It’s a “Harry” Situation: Metaphors and Insinuations in THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY

26 January 2011

For many, Alfred Hitchcock directing comedies seems unconventional; however, to the Hitchcock connoisseur, the legendary director’s skill is not dependent on genre.  Unfortunately, Hitchcock is too often bound to the thriller/mystery/suspense genres and his full cinematic genius is somewhat disregarded by unfair pigeon-holing.  Sure, he is “the Master of suspense,” but that’s not all he is.

One of the things Hitchcock does brilliantly, regardless of which genre he is working in, is command the cinematics to subtly (and overtly, at times) comment on the world around him.  As previously posted on this blog, Hitchcock expresses concern on the eve of World War II in The Lady Vanishes (1938).  Furthermore, “the Master” goes on to pinpoint Hitler directly as the enemy at the gates in Foreign Correspondent (1940) without making him the focal point of the film.  While these two examples happen to fit a more traditional Hitchcock mold, clearly Hitchcock consciously and carefully comments on the real world around him through the fictitious, “reel” world of his films.   His ability to balance the narrative (the plot in the screenplay) with the persuasive (his commentary) is, in part, what makes him so extraordinary.  This duality is not reserved for the typical Hitchcock film; in fact, Hitchcock balances his expressions in his comedies just as strongly as in his thrillers.

The Trouble with Harry (1955) is a black comedy and a clear break in Hitchcock’s standard genre, yet still rich with Hitchcock’s statements on the world around him.  In brief, the film takes place in a small, quiet town in Vermont during a picturesque fall season.  The film starts off with a young boy, Arnie (Jerry Mathers), playing in the woods.  After hearing gunshots, he investigates, only to find a corpse lying atop a hill.  The little boy tells his mother, Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine), and, in the meantime, several other townspeople stumble across the body: Sam (John Forsythe), the Captain (Edmund Gwenn), and Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick).  As it turns out, the body belongs to Harry, and unfavorable and rather mysterious man.  To complicate the plot, several people from town feel, to some degree, responsible for Harry’s death (it remains a mystery until the end who was responsible and how Harry actually died).  The townspeople hilariously fumble around to bury (and re-bury, and re-bury again) Harry, but they find it is much easier to kill Harry than it is to be rid of him.

In The Trouble with Harry, Hitchcock comments on the world around him by making a statement about appearance’s relationship with reality, specifically in small-town, wholesome American communities of the 1950s.  The townspeople all appear decent and mild-mannered.  As a community, everyone knows and looks out for one another.  Trustingly, Sam’s displays his paintings for sale outside the general store where anyone could steal them.  Of course, no one ever does because that would be “wrong” and not fit this rural Vermont community.  Even Arnie, the little boy who originally found Harry’s body, is able to wander, alone, through the woods each day.  Moreover, the streets and homes are immaculate and well manicured with the breathtaking fall foliage always present in the backdrop.  Clearly, this film is quintessential 1950’s America: everything has its place, everyone conducts themselves appropriately, and all “dirty laundry” is inconspicuously concealed.  That is until the dead body turns up unexpectedly and all comedic hell breaks loose.  Hitchcock subtly and consistently emphasizes the picture perfect setting of his film, which calls attention to how false this wholesome pretense really is.

Just beneath this painfully perfect façade lurks reality; no one and nothing is as well put together as they/it appear.  Hitchcock often juxtaposes the pretense with reality in striking fashion.  For example, Harry’s body is dressed in a nice suit for nearly the entire film, but, once his shoes are removed, the audience continually sees Harry’s childish, bold blue and red socks.  The socks do not match his well-dressed attire.  Using the socks as a metaphor, reality always lies beneath the surface-level façade; nothing is a pristine and picture perfect as it appears.

Additionally, Hitchcock uses another metaphor to highlight appearance and reality.  A few times throughout the film a closet door mysteriously opens by itself.  The film never explains why this happens, but Hitchcock draws the viewer’s attention to it by casually repeating the shot.  In part, Hitchcock is cleverly playing on the “skeletons in the closet” metaphor.  Throughout The Trouble with Harry, the audience finds out more and more about the characters’ secrets, or “skeletons” in their figurative closets:  Harry’s socks, the Captain’s lies about sailing the world, Jennifer’s marital status.  By swinging open a closet door every so often, Hitchcock effectively suggests even the most wholesome people are hiding something.  That is, appearance can hide reality.

Beyond these clever metaphors, Hitchcock also uses his visual aesthetic to create images through which he can continue commentary on appearance and reality.  Perhaps the most noteworthy shot is toward the beginning as Arnie stands over Harry holding his toy gun.  The camera, positioned at a  slight low angle, distorts size perfectly to give the appearance that Arnie and Harry are one person.  That is, the shot falsely suggests Arnie is seated on the ground holding his gun and Harry’s legs belong to Arnie.

This image, like the metaphors, reinforces Hitchcock’s commentary; appearance does not necessarily reflect reality; in fact, more often than not, it distorts it.

Another coo to Hitchcock’s eye is the repeated shot of Harry’s body atop the hill overlooking foliage-drenched Vermont.  It is always a long shot, with Harry’s body taking up a fraction of the frame at the bottom.  The emphasis there is not on Harry at all; instead, Hitchcock is luring the viewer to look beyond Harry to the backdrop.  In doing this, Hitchcock insinuates the audience should see the bigger picture; to see beyond the reel to the real.  In looking beyond HarryHarry, in this instance, being a symbol of the film not the character—Hitchcock encourages viewers to pick up on his commentary.

When watching The Trouble with Harry, viewers get a sense Hitchcock, in a small, defiant way was rebelling against the stifling mentality and etiquette of the 1950s in a light, satirical manner, which is the only way he could possibly get away with it.  Hitchcock’s work, like most great artist’s work, was greatly influenced by the world around him, and it appears clear through this dark comedy Hitchcock, in his own, comedic way, revealed a few skeletons in 1950’s society’s closet.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 26/06/2011.

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