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Boston Globe (02/Mar/1984) - The Trouble with Harry



The Trouble with Harry

There's no point in pretending that Alfred Hitchcock's "The Trouble with Harry" has the razzle-dazzle or the ramifications of "Rear Window" or "Vertigo." It's muted in tone and style, which may be one of the reasons it wasn't a big commercial success when it first was released in 1955. It's the kind of shallow entertainment Hitchcock insisted he always made, despite the darker dimensions of the best of them. It doesn't have the kind of virtuosic pacing or psychic drive of his best '50s movies. Yet within its narrower scope, it does offer a number of sly delights, many of which stem from the fact that Hitchcock never was one to take an elevated view of human nature.

As almost every film buff knows, Harry is one of Hitchcock's most famous McGuffins (the name he gave to whatever it was that set his films in motion). Harry, a corpse with big feet, is found lying in a meadow in Vermont on a golden autumn morning. In no time, the air is filled with mea culpas. Edmund Gwenn, hunting rabbits, thinks he accidentally shot Harry. Shirley MacLaine, visually echoing the countryside's autumnal vibrancy in her movie debut, thinks Harry died because she brained him with a milk bottle. Mildred Natwick thinks she did it, by clobbering him with the heel of her hiking boot when he jumped out of the bushes at her. Clearly, Hitchcock is having some mischievously cynical fun with the human propensity for assuming guilt. But he's no Kafka. He doesn't leave it at that.

The guilt, in fact, evaporates almost immediately. All, including John Forsythe as a painter who starts sketching Harry soon after discovering him, turn amusingly sneaky and callous as they worry about getting rid of the body. In Hitchcock's view, guilt stops when inconvenience begins. As Harry stiffens, the literalness of the film's title becomes apparent. Harry is trouble, nothing more. If "Rear Window" and "Vertigo" entertainingly rub our faces in the fact that film is a voyeuristic activity, "The Trouble with Harry" goes a step further by making us share the complicity that soon becomes the film's motor.

Hitchcock said "The Trouble with Harry" was "shot in autumn for the contrapuntal use of beauty against the sordidness and muddiness of death." The pastoral beauty is apparent, not only in the glowing russets and golds, or in the last rays of sunlight glinting off the edges of a burial party's shovels, but in Bernard Herrmann's woodwind-dominated scoring as well. If the film succumbs to slack and to a draining away of urgency as its claustrophobic bloodlessness becomes apparent, it's also vastly entertaining to see and hear Gwenn, as the stubby, beguiling tugboat captain in retirement, and Natwick, as a spinster aching to escape gentility, punctuate their elegant phrasings with eloquent hesitations. Gwenn in fact steals the film. He reminds us of how infrequently we encounter real charm. And to him falls the reminder that the phobia-ridden Hitchcock wasn't entirely frivolous here. When Forsythe uses the phrase "it stands to reason," Gwenn is quick to reply, "Nothing stands to reason," Hitchcock's ultimate message.