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Huntington News (10/Sep/2009) - Hitchcock's black comedy revisited

(c) Huntington News / Taylor Adams (10/Sep/2009)

Hitchcock's black comedy revisited

Taylor Adams is a journalism and cinema studies student who has spent more time than he’d like to admit on the third floor of Snell Library, picking through the stacks of DVDs available to students for renting. In this column, he highlights the ones he thinks you should take the time to borrow and watch, be they classic, enjoyable, illuminating or just plain strange.

Humor might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Alfred Hitchcock, but it is an integral, albeit subtle, element in many of his films. In 1955’s “The Trouble With Harry,” the black comedy that runs deep in much of Hitchcock’s other work is brought right up to the surface, and it couldn’t be more refreshing when coupled with a quaint country murder mystery.

Against the backdrop of Hitchcock’s beautiful vision of autumn in rural Vermont, the film wastes no time delivering a hook that would be familiar to any of the director’s fans. A little boy, Arnie, finds a dead body in the woods, setting off a string of coincidences and occurrences that lead to pretty much all of the town’s resident’s encountering the dead man – who is identified as Harry – except the police.

Ah, a mystery: a real whodunit! Yet, in an interesting departure from his normal cynicism, Hitchcock doesn’t taint the quaint innocence of his setting with some sort of underlying inference about the corruption of the local townsfolk. This is, after all, beautiful Vermont, and gone is the paranoia and the ethical ambiguity of Hitchcock’s 1954 film “Rear Window,” set in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Instead, "The Trouble with Harry" becomes an extended farce as the town’s residents, in the true gracious spirit of country neighbors, come together to each convince themselves that they alone are culpable in the outsider’s demise. They then try admirably to take responsibility for their actions before someone else encounters new evidence that shifts the burden of guilt elsewhere, invariably to themselves, and the cycle can thus continue.

The first resident to discover the body after Arnie, the elderly Captain Albert Wiles is convinced that he has accidentally shot the man, having mistaken him for a rabbit (oh, the woes of old age). He decides he must bury Harry.

Before he can do this, he is interrupted by the town’s old maid, Ivy Gravely. Luckily for him, Gravely’s sense of propriety keeps her from making much of an issue of the dead body, and the two agree, during the first of many hilariously awkward exchanges, to a date later have a date for eating muffins.

Just as things begin to settle down, resident eccentric, artist, and self-styled detective Sam Marlowe (John Forsyth) happens upon the mess. He and the Captain decide to bury the inconvenience and be done with it. But soon after, new revelations about local single mom Jennifer Rogers lead to the body being dug back up again, the first of many times, as Hitchcock’s tour de force of irony continues.

Rogers, played wonderfully by Shirley MacLaine in her big-screen debut, brings a vital, spunky and almost boyish energy to a role that she also manages to play with an abundance of feminine charm.

Her chemistry with Forsyth is a pleasure and their wit combines in some of the funniest dialogue of a Hitchcock film.

The script is laced with clever double meanings that walk the line of the then-struggling Hollywood codes, which would have restricted such, for the time, blatant sexuality and violence. "Do you realize that you’ll be the first man to, uh, cross her threshold?” quips Forsyth to the Captain of his visit to Gravely’s residence. The thin veil over the jokes makes them that much more clever.

But the biggest joke of all in “The Trouble with Harry” is death itself. Far from being the specter that it is in Hitchcock’s more famous films, death here is just an annoyance, a part of the life cycle that, in this case, seems to bring more good than ill. The film is morbid - it is Hitchcock after all – but dark it’s not.

“The Trouble With Harry” shows one of Hitchcock’s greatest strengths: sure, he can deliver a shock like no other, but he also delivers some laughs when least expected.