One does not understand Alfred Hitchcock without understanding his sense of humour. He was very fond of dry British wit and exhibited a tremendous sense of it himself, leading to many situations that have since gotten him in some trouble after the fact (“Torture the women!” stands out).
1955’s The Trouble with Harry examines the dark(er) side of Hitch’s humour, perhaps even serving as a counterpoint to the randy angle featured in To Catch a Thief. In this film, the director once more depends on style over plot; in particular, his obsession is fixed on how characters react – or don’t react – to the opening set-up.
In a hamlet in Vermont, various residents come in contact with a dead body belonging to one Harry Worp. It is first discovered by a young boy (Jerry Mathers), then a hunter named Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) and then the young boy’s mother (Shirley MacLaine). The hunter believes he accidentally shot Harry, while the boy’s mother (and Harry’s estranged wife, in fact) figures she killed him with a milk bottle.
Then there’s Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick), who also thinks she killed Harry. An artist named Sam (John Forsythe) tries to help each of those “involved” with the corpse in turn, eventually helping with the burial and exhumation and concealment of poor Harry. To make matters worse, the deputy sheriff (Royal Dano) has to be avoided if for nothing else than his Indiana Jones wardrobe.
In an interview with Roger Ebert in 1969, Hitchcock expressed what The Trouble with Harry was about: “The only message in the picture was that you should never mess about with a dead body – you may be one yourself someday.” This unpretentious understanding is the core of the picture, forming the launch point for its rich and black humour.
In this instance, responses matter more than anything else. Various characters traipse through the location where the body is, reacting in turn without any ostentatious shock. As the storyline broadens and Hitch lets the audience get to know the characters, their motivations and concerns thicken the lines of the film.
The boy’s mother, Jennifer Rogers, is particularly amusing. MacLaine, making her film debut, is deliciously cheeky as a woman who can’t help but conceal her glee at getting out of her marriage to Harry. When Sam falls for her and proposes quickly, Jennifer announces that she’s only just been free a little while.
Gwenn’s Captain Wiles is another piece of the puzzle. He appears to be cultivating a relationship with Miss Gravely and believes that one of his bullets is in Harry’s temple, but he doesn’t feel a tinge of guilt about it. He only fears being caught. Interestingly, it is perhaps because of Harry’s passing that he’s able to enjoy Miss Gravely’s muffins.
And then there’s Sam, an eccentric artists of sorts who suggests to Captain Wiles that he might’ve just been doing his part “in accomplishing the destiny of a fellow being.” His reasoning here is that perhaps Harry was to die via thunder. Alas, with no thunder available, the hand of destiny and the will of God fell to Wiles’ bullet. It’s a particularly bleak sense of reasoning, perhaps even psychopathic, but it’s also hilarious.
Are the characters of The Trouble with Harry cold? Perhaps. They don’t seem to care what happens to Harry and drag him around to various places, seemingly indecisive about what should be done. Some are happy he’s gone, some believe they’ve killed him because he was “annoying” and some just want to get home. There’s a certain distance to these approaches, naturally, but nobody seems inhumane.
Perhaps more than the characters are cold, they put their own interests first. Even Mathers’ character, not far removed from the Beaver, takes advantage and scores extra muffins thanks to his sharp negotiating skills. He’s not upset about the discovery of the body, either, and joins the other characters in their innate self-preservation.
There has been plenty of analysis of The Trouble with Harry, with pretentious essays pointing to the Christ-like nature of Harry’s corpse or to narrow philosophical underpinnings. There is some value to this, but it remains that the larger thrust of this tale is more acute. It is, after all, important to never mess about with a corpse.