It has been said that Alfred Hitchcock is one of cinema’s great misogynists, employing the “cool, icy blond” to demonstrate his contempt for the fairer sex. In all fairness, I must dispute this claim, taking the argument one step further – Hitchcock is one of cinema’s great misanthropes, perhaps the greatest. Time after time, Hitchcock portrays the worst in the human animal, or perhaps more accurately, the “best,” as our propensity to take the low road is usually the best we can do given our limitations. Yes, there is the standard Hitchcock hero – the nave innocent who stumbles into intrigue and gets more than he bargains for, but there is another, less appealing sort, who has little at his disposal save greed, self-interest, vanity, recklessness, and an overwhelming need to control and manipulate hapless “inferiors.” In order to achieve these ends, Hitchcock’s characters kill, lie, slander, and cheat, believing the world to be their private playground, much as the Master himself believed his actors to be at his whimsical disposal. All of this contempt culminates in The Birds, which is for me his version of Armageddon, whereby the god-like director punishes his actors (and humanity in general) for their wickedness and plain ineptitude. Perhaps it is even Hitchcock himself commanding the very forces of nature to strike back at the foolish humans who continue to believe they are exempt from life’s tragedies. That the film didn’t conclude with humanity’s whimpering, final end is its only failing in living up to Hitchcock’s gleeful loathing.
But I do not wish to make Hitchcock sound like a bitter, monstrous tyrant. Above all, the great director is a master comic stylist; a brilliant eccentric who can mine humor from the macabre and secure breezy entertainment from the most dire of circumstances. These traits have rarely been expressed so wonderfully as in The Trouble With Harry, a criminally underrated gem from 1955. Too often I have read dismissals calling this film a failure, or an otherwise forgettable piece of nonsense sandwiched between better and more lasting work. Some have even said that Hitchcock was coasting, taking a “break” while he prepared his next masterpiece. Nonsense. Heretical as it might sound, The Trouble With Harry is, for me, one of his best, topped only by Rear Window in sheer delight. Psycho, Vertigo, and Rebecca might be deeper and more probing films (and much more receptive to debate and analysis), but I can’t remember laughing as much during a Hitchcock film. What’s more, the laughter was closer to a cynical cackle than anything else, for I saw clearly what Hitchcock was saying, and always said, about human beings and their strange desires. At bottom, human beings are silly and forgettable at best, but at their worst, they completely disregard the needs and feelings of others unless their own circumstances become threatened.
The story is classic Hitchcock – a dead body is found by an old captain (played by a delightful Edmund Gwenn), who of course believes that he is responsible for the man’s death (the captain was rabbit hunting and wasn’t a very good shot). Without batting an eye (or showing any guilt whatsoever), the old man decides he needs to hide the body, as it seems impossible that the authorities would believe his story of an accidental shooting. Before he can carry out his plan, however, numerous townspeople interrupt and remain completely oblivious to the situation. A tramp steals the man’s shoes. A doctor, immersed in a book, trips over the body and continues on his way. A young boy finds the corpse, reports back to his mother, and upon her return, she informs her son that the man is Harry, her husband, and it would be best to forget they saw him at all. A local artist decides to sketch the dead man. And finally, an old woman comes upon the captain as he is dragging poor Harry away. She too is unaffected by the body and immediately joins in the conspiracy to cover up the “crime.”
Being a Hitchcock film, we know that the townsfolk are harboring assorted secrets and guilt (several believe that in some way, each has caused Harry’s death). Still, even for a Hitchcockian town, this one is as bizarre as they come. A repressed, anxious sexuality permeates the air as innuendos (bold for any era, but more so for a film of the 1950s) are tossed about with gleeful abandon. The artist is immediately attracted to the wife of the dead man and within minutes, proposes marriage. The old woman flirts with the old captain, arranging a date while literally standing over Harry’s body. There’s more action and sexual tension than the whole of Peyton Place. And in the midst of all the wisecracks and lustful glances, a man lies dead, seemingly to no one’s real concern other than as a temporary distraction that needs to be “handled.” From all accounts, Harry was a terrible beast (although no evidence is ever given, other than the fact that he seemed to be in the way) and deserved to die.
Any summary of these events will minimize the enjoyment, for the pleasure comes from watching these actors interact in a manner that seems all too contemporary. This is no dated curiosity, but a sophisticated, utterly cynical examination of people at their most jaded and loathsome. The artist merely wants a piece of ass, as does the captain and the old woman, and the only individual seeking justice (the local law enforcement officer who has his suspicions), is portrayed as a clueless moron. The unethical and the selfish are the focus here, and we’d rather be with them in the end. They have all the good lines and from what we see in this sleepy Vermont town, they are the only ones having any fun. Even the doctor (who tripped over the body early in the film) is given no respect, and is brought in, manipulated, and sent on his way. Death is not mourned in The Trouble With Harry, only dealt with as a minor setback that interferes with a much-needed shag.
So while you will be more apt to seek out the more notable Hitchcock films, take a chance and rent The Trouble With Harry. Not only is it hilarious, mean-spirited, and oozing a frank sexuality, it sustains a genuine tension without which no film of Hitchcock’s would be complete. But above all, there is the grand pronouncement from one of cinema’s greatest voices regarding the human race – fools all, bumbling in the darkness of our own selfish desires. Who, really, has ever said it better?