15 September 2013

PERSONAL CANON: THE AIR IS CRISP, THE LEAVES ARE CHANGING COLORS, THE BODIES ARE DEAD

Alfred Hitchcock is probably the closest thing to a consensus pick for the greatest film director of all time, between critics, historians, general audience, and hardcore film buffs, but even he was a mortal, and could not do every thing he applied himself to. Notably, and predictably for a man promoted as "the Master of Suspense", he wasn't much of a hand at comedy, at least not at straight-up comedies. Comic relief he could do as well as anybody you've ever heard of, as anybody who's ever seen North by Northwest can attest. But his "pure" comedies are rare, generally underseen, and not generally regarded among his best films by those who've seen them. And while I'll agree that 1941's Mr. & Mrs. Smith is a problematic late screwball put over largely by Carole Lombard's strength of will, and 1976's Family Plot (which I do regard as being particularly under-appreciated) is certainly a perverse enough piss-take on Hitchcock's whole career, particularly as it was his very last movie, the man did direct one comedy that works on just about every level for a movie to work, and which I do think rates somewhere around the very peak of his career: The Trouble with Harry, released in 1955 during Hitchcock's greatest period of influence and popularity. Rear Window was just a year old, To Catch a Thief wasn't even two months old, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents had just begun its indescribably iconic run on TV. It was, in short, during the half-decade period in Hitch's career when he was most able to do absolutely anything he wanted, and what he wanted to do was this.

This is a film set and shot in rural Vermont (as opposed to bustling, hectic, urban Vermont), where two locals, a recent transplant, and a visitor all cross paths with a dead body. For that, you see, is the trouble with Harry Worp (the immaculately still Philip Truex): nobody's quite certain what killed him, and they're damned if they know what to with him now. Old Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), who was hunting illegally the morning of Harry's death, the first to find the corpse, is certain it was one of his errant bullets that felled the man, and he's anxious to hide the body before the law comes snooping. This turns out not to be the case at all, and then it's the turn of Harry's estranged wife, Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine) to think she done the deed, smacking the abusive bastard on the head with a milk bottle when he tracked her and her son Arnie (Jerry Mathers) to ground. The very charming spinster Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick) is equally sure that she must have done it, clonking him in the head with the heel of her shoe when he tried to attack her in his bottle-dazed state.

Even just putting that little bit down is arguably spoiling too much for a movie that stubbornly refuses to be watched and appreciated as widely as it should be, but The Trouble with Harry is far more about the tone with which its plot toddles along than the actual details of that plot. The sense I have, every time I've seen it, is that's a quintessentially Vermonter kind of story: it's about four people (the fourth is visiting painter Sam Marlowe, played by John Forsythe) being mightily inconvenienced by a corpse, but not actually finding themselves particularly upset by it. Or made even the littlest bit nervous. It's about likable, friendly, gently quirky people behaving in a briskly pragmatic way about death, without an ounce of gravity or "respect for the dead" involved: Harry is buried and dug up so many times over the course of slightly less than 24 hours that even Jennifer, recapping it all at the end, admits that she can't remember why it happened the third time. And this information plainly causes her no distress at all.

As a result of all this, it ends up being one of the most perverse films in Hitchcock's catalog, and what a terrifically perverse collection that is. Death is traditionally held to be sacrosanct in some way; nice people treat it with a kind of gravity and awe. Well, the people in The Trouble with Harry are unfailingly nice, and they are also quite unimpressed with Harry's corpse as anything but an object. An object that is, incidentally, framed by Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks with an unfailingly puckish sense of humor, such that simply seeing bits of Harry poking into frame results in some of the biggest laughs in the whole movie. Whatever Hitchcock's affinity with comedy, there should be no doubt that the filmmakers behind this image, for example, new exactly what they were doing:

Besides tweaking one of the biggest taboos out there, the film's other chief attempt to thoroughly discombobulate the audience lies in its tone. Basically, this is a weird comedy: structurally, it cannot be regarded as anything but a farce, with repetition and piled-on misunderstandings and a third act struggle to keep things held together in the face of a dubious authority figure. But the momentum is so laconic and slow that it's practically asleep (this is the part that especially feels Vermont-ish), and that is, itself, part of the joke - the film is hilarious, often, because of how coolly everybody is under-reacting, and the deliberate pace of the characters is exactly what makes them such amusing oddballs. It's a dry, subtle form of humor altogether, and Hitchcock was lucky to have performers able to meet him at exactly the right sweet spot: Gwenn is particularly great at playing in this relaxed mode, but MacLaine - making her uncommonly assured feature debut - is right up there with him, and she lands all of the very best line readings, talking about death and abuse with a kind of bored wisdom.

It's too low-key and restrained to ever result in huge, heaving laughs, and maybe that's part of why the film has never found an especially enthusiastic audience, but it's still one of the absolute funniest movies of the 1950s, not least because it is perhaps the most puckish; the best kind of comic film for the trickster Hitchcock to release onto the world. In the meantime, it's also a consummate piece of moviemaking: capturing the Vermont locations (and the locations recreated in a Vermont gym following bad weather) with eye-bleeding beauty, and especially the impossibly painterly feeling of a New England autumn. It is, in fact, one of the best movies about autumn I can name, despite the number of interior sets dressed up with spray-painted leaves.

The best part of all is that even with its frivolous tone and comedy, it's still tangibly a Hitchcock film, with the director demonstrating how thriller principals can be applied to humor, and for the same reasons: the longer a payoff that we're fully expecting is deferred, the bigger the release when it shows up (there's a magnificent scene where we're on pins and needles waiting for Harry's body to fall out, and then just at the last minute, it doesn't fall out, because it turns out not to have been there - fucking glorious filmmaking). It's an unusual application of technique, but it works flawlessly, and the whole movie is both absurd and tense for its entire running time, despite none of the characters ever noting that it's either of those thing.

On top of everything else, the film was the first teaming between Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann, and the bouncy score, with all of its half-formed marches in unusual keys, is one of the very best things that man ever wrote, for Hitch or anybody else. So, you know, it's delightful, offbeat, beautiful, and it's historically important. Pretty fantastic all around, and a movie that continues to surprise and entrance me no matter how often I see it.

2 comments:

Malte said...

Gosh, I love this film. So glad you reviewed it.

Neil Fulwood said...

Great to read this. For years I thought I was in a minority of one for citing The Trouble with Harry as a perennial favourite in the Hitchcock canon - to mention one of my all-time fave Herrmann scores. Hitch's combination of drollery and absurdity is perfectly balanced, and MacLaine is some kind of wonderful.