legacy to his daughter. They've been known for long as the infamous "5 lost Hitchcocks" amongst film buffs, and were re-released in theatres around 1984 after a 30-year absence. The others are The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Rear Window (1954), Rope (1948), and Vertigo (1958).
* Hitchcock bought the rights to the original novel anonymously for just $11,000.
* Location filming in Vermont was hampered by heavy rainfall. Many exterior scenes were actually filmed on sets constructed in a local high school gymnasium. Much of the dialogue recorded there was inaudible due to the rainfall on the tin roof, so much post-recording was necessary.
* Shirley MacLaine's first film.
* Composer 'Bernard Herrmann' arranged his themes from "The Trouble With Harry" into a concert suite he called "A Portrait of Hitch".
* When Music Composer Lyn Murray was working on the music score for _To Catch A Thief (1955)_ , Alfred Hitchcock was already looking for a composer for his next film, ‘The Trouble with Harry’. So Lyn Murray suggested Bernard Herrmann. And this led to the beginning of the long relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann.
* One of Alfred Hitchcock's own personal favorites from all his movies.
* Several scenes had to be shot in a rented high school gym because of the rain. In the gym, a Technicolor camera weighing 500lbs fell from a great height, narrowly missing Hitchcock.
* Although this was a failure in the US, it played for a year in England and Italy, and for a year and a half in France.
* Harry gets dug up four times throughout the film.
* Edmund Gwenn's fourth and last film with Hitchcock.
* Originally designed by Hitchcock as an experiment in seeing how audiences would react to a non-star driven film. He was of the opinion that oftentimes having a big star attached actually hindered the narrative flow and style of the story. He also developed the film with a view to test how American audiences would react to a more subtle brand of humor than that which they were more used to.
* "What seems to be the trouble, Captain?" was Hitchcock's favorite line from all his movies.
* Due to the indifferent weather conditions in Vermont, boxes and boxes of autumnal leaves were shipped back to California where the leaves were painstakingly pinned onto trees on a studio soundstage.
* Hitchcock insisted on using a real actor for the body of Harry. He chose Philip Truex.
* Bernard Herrmann's score was Hitchcock's favorite of the seven collaborations he did with the director.
* Parts of Bernard Herrmann's score was lifted from the music he had composed for a radio series called "Crime Classics".