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The Trouble With Harry (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)


    The gorgeous New England backdrops that colorize Alfred Hitchcock’s droll black comedy The Trouble With Harry are clearly an idealized abstraction of reality, but the movie mines tension from the presence of that idealism. When fate dumps death into the autumnal small town atmosphere that Hitchcock so fastidiously creates, it threatens to upset the balance of his tightly controlled environment. The people that gather around the titular corpse attempt to maintain decorum as they attempt to rid themselves of it. Against all reason, they each remain at ease with its presence, and from that acceptance of death, they begin to live. The comedic engine is always in plain view here, partly because the exaggeratedly picaresque setting is so intrinsic to the gag and partly because there’s inherent contrivance in the on-again, off-again roundelay that the characters go through as they repeatedly bury and exhume Harry’s corpse. Despite the artifice, or perhaps partly because of it, the film manages to be enjoyable.


    Throughout the course of one very exhausting day, the townsfolk go about exchanging pleasantries and starting up new romances while staring death in the face. Even when Harry’s body isn’t on screen, there are reminders of danger, such as the dead rabbit a boy totes about as a plaything or the vague threat of justice embodied by the bumbling Deputy Sheriff. The ghoulish subject matter always bubbles just under the superficially quaint surface of the characters’ actions, but their resolve denies it any more presence than that. Almost subconsciously, the characters seem to be deploying their good cheer and nonchalance as a coping mechanism and it empowers them to face their mortality head on. Perhaps most interesting though is the way that their insistent defiance of death threatens to carry over to their discussions of sex. At first, any candor that they have when dealing with death dissolves when sexual issues are raised. One character’s description of “horrible masculine sounds” made during an attempted rape is funny because of the disparity between the frankness that’s come before and the timidity on display, but that frigidity slowly erodes as they grow more comfortable with their situation. As in most of Hitchcock’s other work sexual repression, can’t exist without being intertwined with the menace of death, and for every surprise related to Harry’s fate, there seems to be one relating to the amorous intentions of the characters. What’s most telling about Hitchcock’s intentions here is that it’s the romantic revelations that have the most emotional weight. Despite the presence of madness, rape, and murder, the film isn’t suspenseful in conventional terms until its final minutes, and that’s because the character that The Trouble With Harry is least concerned with is Harry himself.


* * * 


Jeremy Heilman