The Trouble With Harry; directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1955
There was a time when most Americans found death to be one of three things: tragic, terrifying, or both. Until the last 20+ years, the ending of a life could hardly be considered fodder for comedic situations, at least for US audiences. Hitchcock, as a filmmaker, was always ahead of the times, using the cinematic technique to horrify audiences in new and distinct ways that Universal's movie monsters couldn't. Hitchcock had a fascination with death that he knew audiences shared (hence his indulgence in voyeurism that allowed the viewer to be somewhat of a willing participant in the fateful ends of characters onscreen), although he could also find the humor in situations involving passings on--a trait that is apparently very British.
So it's understandable that when Hitch decided to make his second (and last) comedy, The Trouble With Harry, American audiences were just not that into it. One of the stars of the film, John Forsythe, said years later that it failed at the box office here in the U.S. because they just didn't see why a story centered around how troublesome a dead body can be to the people of a small town could be humorous. The film did fine in the UK and the rest of Europe. But, after leaving people on the edge of their seats with flicks like Strangers on a Train and Rope, it just didn't sit well with audiences expecting the same gut-wrenching morbidity.
Well, I am not a direct product of the 1950s, and now that we have recent American comedies like Little Miss Sunshine that can cull the most ridiculous moments out of even the most macabre situations, I can say that I find nothing offensive about The Trouble With Harry, which marks the film debut of Shirley Maclaine. A dead man named Harry turns up dead in the woods of a beautiful, quaint New England town, but he serves merely as Hitchcock's "Macguffin." In the end, how he died and who killed him does not matter. The fact is--and literally, the trouble is--that he's dead, and now everyone who encounters his dead body is inextricably linked to one another.
What is wildly fun about this incredibly dark humor, is how innocent and lighthearted the entire cast of characters are. The bumbling British Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), his lady friend Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick), Harry's wife Jennifer (Maclaine), and Sam (Forsythe) all stumble upon the dead man one by one, and none of them are appalled, shocked, distraught, or any of the other feelings any normal human being would expect to feel upon encountering such a sight. Nope, they are all completely unphased, but for the fact that now they have to decide what to do with the body without involving the police. The body is buried and dug up again countless times, Sam draws a portrait of Harry's face (I couldn't help but think how paparazzi-like this was), and love is sprung through both pairs as they bond together to solve this "complication."
If this movie was made today, it would probably look something like an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The humor would be 100 times darker, and the characters as crude and unlikable as humanly possible. The difference is, whereas the characters in Always Sunny are unfailingly narcissistic and revel in schadenfreude, the characters in Hitchcock's romp are genuinely good people, just a bit cooky and charmingly self-involved. Harry's body is a mere inconvenience to them, one that makes it difficult for Jennifer and Harry to get married now that she's discovered she's a widow and they've fallen in love. How can we explain the death without it looking like we deliberately murdered him? they wonder. For the Captain, who thinks he accidentally shot him while hunting rabbits, Harry presents a bothersome nuisance, what with "all that digging and work" that is required of him throughout the story.
The absurdist nature of all of their interactions set upon the lush, beautiful Rockwellian-landscape of this quiet town are clever; while it deviates starkly from the work which made him the Master of Suspense, it still feels like a Hitchcock film, and a film that only he could have made. Obviously, the most avid Hitchcock fan would want to check this out, but I would also suggest it to anyone who enjoys twisted, and seemingly inappropriate humor--which really, is what today's comedy tends to be anyway.