The Trouble With Harry

The Trouble With Harry (1955)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Edmund Gwenn, John Forsythe, Shirley Maclaine, Mildred Natwick
Extras: Featurette:

An odd-duck entry in the Hitchcock catalog, 1955’s "The Trouble With Harry" was something of an experiment for the Master of Suspense. The film lacked a big star roster (although it introduced a mega-star to be), immersed its pitch-black premise in New England sunshine and featured a corpse as the "Macguffin," the term Hitchcock used to describe the thing that propels the plot. A bit dated now, but still possessing moments of dark wit, "The Trouble With Harry" bubbles up again as part of the "Alfred Hitchcock Collection" from Universal Home Video. With a killer transfer and an intriguing "making of" documentary in the extras, this film reveals just how much Hitchcock could bend storytelling, even when his headliner was stone cold still.

Just like Dickens’ famous description of Marley in the opening paragraph of "A Christmas Carol," ("dead as a doornail"), Hitchcock wastes little time in establishing the trouble with Harry: he’s a stiff who won’t stay put. Resting amidst the splendor of a Vermont autumn, he’s stumbled upon, figuratively and literally, by an eccentric parade of "mourners." First, little Arnie Rogers (a pre "Leave It To Beaver" Jerry Mathers) unemotionally discovers the body while playing. Captain Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), hunting for rabbits, is convinced his rifle shot took down hapless Harry. Arnie’s mom, Jennifer (Shirley Maclaine in her first film role) turns out to have a very intimate connection with the departed. Miss Ivy Gravely (Mildred Natwick) also believes her actions had a part in Harry’s demise, but is too busy using the opportunity to woo Captain Wiles with coffee and blueberry muffins. Holding this crazy mosaic together is starving painter Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe). While not directly connected with Harry, his involvement with Wiles, Gravely, and Jennifer (where he shares more than a passing interest) makes him an accessory after the fact. Lest we get too comfy with the idea of a dead man popping up in the strangest places at the most inopportune times, there’s town sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano) closing in on the killer and, more importantly, threatening to break up our cozy homicidal social. Pass the muffins, please…

In Hitchcock’s and scenarist John Michael Hayes’ capable hands, "Harry" goes beyond what could easily have been a sick one-joke premise unnaturally stretched to feature length. The real joke is not that dead man Harry is constantly in motion but his lifeless condition rejuvenates those who enter his sphere, whether Miss Gravely working up the nerve to flirt with Captain Wiles while standing over Harry or Marlowe and the Captain discussing their romantic game plans while burying Harry (or was it while they were exhuming him?). Perhaps one of Hitchcock’s more personal projects, "Harry" reeks of eccentric British black humor and morose manners.

The isolated yet colorful countryside highlights the contrast between the grim nature of the film’s subject and Hitchcock’s and Hayes’ colorful, delicate approach to making it palatable to 50’s American audiences. From a modern bird’s eye view, our increasingly violent and cynical society makes "Harry" less shocking and almost museum-like. Everyone acting genteel and oh so polite in death’s orbit has been copied numerous times since "Harry" (like the Agatha Christie films or even the slapstick antics of "Weekend of Bernie’s" where the corpse becomes a babe magnet), but as was his unerring ability, Hitch was the first and, usually, the best.

Befitting Hitchcock’s legacy, Universal’s treatment of the film for the DVD is just as meticulous. The transfer is an out and out stunner. The 1.85 <$16x9,anamorphic> image just glows with intense, saturated colors without any bleed or break-up whatsoever. Fiery reds and deep amber browns dominate the color scheme (makes sense since the premise is about murder in the woods) without any bleed or break-up whatsoever. Robert Burks’ deep-focus VistaVision translates well to video with the help of the increased resolution from the format as well as the 16×9 enhancement. Deep black levels and excellent contrast make for superb detail delineation, almost allowing a line count of the Captain’s tweed coat or charting the colors on the leaves surrounding Harry. Fleshtones swing a bit, sometimes even and natural, sometimes drifting into an orange-brown tint (that problem occurs frequently in Technicolor films of the 50’s and 60s; must have been a convention of the time to have everyone look like they feel asleep under a sun lamp!). Mastered from practically immaculate source elements, the image is sharp and stable without any artificial enhancements. There are no digital or compression artifacts. In short, everyone at Universal should be extremely proud of making this forty-year old film look so…alive.

The <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio is equally engaging, if not at exactly the same exalted levels as the video. Presented in the original mono, the soundtrack contains a more than fair amount of hiss, although the pops and crackles that frequently plague older tracks are noticeably absent. Dialogue is full and clear with occasional peaking. Bernard Herrman’s droll score (the first of a legendary nine-film collaboration between Hitchcock and Herrmann) coexists nicely with dialogue and sound effects, making for a balanced and overall enjoyable mono mix.

Centerpiece for the disc’s supplements is the half-hour documentary "The Trouble With Harry Isn’t Over." Produced by Laurent Bouzereau, the featurette includes new interviews with daughter Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, Forsythe, screenwriter Hayes and associate producer Herbert Coleman. Bouzereau must have a great affinity for Hitchcock and the film as the documentary is reverential but not gushing, informative without being too congratulatory of its star filmmaker (except for the end when everyone gives their "he was the Master" praise of Hitchcock). The remembrances by Coleman on how they boxed up the leaves from the Vermont location, brought them back to the Paramount and painted them to match the exteriors is quite funny. It was also nice to hear Hayes discuss the influence and importance of Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, on not only "Harry" but Hitchcock’s career as well. If the adage "Behind every great man is a woman" holds true, then Alma must have been a mighty force behind the Master of Suspense. To hear Hayes validate that was truly a treat.

At the other end of the spectrum, what is identified in the cover art and the menus as the theatrical trailer is an out and out misnomer. With a new-sounding voiceover and electronic chyrons, the full-screen trailer is in actuality a trailer for an old VHS release, down to the graphic of the rectangular-shaped box at the end. (Universal, shame on you for such deceitful practices!)

A poster and photo gallery showcase both the domestic and international posters (including French and Japanese artwork) as well as the standard color lobby cards and black and white stills, sometimes taken directly from the film, sometimes placing the stars in hokey poses. Production notes and filmographies of the main stars and director are provided. They offer some interesting tidbits, but nothing to flesh out a graduate thesis.

If only for the spectacular transfer, "The Trouble With Harry" would be worth it. But pretty pictures alone do not a good movie make. Whether you’re a Hitchcock buff or have a passing interest in the Master, "The Trouble With Harry" is really no trouble at all.