“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.