Judge Gary Milizter, who often doesn't know what to do with dead bodies he finds in the park, reviews this film from the twisted mind of Alfred Hitchcock.
Our review of Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Blu-ray), published December 11th, 2012, is also available.
The Unexpected from Hitchcock!
The Trouble With Harry has finally come to DVD, released among the latest batch of titles in Universal's ever-expanding "Alfred Hitchcock Collection." This Technicolor VistaVision black comedy is one of Hitchcock's lesser-known gems, an offbeat departure from the director who refined the thriller genre. The film was meant to be an experiment in crafting a production not built around a Hollywood "name" superstar, as Hitchcock felt that such a presence would actually be a hindrance to the narrative flow and style of the story. Likewise, Hitchcock developed The Trouble With Harry as a "test film" to try out his hunch that American audiences were ready for humor less obvious than the sort it was usually offered While this uniquely dark, British sense of ironic humor did not particularly appeal to mainstream American tastes and sensibilities upon its initial theatrical release in 1955, this delightfully deathly comedy-mystery has found a devoted following over the years.
Facts of the Case
The trouble with Harry is that Harry is dead, of course. His "troublesome" corpse causes numerous problems for a group of peaceful, small town neighbors in a beautiful, rural Vermont community. As little Arnie Rogers (Jerry Mathers—television's "Beaver" Cleaver) traipses through the fall foliage of his neighborhood woods, with toy tommy gun in hand, he distinctly hears the sound of three gunshots erupting in the crisp autumn afternoon air. Upon further investigation, the boy discovers Harry's fresh corpse, still clad in his sharp gray suit. Arnie runs off to fetch his mother Jennifer (in her big screen debut, Shirley MacLaine—Terms of Endearment, The Apartment). Shortly afterwards, an elderly hunter with a seemingly bad aim (played with perfect charm by Edmund Gwenn, sans his customary Miracle on 34th Street Kris Kringle beard) stumbles upon Harry's remains and fears that he may have accidentally shot and killed the man. To reveal more would only serve to mitigate the twisted, humorous surprises to come in this macabre comedy of errors. Needless to say, while no one really seems to mind that Harry is indeed dead, various characters think they are responsible for bringing about Harry's death and go about trying to hide the body, acting as though nothing happened. They all make seemingly illogical decisions, with nary a scintilla of basic human compassion for the dearly departed Harry to be found in their actions. This grimly comical tone, with its overtly sly humor, along with Hitchcock's genius for narrative economy on showcase here, is what ultimately elevates The Trouble With Harry to a level of near brilliance.
Alfred Hitchcock is the undisputed Master of Suspense. He could appear on television, utter a simple greeting of "Good Evening," and turn it into a menacing threat. Indeed, the willful perversity of Hitchcock's films is what makes them so effective. Even the most ordinary details become the source of nameless, unspeakable dread: a shower, a staircase, a window, a flock of birds, an innocuous closet door that just can't seem to stay closed. And it's always ordinary, everyday people who become entrapped and entangled in this web of Hitchcockian intrigue.
Near the end of his career, Hitchcock's work may have been hampered by an over-dependence upon dated styles and tricks of filmmaking, including obviously artificial sets and back projection. Perhaps over-generously enthusiastic critics did him a disservice in elevating his status to such lofty heights that he could seem to have done no wrong. Before his talent was "discovered" and his enduring legacy solidified through endless analysis by modern academics of the cinema, mature work like The Trouble With Harry near perfectly integrated many of the elements of obsession, suspense, witty observation, and human psychology that Hitchcock doted upon so lovingly.
The film's small, select cast is crucial to the success of The Trouble With Harry. Hitchcock assembled a tight, talented ensemble of recognizable character actors, and their performances elevate this material to lofty heights indeed. Shirley MacLaine, freshly plucked from the stage musical The Pajama Game to make her Hollywood debut, is utterly charming, bringing a detached, youthful innocence to the part of Jennifer Rogers. The suave John Forsythe (TV's Dynasty, In Cold Blood, Topaz) is wonderful as eccentric artist Sam Marlowe. Noted character actors of the era, including the aforementioned Edmund Gwenn, Mildred Natwick, and Mildred Dunnock, round out this fantastic cast.
Bernard Herrmann composed the music for The Trouble With Harry, his first score for Hitchcock. This rhythmic musical soundtrack and the rollicking tongue-in-cheek attitude taken by Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes are two of the chief reasons that this movie works so well. Herrmann's score perfectly compliments the tone of the film and heightens the whimsical sensibility that Hitchcock was striving for in this production. Hitchcock actually noted that this was his favorite particular score by the composer for his films, even more so than their later, memorable collaborations on Vertigo and Psycho, among others.
Hayes' screenplay is clever. It's all about the joys of good, witty
dialogue. Take for instance this golden exchange between Forsythe and Gwenn,
discussing Gwenn's potential for hooking up with the older, yet still virginal,
The Trouble With Harry is presented in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, with a new 16x9 enhanced transfer to boot. For a film of its age, the print used for this transfer was rather pristine, with only minor signs of scratches and specks rearing their ugly, damaged heads. Hitchcock's splendid use of gorgeous imagery is readily apparent in the scenic autumn vistas of Vermont, with its cornucopia of vibrant oranges, yellows, greens, and browns. These colors are very lush and vibrant; the fall foliage of picturesque New England, employed so effectively by Hitch, has never looked so splendidly alive. These landscapes are very beautiful, sharp, and clean, looking like they are straight out of a quintessential souvenir postcard. Even with all these effervescent earth tones onscreen, color bleeding is kept to a minimal and the saturation level is ideal, keeping the entire composition uniformly vivid. Flesh tones are natural in that pale, northern New Englander way. There is some mild grain, but its minimal amount will upset only the most discriminating DVD enthusiast. Overall, this transfer is more than acceptable; it's quite fantastic, especially considering that Harry is now 46 years old. It may not elicit as much "wow" factor as Warner Brothers' North by Northwest or Universal's Vertigo transfers rightly garnered upon their respective releases to the DVD market, but it will pleasantly surprise more than a few Hitchcock aficionados whose only prior exposure to this gem was on a dull, cropped and faded VHS copy. Heck, the picture is so clear on this DVD that you'll easily notice that tiny, pesky fly inadvertently buzz into the frame, sweep through Shirley MacLaine's hair, and finally rest on John Forsythe's sport coat during chapter 14!
Presented in Dolby Digital mono, the sound is fine. Dialogue is crisp and clear, without any overly aggravating distortion. There is an occasional, minor hiss apparent at times, but overall the soundtrack is satisfactory, if a bit underwhelming due to the small soundstage inherent with mono soundscapes of this sort.
As part of Universal's "Alfred Hitchcock Collection," The Trouble With Harry comes packed with a few interesting supplements to satisfy the collector. The most noteworthy special feature is "The Trouble With Harry Isn't Over," an original 30-minute documentary by Laurent Bouzereau. This documentary features interviews with Forsythe, screenwriter Hayes, associate producer Herbert Coleman, and Pat Hitchcock O'Connell, daughter of Alfred Hitchcock. This is an interesting documentary, full of anecdotes about how the production came to fruition and how the casting was handled. Among the neat factoids shared here is that only half of the film was shot on location in Vermont; inclement New England weather forced the remainder of the film to be shot on California soundstages, with actual Vermont foliage shipped across the country and stapled down on the Hollywood sets to give them an air of authenticity.
Also included in this set are a still production gallery, featuring about 38 photos, and five pages of production notes. There is also the usual limited cast and crew biography section, and a full screen trailer for the videocassette re-release of The Trouble With Harry that is in relatively poor condition.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I don't really have anything bad to say about this release. There will certainly be some people who, not expecting the cerebrally humorous tone of this film, will be disappointed to discover that The Trouble With Harry is not a straightforward shocker or thriller, as was typical of Hitchcock's oeuvre. Plus, it has a staged play-like structure that may turn off those with short attention spans who desire less verbosity and more action in their films. To those I can only kindly suggest that a rental of Weekend at Bernie's II would perhaps be more in order.
The fact remains that no director has ever been so copied, emulated, admired, envied…and watched. Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry is testament to this artistic legacy and vividly demonstrates just why the fabled Master of Suspense has never ceased to be a potent, influential force in the history of world cinema. Leave it to Hitchcock to take the solemn act of death and turn it into a lighthearted, oftentimes hilarious, romp that is a pure delight to watch from start to finish. While it may not be among his masterworks, The Trouble With Harry is solid entertainment that has aged gracefully, and is well worth adding to any tasteful DVD collection. This one comes highly recommended.
There is no trouble with Harry, and this case is promptly dismissed, with kudos to Universal for restoring and releasing another fine addition to their Hitchcock DVD collection.
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Scales of Justice
• "The Trouble With Harry Isn't Over" Documentary
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