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Senses of Cinema (2013) - Renegotiating Romanticism and the All-American Boy Child: Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry





Renegotiating Romanticism and the All-American Boy Child: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry

by Adrian Schober

In the unusual opening credits for Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry (1955), the camera tracks from left to right over primitive, cartoon-like drawings depicting an autumn pastoral: birds and trees of ill-proportioned shapes and sizes, rendered primarily in hues of reds, oranges and blues, a New England house with a porch and rocking chair, a shining sun, more birds, now looking to the right of the frame, before concluding with the incongruous image of a horizontal corpse, face up with blank expression, eyes closed, in pointy, oversized shoes. This is set to Bernard Herrmann's idiosyncratic score, by turns playful, whimsical and sinister. For the credits, Hitchcock hired renowned New Yorker artist Saul Steinberg, whose affectedly childlike (i.e. faux naif) perspective and dry humour in these (uncredited) drawings, a la Hitchcock's favourite painter Paul Klee (1879-1940) who aligned his work with romanticism, 1 immediately establish the film's off-key, childlike point of view. As Ed Sikov argues: 'Steinberg's cartoon vision of nature in the credits sequence is both juvenile and grotesque, as if drawn by a disturbed child. It exudes an element of corruption that distorts what might otherwise be a kindergartener's view of a landscape." 2 This segues into the film proper, where an actual, flesh-and-blood child wanders through the almost dream-like New England countryside during the fall: gun-toting, intrepid preschooler Arnie Rogers (played by Jerry Mathers, later of TV sitcom's Leave it to Beaver). Through this careful use of juxtaposition, he embodies the primitive spirit, childlike perspective and dynamic implicit in these faux-naif credits. This, in turn, reflects the 'romantic interest in art processes as in the growing-up processes," 3 which is very Coleridgean in its equation of the child's way of seeing with the mind of the artist. While Arnie is neither disturbed nor corrupt, his ambiguous innocence, especially in the face of violence and death, suggests important correctives to a vision of the child and nature that might otherwise be termed romantic and, more specifically, Wordsworthian. He might not occupy a great deal of screen time, but each scene he appears in is both memorable and significant. Indeed, the fact that Hitchcock bookends his offbeat, dark comedy with Arnie, who has the dubious honour of both finding and re-finding Harry's unwelcome body, further attests to the centrality of the child and childlike to Hitchcock's overall vision.

The question of Hitchcock's romantically-informed vision has been raised by a number of critics. For example, feminist critic Camille Paglia places The Birds (1963) 'in the main line of British Romanticism descending from the raw nature-tableaux and sinister femme fatales of Coleridge" 4; she half-jokingly reads the crows in the bird attack on the Bodega Bay-school children as 'Coleridgean emissaries vandalising sentimental Wordsworthian notions of childhood." 5 Similarly, John P. McCombe seeks to connect The Birds to a 'series of philosophical, aesthetic, and religious ideas expressed in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner' (1798)," while juxtaposing the film 'more generally with the early works of both Coleridge and William Wordsworth." 6 By contrast, Lesley Brill analyses Hitchcock's handling of romance based on Northrope Frye's conception of narrative structure, how he mixes romance with realism, romance with irony. In the process he shows how Hitchcock was sometimes romantic, sometimes ironic, and sometimes both. As for Harry, Brill argues that it 'sets forth with unequalled bluntness and economy the romantic vision of innocence and immortality that informs the greater part of Hitchcock's work." 7 More recently, Richard Allen, building on the ideas of Brill and others, illuminates Hitchcock through the lens of romantic irony as set out in the writings of German philosopher, critic and poet Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829). Incorporating understandings from noted critics such as Anne K. Mellor and Clyde de L. Ryals, Allen highlights romantic irony as a composite concept in Hitchcock's work that generates unresolved possibilities, concurrent perspectives and divergent interpretations, where the romantic is ironic and the ironic is romantic.

Romantic irony at once accounts for the divergent interpretations of the role of the romantic ideal in Hitchcock's work but also provides an explanation of the relationship between form and content that defines Hitchcock's emplotment and subversion of that ideal. The concept of romantic irony describes the both/and rather than the either/or logic that governs the universe of Hitchcock's films, and it explains how it is that critics could construe Hitchcock's work both as an affirmation of the ideal of heterosexual romance and as a critique of that ideal. 8

He partly aligns this ideal with the romantic attitude of Byron, Shelley and Keats. 9 But while conceding Hitchcock's connections with English romanticism, Allen argues that the director inherited his romantic-ironic idiom not from early but late romanticism, from the 'cultural influences of the fin de siécle," 10 notably, Oscar Wilde, R.L Stevenson and Freud. Therefore, in approaching Harry as a narrative of romantic renewal, which illustrates the 'benign, redemptive dimensions of nature," 11 Allen chooses not to explicitly connect this with a Wordsworthian vision. In so doing, he overlooks how the construction of the child and childhood shapes the film's development of character, setting, theme, plot and point of view.

In pursuing these connections with romanticism in Harry, a film largely neglected in the Hitchcock canon, I agree with Allen that romantic irony offers a useful conceptual framework for addressing Hitchcock's oeuvre. Where I differ with Allen is in my assertion that Hitchcock derives his romantic-ironic idiom here crucially from William Wordsworth. As Judith Plotz points out, Wordsworth's image of the innocent child 'trailing clouds of glory," the child of nature, remains a benchmark for romantic constructions of childhood. However, Plotz shows how this romantic ideal has overshadowed the Wordsworthian child 'of clouds rather than glories," who is a 'much darker and more complicated entity than has been usually acknowledged." 12 This more nuanced interpretation opens...

Author note: I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Hitchcock scholar and “guru” Ken Mogg (of “The MacGuffin” web page) for his encouragement in writing this paper, for taking the time to proofread my manuscript in its final stages, which often meant clearing up some misunderstandings and unforgivable errors, and for being ready and willing to contribute his inspired ideas. I’d also like to thank his friend, scholar Freda Freiberg, for her interest and additional input.

(c) Adrian Schober, Senses of Cinema


  1. David Burnett, “Paul Klee: The Romantic Landscape,” Art Journal 36, no. 4 (1977): p. 323.
  2. Ed Sikov, Laughing Hysterically: American Screen Comedy of the 1950s (New York: Columbia University Press 1994), p. 157.
  3. Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker, Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1969), p. 23.
  4. Camille Paglia, The Birds (London: British Film Institute, 1998), p. 7.
  5. Ibid., p. 67.
  6. John P. McCombe, “‘Oh, I see ….’: The Birds and the Culmination of Hitchcock’s Hyper-Romantic Vision,” Cinema Journal 44, no. 3 (2005): p. 65.
  7. Lesley Brill, The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock’s Films (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 283.
  8. Richard Allen, Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), p. xiv.
  9. Ibid., p. 11.
  10. Ibid., p. 257.
  11. Ibid., p. 183.
  12. Judith Plotz, Romanticism and the Vocation of Childhood (New York: Palgrave, 2001), p. 47.
  13. Anne K. Mellor, English Romantic Irony (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 5.
  14. Susan J. Wolfson, The Questioning Presence: Wordsworth, Keats, and the Interrogative Mode in Romantic Poetry (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 150.
  15. Somewhat surprisingly, Harry failed to resonate with American audiences, unhelped by Hitchcock’s box office clout at the time with such films as Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955). Hitchcock implies that this was because of irreconcilable differences between British and American humour: “The Trouble with Harry is an approach to a strictly British genre, the humor of the macabre. I made that picture to prove the American public could appreciate British humor.” Spoto, Art of Alfred Hitchcock, p. 233. Even today, Harry remains one of Hitchcock’s least appreciated and understood films, particularly in the United States.
  16. Donald Spoto, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Films (London: Fourth Estate, 1992), p. 235.
  17. Adrian Schober, Possessed Child Narratives in Literature and Film: Contrary States (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 169.
  18. Spoto., p. 236.
  19. See Ken Mogg, “Hitchcock’s Literary Sources,” in A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock, ed. Thomas Leitch and Leland Poague (Chichester, West Sussex, UK; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 28-47.
  20. William Wordsworth, “French Revolution as it Appeared to Enthusiasts at its Commencement,” in The Poetical Works of Wordsworth: With Introductions and Notes, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, rev. Ernest de Selincourt (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), line 4, p. 165.
  21. Raymond Foery, Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy: The Last Masterpiece (Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2012), p. 30.
  22. Steven DeRosa, Writing with Hitchcock: The Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes (New York, London: Faber & Faber, 2001), p. 138.
  23. Ibid., pp. 137-8.
  24. Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Robert Aldrich, George Cukor, Allan Dwan, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Chuck Jones, Fritz Lang, Joseph H. Lewis, Sidney Lumet, Leo McCarey, Otto Preminger, Don Siegel, Josef von Sternberg, Frank Tashlin, Edgar G. Ulmer, Raoul Walsh (New York: Knopf, 1997), p. 480.
  25. Brill, Hitchcock Romance, p. 284.
  26. Ken Mogg, “Alfred Hitchcock – Master of Paradox,” Senses of Cinema 36 (2005), accessed August 31, 2012. http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/great-directors/hitchcock/.
  27. As Catherine L. Albanese notes, “out of 154 congregations in the [American] colonies in 1660, nearly 90 percent (138) could be described in the broad sense as Calvinist in orientation. Of these, 75 were Congregational, 41 Anglican, 5 Presbyterian, 4 Baptist, and 13 Dutch Reformed. Eliminating these last leaves over 80 percent who had, generally speaking, not only Calvinist but Puritan roots. That kind of numerical dominance would continue to be a feature of organized Protestantism in the United States.” America: Religions and Religion, 2nd ed. (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1992), p. 399.
  28. William Wordsworth, “Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour. July 13, 1798” in The Poetical Works of Wordsworth: With Introductions and Notes, edited by Thomas Hutchinson, revised by Ernest de Selincourt (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), lines 67-75, p. 164.
  29. Ibid., line 95, p. 164.
  30. Ibid., lines 102-103, p. 164.
  31. Plotz, Romanticism, p. 22.
  32. Ibid., p. 6.
  33. Michael Walker, Hitchcock’s Motifs (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005), p. 107.
  34. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Prose and Verse, Complete in One Volume (Philadelphia: Thomas, Cowperthwait & Co., 1840), pp. 482-483 (pp. 492-493), accessed December 11, 2012, http://books.google.com.au/books/about/The_Works_of_Samuel_Taylor_Coleridge_Pro.html?id=VdscAAAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y.
  35. Gary Cross, Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1997), pp. 155-156.
  36. Ibid., p. 156.
  37. Ibid. Jackie Chester (Billy Mumy) in the Hitchcock-directed episode, ‘Bang! You’re Dead,” from season seven of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (broadcast October 17, 1961) is clearly a product of this Western fad. When he innocently mistakes the revolver his Uncle Rick has brought back with him from his travels in war-torn Africa for a “surprise,” his actions have potentially fatal consequences. In charting this Hitchcockian shift from boy child as victim (Stevie in Sabotage [1936], Hank in The Man Who Knew Too Much [1956]) to “victimiser,” Jackie’s obsession with guns and Westerns hints at corruption by pervasive attitudes and elements within American society, entailing a critique of US gun culture, imperialist and hypermasculine values. Hitchcock even swaps his usual levity for seriousness in the opening and closing address, by issuing a warning to keep firearms out of reach of children. Interestingly, in an interview from the early 1970s, the aging director expresses concern about the greater violence in American crimes, which he attributes to the “wider possession of guns.” Arthur Knight, “Conversation with Alfred Hitchcock,” in Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, edited by Sidney Gottlieb (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003), p. 168.
  38. Cross, Kids’ Stuff, p. 154.
  39. Sikov, Laughing Hysterically, p. 159.
  40. Allen, Romantic Irony, p. 184.
  41. Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey,” lines 77-78, p. 164.
  42. Ibid., lines 79-80, p. 164.
  43. Geoffrey Durrant, William Wordsworth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 40.
  44. William Wordsworth, The Prelude: A Parallel Text, ed. J.C. Maxwell (Harmondsworth, Middlsex: Penguin, 1972), Book I, lines 497-498, p. 60.
  45. William Wordsworth, “Home at Grasmere [fragment from The Recluse],” in The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. The Excursion. The Recluse. Part 1 Book 1, ed. E. De Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), line 2, p. 313.
  46. Ibid., line 105, p. 317.
  47. Ibid., lines 711-720, pp. 336-337.
  48. Plotz, Romanticism, p. 5.
  49. The Trouble with Harry: Isn’t Over, written, directed & produced by Laurent Bouzereau (Los Angeles County, CA: Universal Studios Home Video, 2001), DVD.
  50. Jack Trevor Story, The Trouble with Harry (London: Allison & Busby, 1989), p. 7.
  51. Ibid., pp. 8-9.
  52. Ibid., p. 10.
  53. Henry David Thoreau, Walden and On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (New York: Collier, 1962), p. 154.
  54. Ibid., pp. 155-156.
  55. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Discourse on the Origin of Equality,” in The Social Contract and the Discourses, translated by G. D. H. Cole and revised and augmented by J. H. Brumfitt and John C. Hall with an introduction by Alan Ryan (New York, Toronto: Everyman’s Library/Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), p. 124.
  56. Ibid.
  57. George Boas, The Cult of Childhood (London: Warburg Institute/University of London, 1966), p. 31.
  58. In Marnie (1964), Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), who is about to embark on his South Seas honeymoon voyage with Marnie (Tippi Hedren), jokes to his former sister-in-law Lil (Diane Baker): “Take care. We’ll bring you back a noble savage!”
  59. Heather Scutter, Displaced Fictions: Contemporary Australian Fiction for Teenagers and Young Adults (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1999), p. 225.
  60. William Wordsworth, “Home at Grasmere,” lines 703-708, p. 336.
  61. Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book I, line 316, 50, line 318, p. 52.
  62. Ibid, lines 324-332, p. 52.
  63. Story, The Trouble with Harry, p. 67.
  64. One may find a Hitchcockian precedent here in chipper British schoolboy Christopher from Young and Innocent, who has the audacity to bring a giant dead rat he has shot to the dining room table, eliciting disgust from his father and older sister, Erica (Nova Pilbeam). Like Arnie’s rabbit, the rat is a trophy. However, hygiene and etiquette are the issues here; Chris is merely told to go away and wash his hands. When he returns to the table, Chris defends accusations from his brothers that the rat was dead to begin with: “It wasn’t. It was running across the yard.” He then boasts of how he could have “popped” fugitive Robert Tisdsall (whom the sister is secretly helping to harbour in a windmill), which leads to bloodthirsty talk from the boys about Tisdall fainting from hunger in the field with “rooks pecking at his eyes,” unnerving Erica. Arnie, I think, would have no trouble joining in this conversation.
  65. William Wordsworth, “We Are Seven,” in The Poetical Works of Wordsworth: With Introductions and Notes, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, rev. Ernest de Selincourt (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), lines 1-4, p. 66.
  66. William Wordsworth, “Preface,” in Wordsworth and Coleridge: Lyrical Ballads and Other Poems, by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2003), p. 8.
  67. Geoffrey H. Hartman, Wordsworth’s Poetry, 1787-1814 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1964), p. 144.
  68. Ibid., p. 145.
  69. Mogg calls Harry Hitchcock’s “exemplary MacGuffin” (i.e. a plot device which has little or no significance per se): “how fitting it is that Harry should be an inert object. He is as near to nothing [...] as makes no difference.” “Alfred Hitchcock – Master of Paradox.” Indeed, both Harry and death in this film turn out to be essentially nothing. The nothingness of death further underpins the motif of the closet door, which opens ominously to reveal just that: nothing. Or as Brill reads it: “The closet is conspicuously empty and the closet door is ‘only a closet door’, as Miss Gravely assures the startled Captain. Love, death, and closets are no more than themselves. They harbor no guilt, no fright, no skeletons.” Hitchcock Romance, p. 288. To better appreciate the sense of inversion, it is instructive to compare the image of the closet with its more fear-provoking counterpart from Robert Cormier’s adult novel, Now and at the Hour (1960). As husband and father Alpha LeBlanc lies alone on his deathbed in the throes of cancer, he is gripped by indescribable fears and anxieties: “There were some places in the room where he didn’t like to look. The closet door was never shut. He didn’t like to look at the closet and he tried to tell them [his family] to close the door. The closet was always there, waiting for him to look at it. He wished someone would close it. Beyond the door was darkness, and he was afraid that the darkness would creep out of the closet into the room. He had to be on guard against the closet all the time, to see that the darkness stayed there.” Cormier, Now and at the Hour (New York: Laurel-Leaf Books, 1988), p. 159.
  70. David Grylls, Guardians and Angels: Parents and Children in Nineteenth-Century Literature (London & Boston: Faber and Faber, 1978), p. 39. He writes: “Corpses had always played a large part in the Puritan tradition of upbringing, but it seems somewhat harder to understand why the Romantic view of children should entail an obsession with their death. However, this was certainly the case – indeed, with many authors, the greater their sympathy, the less the child’s chance of survival.” Ibid., p. 40. Whereas early death in the Calvinist/ Puritan outlook served as a warning to other children and was a demonstration of faith, the Romantic obsession seems to have been motivated largely by pathos, as notoriously exploited by Dickens.
  71. Linda M. Austin, “Children of Childhood: Nostalgia and the Romantic Legacy,” Studies in Romanticism 42, no. 1 (2003): p. 85.
  72. Jonathon Freedman and Richard H. Millingon, “Introduction,” in Hitchcock’s America, ed. Jonathon Freedman and Richard H. Millington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 7.
  73. Kent Jones, “Hitchcock’s America,” in 39 Steps to the Genius of Alfred Hitchcock: A BFI Compendium, ed. James Bell (London: British Film Institute, 2012), p. 109.
  74. Coleridge, Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, p. 253.
  75. Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism (Abington, Oxon; New York: Routledge, 2012), p. 54.
  76. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Machine Ideal in America. (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 3.
  77. Ibid.
  78. Ibid, p. 319.
  79. Ibid.
  80. Coveney, Image of Childhood, p. 222.
  81. Stanley Brodwin, “Mark Twain’s Theology: The Gods of a Brevet Presbyterian,” in The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain, ed. Forrest G. Robinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 225.
  82. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, intro. John Seelye, notes Guy Cardwell (New York: Penguin, 1986), p. 100.
  83. Plotz, Romanticism, p. 3.
  84. E. Anthony Rotundo, “Boy Culture,” in The Children’s Culture Reader, ed. Henry Jenkins, (New York and London: New York University Press, 1998), p. 337.
  85. Haim G. Ginott, Between Parent and Child: New Solutions to Old Problems (New York: Avon, 1965), p. 110.
  86. Leslie Fiedler, “The Eye of Innocence,” in Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, intro. and ed. Henry Anatole Grunwald (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), pp. 224-225.
  87. Ibid., p. 225.
  88. Henry Jenkins, “Dennis the Menace, ‘the All-American Handful,’” in The Revolution Wasn’t Televised: Sixties Television and Social Conflict, ed. Lynn Spigel and Michael Curtin (New York & London: Routledge, 1997), p. 122.
  89. Ibid., p. 125.
  90. Brill, Hitchcock Romance, p. 286.
  91. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, trans. Barbara Foxley, intro. P.D. Jimack (London and Toronto: Dent; New York: Dutton/Everyman’s Library, 1974), p. 56.
  92. Ibid.
  93. Lawrence Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice. Vol. 1 of Essays on Moral Development (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), p. 17.
  94. DeRosa, Writing with Hitchcock, pp. 138-139.
  95. Austin, “Children of Childhood,” p. 85.
  96. Interestingly, French critics/filmmakers Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol connect this with a Twainian vision: “the little boy in the film for whom today is tomorrow since yesterday was today and tomorrow will be yesterday is just like the American humorist’s character who is no longer very sure where it was he or his twin brother who was long ago drowned in the bathtub.” Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films, trans. Stanley Hochman (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1979), pp. 135-6. These scholars are referring to Twain’s oddly disturbing sketch, published in 1874, entitled “An Encounter with an Interviewer,” where Sam Clemens interviews his alter-ego Mark Twain. The image here of a drowned child/body in the bathtub as well as the confusion over burying a “troublemaking” body has points of contact with Harry.
  97. Plotz, Romanticism, p. 5.
  98. Ken Mogg, ”The Universal Hitchcock: The Trouble with Harry (1956),” (paper, 1997) accessed http://www.directors.0catch.com/s/HITCHCOCK/The_Universal_Hitchcock.htm (accessed April 13, 2012).
  99. Brill, Hitchcock Romance, pp. 289-290.
  100. Allen, Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony, p. 9.
  101. Frenzy envisions these primitive instincts associated with childhood in psychopathological terms. As the good doctor explains to his solicitor friend: “On the surface, in casual conversation, they [criminal sexual psychopaths] appear as ordinary, likeable adult fellows. But, emotionally, they remain as dangerous children whose conduct may revert to a primitive subhuman level at any moment.”