Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The Trouble With Harry

Ah, exquisite Technicolor! Really, the film could be about anything and it would be wonderful. Hitchcock, of course, is masterful for any number of other reasons, but he really does exploit the splendor of Technicolor in this film, since it is set in a mostly outdoor autumnal Vermont. The basic plot is utterly unlike the standard thriller Hitchcock fare. It goes like this: A man finds a dead body, who turns out to be Harry, lying in the woods. He thinks he hit the man by mistake while shooting at squirrels. Others come by, several with a good reason how they might have killed Harry. The original finder of the body tries to bury it, but new discoveries keep requiring that the body be dug up. The comedy in the film arises from the utter disregard for death everyone seems to have (a definitive mark of dark comedy, I might add). The two romantic side-plots take precedence over any remorse the characters might have had over death.

So anyway, The Trouble With Harry is based on an English novel (same title) by Jack Trevor Story, and really the idea of laughing at a body being drug around is much more European than American. In fact, we're reminded of this in the documentary that accompanies the DVD, which mentions that this film did poorly in the U.S., but ran for weeks and even years in some European theaters. Apparently it came
about when Hitchcock read the book and thought it would do well as a movie, choosing to use an American setting. Actually, I think that alone is worth discussion. The change of setting had to be quite purposeful. If he was making a Hollywood movie, I gather, he would have to use an American regional setting, rather than an English one, or the movie might not have been made. Perhaps the studios preferred it. I don't know. That's an interesting thing to consider, that setting could make a difference. Think about it, though. If someone invited us to a movie set in England, wouldn't we immediately imagine some god-awful, unbearably slow-paced period piece with unintelligible northern England accents? Blech. It's a terrible generalization to make automatically, but it's probably one that is fairly representative of the average mainstream American movie consumer.

Another interesting part of The Trouble With Harry has to do with setting as well, though it is more about style. I observed right away that the scenes are quite stage-y and the sets not especially realistic. It reminded me of Louis Giannetti's discussion of formalism vs. realism in Understanding Movies. Giannetti would say that Hitchcock clearly had the resources to design and film in extremely realistic sets, so the fact that he didn't has an intentionality about it. A filmmaker uses a formalistic style when he wants us to pay attention to what went into making the film, right? For those who doubt me here, I will recount the story I heard in the documentary about the making of the film. Hitchcock's daughter and a few of the producers narrate the documentary, telling the stories behind the making of the film. One producer explained that Hitchcock first filmed the establishing scenes around Stowe, Vermont, but then a terrible storm came and blew away all the leaves literally overnight. In order to preserve continuity, Hitchcock had the leaves collected into crates and shipped back to Hollywood, where they were glued onto fake trees on a set and sprayed in the proper colors. With that attention to detail, we can see that he had the resources to create realism if he wanted to...but he didn't.

Giannetti would call Hitchcock's staginess "stylistically flamboyant," saying that a filmmaker who chooses to use this expressionistic style is "concerned with spiritual and psychological truths" that they can portray better by "distorting the surface of the material world" (Understanding Movies 4). One reviewer I read somewhere (perhaps on IMDB.com) said that the film was interestingly simplistic, so simplistic in fact that it could almost be a children's movie. I thought that was a fairly accurate statement. Of course dragging a dead body around isn't necessarily children's fare, but when we think of the simplistic gestures made by the characters moving through simplistic sets, there does seem to be a purpose behind it. What could it be?

Maybe to answer that question, we ought to consider the end of the movie. If we try to figure out what the point of the whole story is, we see that at the end, the characters realize that the only sane thing to do is to clean up Harry (who is now a little worse for the wear for all the burying and un-burying he's endured) and then put him back where he was found originally. That way, they can report his death to the authorities as should have been done to begin with. The lesson is that there really was no point in trying to conceal the death, since no one could prove any of them were responsible for it. It's a twisted, dark comedy version of "It's always easier to do the right thing." So, since even the message of the film is a bit of a joke, I think that the consideration in the staginess and formalistic sets is Hitchcock's nod toward the snide humor of the film. He seems to want us to know "this is all in fun," or "we're all laughing here because it's so wrong and
we'd never actually do it." This is a film that is very much worth watching in the dark comedy film course, not just for the Technicolor alone!

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