Leave it to Cadaver

vlcsnap-469563“What’s he doing in our bathtub?”

A rare factual error from Pat Hitchcock in the DVD extras of THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY — the Jack Trevor who appears in Hitchcock’s CHAMPAGNE is not the same fellow as Jack Trevor Story, author of the source novel of this, sometimes cited by Hitchcock as his favourite film. They have different dates and places of birth and death, and of course, different names.

Story is otherwise best known as author of the satirical Live Now, Pay Later. The only thing I’ve read by him was an intro to a Michael Moorcock novel, which was funny and vitriolic and gave free rein to the author’s humorous jealousy of his even more prolific friend. Looking through his CV, he clearly had a genius for titles: Mix Me a Person, Man Pinches Bottom, Dishonourable Member, Hitler Needs You.

harry2

Transferring the very English comedy of manners to New England, Hitch and John Michael Hayes create a very warm, witty piece, a black comedy that’s really rather sweet at heart. “The British are funny about death. Mention death in Britain and immediately somebody laughs,” observed Spike Milligan. And while Hitch has puckish fun with the rather shocking callousness with which his assorted cast of eccentrics responds to the arrival of an unwelcome stiff named Harry Worp, he also invites us to love and root for the five off-centre persons at the heart of his plot.

Shirley MacLaine has to rate as Hitchcock’s greatest acting discovery (although it was his producer who spotted her), and she was lucky enough to be spared all the stress Tippi Hedren later went through, emerging onscreen rather un-made-over, very much her adorable self. John Forsythe is remarkably relaxed and alive here, in what probably is his best ever role. It obviously helps that he has a good script to back him up. In THE GLASS WEB, a decent but uninspired piece of writing, Forsythe seems sullen and devoid of charisma. But the man in HARRY is entirely different, a live wire, intense, attentive, sympathetic yet a little askew. And there’s something nice about the way Hitch casts the stalwart player as a quirky goof, probably drummed out of the beatnik movement for failure to conform. His delivery of the line “Little men with –” (dramatic flourish) — “hats!” is memorable. In fact, everybody gets a line they were born to say in this movie. For my money, Mildred Natwick’s apologetic handling of the sentence “He fell into a threshing machine,” is pantheonic. And I’m always quoting little Jerry Mathers’ rendition of the seemingly ordinary line “I don’t understand that.”

Edmund Gwenn, who Hitch had tinkered with since early talking pictures, without quite finding a decent use for the guy (WALTZES FROM VIENNA and THE SKIN GAME miscast Gwenn as a bully and a lout; FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT attempts to make of him a mild-mannered English assassin). Here, at last, he is successful — Gwenn’s Captain Albert Wiles is cherubically adorable, and his December-September romance with Natwick (where her advanced years seem to be the biggest issue) is charm itself.

harry11

Everybody here is a kind of fantasist, or creates the world in a way pleasing to them, except Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano), who as a policeman and a hard-headed realist is doubly damned in Hitchcock’s world. Although even he becomes sympathetic when Forsythe humiliates him with a lot of fancy talk and destruction of his evidence. It’s a gentle movie without bad guys — even Harry was “too good,” rather than the kind of cad he’s taken for, with his two-colour socks and shiny shoes.

harry10

Forsythe has decided that he’s a great artist, and in the best Howard Roark manner, he doesn’t require the outside world’s validation. Captain Wiles has constructed a romantic past for himself, as globe-trotting sailor, and Natwick’s Miss Ivy Gravely hardly speaks an honest word in the whole movie, carefully constructing an identity some years younger than her own. MacLaine is more straightforward, but her son Arnie (Jerry Mathers from TV’s Leave It to Beaver, which I’ve never really seen) makes up for that — as Richard Hughes writes in A High Wind in Jamaica — “Their minds are not just more ignorant and simpler than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact).” Arnie, with his curious and individual ideas about Time, almost meets his match in Forsythe. “Today’s tomorrow,” he announces. “It was,” agrees Forsythe, after some hesitation.

Robert Burks’ evocation of the hues of autumn is sheer visual poetry, and all the more impressive given that a storm devastated the New England locations after only a few background plates had been taken. Those who complain of the duff process work in Hitchcock’s films are perhaps unaware of how much really successful fakery is going on (note that in TO CATCH A THIEF, when Cary Grant looks out the back window of the bus, FX maestro John P Fulton has added a reflection of Grant’s face to the second unit shot of receding country road — beautifully done, and showing a fine attention to detail). Most of the interaction of characters and landscape in this movie never actually happened.

Joining Hitch’s team is Bernard Herrmann, soon to be a crucial member. His light, but not too whimsical and never sugary score adds a warm emotional blanket to the action. BH later used the main theme as a standalone concert work, dedicated to Hitch, and the documentary Dial H for Hitchcock makes good use of the piece as a motif — it’s even more suitable than the Alfred Hitchcock Presents theme, capturing more of Hitch’s antic wit and childishness. It’s an atypical score — Herrmann is often thought of as a heavy composer (his dismissal of Richard Rodney Bennett’s nostalgic theme for MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS — “Didn’t the composer realize that this was a TRAIN OF DEATH?” — was used by Elmer Bernstein to illustrate Herrmann’s lack of irony) — but it seems that under the right circumstances, Herrmann could do comedy with a lighter touch than his laughing jackass orchestrations in CITIZEN KANE suggest. Very soon, of course, he would find himself scoring some of the more solemn and shocking moments in Hitch’s oeuvre.

vlcsnap-468915

One of the ironies and inconsistencies which are so much a part of life — Hitch was extremely fond of this film, and yet long stretches of it could be dismissed as exactly the kind of “photographs of people talking” that he affected to dislike. On the other hand, in some shots, of which the image above is only the most glaring example, Hitch actually gets us to laugh at camera placement itself, making for a rare kind of cinematic beauty and humour.

18 Responses to “Leave it to Cadaver”

  1. Hitchcock actually took to painting trees and leaves to get the right colour, anticipating Antonioni in BLOW-UP when the great Neapolitan maestro realized that the English grass was insufficiently green.

    THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY is more an ensemble piece since you can’t really say that any single member of the cast is the “main” character. Edmund Gwenn and Natwick’s romance is actually done more realistically and dramatically than the romance between Forsythe and MacLaine.

    Some commentators note that this film is the closest Hitchcock came to creating an utopian idea of community. Though it’s full of perversity. But the perversity is accepted calmly and charmingly rather than heavily. Billy Wilder was a big admirer of this film and was influenced by the use of colour in the film.

    I like that scene where Edmund Gwenn and Natwick share tea and she talks about her father’s death and he wonders if he died in his sleep and she says alarmingly, “He got caught in a thresher.” Typical Hitchcock stuff. A film similar to it is Altman’s COOKIE’S FORTUNE.

  2. david wingrove Says:

    Must admit I’ve seen whis film only once and didn’t really ‘get’ it. My partner, however, who’s a self-confessed Hitchcock-o-phobe, says it’s one of the few Hitchcock movies he actually likes!

    Must try and see it again.

  3. I saw this when it premiered as a double-feature with Tashlin’s Artists and Models — Shirley Maclaine’s second movie. Hitchcock always cited this as his personal favorite. This is partially because it’s a departure from his usual suspense mode, and partially because it was filled with charactewr actors. And Hitch loved character actros.

    He returned to this wry black comic mode at the last in Family Plot — with the sublime Barbara Harris.

  4. FAMILY PLOT returns to the theme of THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY which is…death isn’t such a big deal, really!!!

    I’d love to see a good version of ARTISTS AND MODELS and I plan to soon. In the meanwhile, speaking of Tashlin, one of his movies(and a very personal favourite) is my first subject for my new blog.

    http://thispigsalley.blogspot.com/

  5. The REAL “Jack Trevor Story”: the Jack Trevor that was in Champagne was a British actor working and living in Germany who stayed on after Hitler took power (reportedly because he was too much of a dissolute aristocrat to pay attention) and acted in a number of anti-British propaganda films, albeit in small parts. After the war he was tried and imprisoned in Britain, but released after it was shown that he’d been forced to collaborate. Thus ended the interesting part of The Jack Trevor Story.

  6. This blog is an exciting new development and Shadowplayers should head over there immediately!

    The humour of Harry really just comes from the understated reaction to death. Even when the Captain fears he will be accused of murder (and his anxiety about the police makes Albert seem a lot like Alfred) he remains levelheaded and polite.

  7. Katya, thanks for the info! “The Trouble With Jack Is Over.”

  8. Christopher Says:

    the Fat Lady?..no! the Bat Lady the Bat Lady!!!..Man I wish they’d put Artists and Models out as an individual DVD.I don’t wanna have to get a whole bunch of other Martin and Lewis to get to that one..

  9. Shirley is unbelievably cute in her Bat Lady costume. I think Hollywood or Bust and Artists and Models would be worth having together, but I don’t think I’d pay for many other Martin & Lewis flicks. The TV shows are another matter…

  10. We should be eternally grateful over the fact that Bernard Herrman was a one man irony free zone.

  11. I guess the most important decision he ever made was to score Vertigo from Scotty’s POV, sweeping us up in the madness instead of offering any distance from the obsession. But I think even if he’d been a more sly or ironic man, he’d have seen that was the right way to go. But asides from his colossal talent, the main virtue Herrmann brought was his utter fearlessness.

  12. A stubborn fearlessness that got him replaced by John Addison on TORN CURTAIN. Addison turns in a great, irony ridden score for CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE , a film which Herrmann would have scored as a tragedy.

  13. Torn Curtain is one I’m looking forward to — I’ve never managed to watch it all through before, although I’ve heard sections of BH’s score with the action and it struck me as greatly superior to what Hitch ended up with — the sound of Addison walking on eggshells. But I hope to dismiss such foreknowledge and watch it with an open mind, and listen too.

    My favourite parts of Charge are the animations, where Addison goes for ironic pomp. The dramatic scenes don’t seem to leave him much room for manoevre.

  14. I like Addison’s score for The Honey Pot. His score for Torn Curtain is nice but it’s not up to the Herrmann.

  15. Saw The Honey Pot recently and loved it. Addison’s score partakes nicely of the overall wit and elegance. And it may be the most beautifully structured screenplay Mankiewicz ever touched, which is saying a great deal.

  16. It was one of the burdens of my childhood to be told that I resembled Jerry Mathers in “Leave It To Beaver.”

    As for improving actual landscapes … wasn’t Billy Wilder reputed to’ve done with same thing with the grass in “The Emperor’s Waltz”?

  17. I think that’s gone on a lot in film history. Designer John Box painted the desert in Lawrence of Arabia (dark streaks pointing to where Omar Sharif materialises from). And they glued leaves back on trees for Carry on Camping, shot in winter. That last one kind of kills the auteurist sparkle.

    Antonioni painting the park green in Blow Up is particularly good because it’s purely aesthetic — nature failed to produce the correct hue, so the great Asshetton Gorton stepped in with a spray can.

    Should have stressed that Harry is one of the most pleasing aspects of Hitchcock Year, arriving as it does at the start of autumn, the leaves beginning to turn gold…

  18. david wingrove Says:

    My favourite story of that ilk is CEASAR AND CLEOPATRA, when the Gabriel Pascal unit actually shipped huge cargoes of sand to Egypt! Apparently, the whole of the Egyptian desert was the wrong colour.

    Good luck watching TORN CURTAIN. I still think it’s the one Hitchcock film with no redeeming features whatsoever – a ponderous and overinflated bore with both leads chronically miscast. But I would love to be wrong…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: