THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)

Rich with a sense of autumnal beauty, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, which was promoted as “[a] comedy about a corpse,” turns on the joke that the corpse of Harry Worp, found in the woods one morning with what appears to be a fatal gunshot wound, won’t stay buried. Four times after clandestine burial the corpse is dug up for one reason or another. Hitchcock’s “lighthearted” style, however, has been widely misinterpreted as showing how harmoniously the residents of a sleepy Vermont town live with death and the idea of death. Characters may wish to get over their mortal fear as easily as one resident, absorbed in reading a book, obliviously steps over the corpse. (Later, still reading, he stumbles over it.) But the corpse’s serial reappearances ironically suggest that humanity fails in its attempts to look the other way when it comes to death. Consult Poe on the subject of the reappearing dead.
     Yes, I know, there’s the early shot of the town church to put the “season of dying” into perspective; after wintry death, spring’s rebirth follows. But our glimpse of the church comes in a long-shot—one not from any human perspective, but perhaps only from God’s. Humanity hopes that their faith holds water, yet their fear of death persists. Hitchcock’s film, written by John Michael Hayes, adapting (and transplanting) Jack Trevor Story’s novel, premiered in New York in late 1955 but was withheld from nationwide distribution until 1957, during which time its best promotion was pondered. Two of Hitch’s next three films, Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), also involve “corpses” that will not stay buried, but which are suited to much “darker” styles than is The Trouble with Harry.
     Indeed, note that Hitchcock’s “light” comedy is full of talk of the passage of time, which is contrasted with five-year-old Arnie’s total lack of the concept, which is beautifully encapsulated in his failure to recognize the corpse as that of his uncle and stepfather. Moreover, its parallel new romances—an older couple; a young couple—suggest the need for companionship in the shadow of mortal fear. The very slow pace of the film, suited to how people live their lives in this neck of the woods, also suggests a concerted effort to forestall the dreaded end.
     Miss Ivy Gravely’s—note the name!—protracted virginity provides an extreme example of someone’s mortal fear having determined the course of her life. Thank goodness she has a gentleman caller now. Thank goodness, also, for Mildred Natwick, who gives the film’s best performance as this spinster.
     This was Bernard Herrmann’s first score for Hitch and Shirley MacLaine’s first, and still best, film performance. Jerry Mathers plays Arnie, the son of MacLaine’s Jennifer Rogers; the future Leave It to Beaver star, hauling a dead rabbit, endears.

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