As the saying goes, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” And a comedy coming from Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense? Well, that must be the hardest comedy of all. The very idea is ludicrous! Mr. and Mrs. Smith, his last turn at the comedy wheel, didn’t exactly produce the greatest result. However, amid his legendary 1950s run of films, Hitchcock came out with a dark comedy that is one of the finest films he ever did.
Please keep in mind that I am a mite biased in favor of dark comedies. I blame my late mother’s delightfully wicked sense of humor for this influence. For instance, when undergoing chemotherapy, she was going to get testosterone as part of her treatment. During this admittedly dramatic time in her life, what was her first thought? She wanted to get a fake moustache before returning for her second testosterone treatment. Wearing the moustache, she was going to tell her oncologist, “Doc, I think you should lighten the dosage.”
My mother’s used humor to keep not just her spirits up but also the spirits of those surrounding her. If you’ll indulge me for one more anecdote, this even extended to after she had passed away. The funeral home hadn’t gotten my mother’s cremated remains prepared in time for the funeral. Unbeknownst to those in attendance, they were coming to pay their last respects to an empty box in the front of church. So as clichéd as it sounds, yes, she ended up being late to her own funeral! Of course, my father, my brother, and I all thought this was hilarious. The people in the welcoming line saw our tears and assumed that we were suppressing sobs instead of cathartic laughter. Mom would have loved that. Unsurprisingly, she also loved Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry.
From 1951 through 1960, you would be hard pressed to find an outright clunker or, at the very least, an uninteresting film throughout this period in Hitchcock’s career. He was churning out films such as Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, Dial M For Murder, and Vertigo each year. Even movies that aren’t as highly regarded from this timeframe such as The Wrong Man or I Confess are still interesting, suspense-filled, and well-made outings that boasted having some great casts.
In the 1950s, Hitchcock was never more confident as a filmmaker with the successful track record and healthy box office returns to prove it. Hitchcock could afford to take a risk with his projects. After the terrific back-to-back successes of Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, Hitchcock took one of those chances and made The Trouble with Harry.
At first glance, the underlying plot is right up Hitchcock’s alley. A group of people in the countryside stumble upon a dead body. We then follow their various actions and reactions to this morbid discovery. Now one would think that the possibilities for tension would be right at the start. Obviously, a web of intrigue would ensue as to how this body ended up in the middle of the idyllic autumnal Vermont countryside. Someone would be wrongfully accused of the murder and would go on the run, suspicious of giving the authorities the truth as it might end up even worse for them. Then there’d be a chase and presto: suspense is born! However, Hitchcock decided to defy expectations.
Hitchcock took his time, stuck to the mood of the source material, and let his dark humor infiltrate the entire production. For instance, if it were you or I that discovered this body, we might react by panicking and running away, thoroughly rattled. And yet, this group is rather blasé about discovering the body, thinking that this corpse is an inconvenience at most.
Even for those that thought they killed him, they simply shrug it off, determining that it would be easier to simply bury the body or dig him back up depending on each new wrinkle in the story. In the meantime, despite these grim circumstances, the group has no problem meeting up for coffee dates, selling their paintings, or making lemonade.
The film flies in the face of convention, which is why Hitchcock gravitated toward the project. After showcasing the magnificent French Riviera in To Catch a Thief, Hitchcock retreated to the lush seasonal landscapes of small-town America. His previous two films had huge star names such as Grace Kelly, James Stewart, and Cary Grant. But here Hitchcock went with either established character actors like Edmund Gwenn and Mildred Natwick or up and comers like John Forsythe and Shirley MacLaine, who made her film debut here. Hitchcock even had a child actor, something he usually shied away from, but as this film was different, Jerry Mathers played MacLaine’s young son and he had some choice lines as well.
Hitchcock’s proven behind the scenes crew was assembled. Robert Burks’ cinematography captured the ideal autumn. The explosion of fall colors from the Vermont trees is vibrant and rich. The Vista Vision images are so definitive, I can even smell the autumnal landscape. Editor George Tomasini continued his excellent work with Hitchcock, finding just the right moments to convey the dark humor the director wanted, briskly cutting between the fabulous dialogue from screenwriter John Michael Hayes’ script. There was one important contributor still needed: someone to compose the score for such an eccentric film. But who could convey the mood of such a picture without resorting to out and out “comedy” music?
Hitchcock was meticulous when it came to music for his films. By this point, he had worked with some of the best; Dimitri Tiomkin, Roy Webb, Miklos Rozsa, Franz Waxman to name a few. But with The Trouble with Harry, Hitchcock’s most important musical relationship began. As author Jack Sullivan states in his 2006 book Hitchcock’s Music, “Although Lyn Murray delivered a zestful score for To Catch a Thief, his most significant contribution was recommending Bernard Herrmann as the composer for Hitchcock’s next comedy, The Trouble with Harry. Murray, who was unavailable for the project, guessed that the two would work well together, and he was right; what he didn’t know was that they would team up for more than a decade to become the most brilliant director-composer collaboration of the era – indeed, the most celebrated in the history of cinema.”
By 1955, Bernard Herrmann was an established film composer. Starting off with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1941, earning an Academy Award for The Devil and Daniel Webster, and providing memorable music for On Dangerous Ground, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Hangover Square among others, Herrmann was a musical force. He had a recognizable style, how to underline the mood, and an incredible dramatic ability that only enhanced the films he scored.
Herrmann’s name popped up as a candidate for Hitchcock as early as 1945’s Spellbound, and then again for Notorious, The Paradine Case, and To Catch a Thief. However, scheduling never seemed to work out. But now the stars aligned, and Bernard Herrmann was finally available. Thus, a titanic cinematic partnership was born. Over the next ten years, Herrmann’s scores were in synch with Hitchcock’s pictures, thoroughly capturing the atmosphere. Can you even imagine Vertigo or North by Northwest or Psycho scored with different music? And it all begins here with The Trouble with Harry.
Herrmann’s score is a pleasure throughout The Trouble with Harry. The music combats itself, starting with an ominous undercurrent that keeps on getting stifled by the comedic themes. Each time the darker lower tones emerge; they are soon trumped by a lighter theme. While the film’s subject matter should elicit a more dramatic approach, the humor cannot help itself, bubbling forth throughout.
Even the initial dramatic four note brass motif that kicks off The Trouble with Harry is thwarted before it has a chance to continue. There is a sense of impishness throughout the score. Herrmann’s use of woodwinds, especially oboe and clarinet, underlines the humor in the film. It seems like Herrmann is saying, “We aren’t taking this too seriously, you audience members shouldn’t either!”
When Hitchcock shows yet another glorious establishing shot of the landscape, Herrmann brings about whimsical bucolic themes with strings or woodwinds. It creates a nostalgic feeling for the perfect picture-postcard memories of autumns past. When Edmund Gwenn and Mildred Natwick have their coffee dates, the flutes join the strings for a simply delightful theme. The flutes manage well enough on their own, as the composition at times resembles the soundtrack for a wordless nature cartoon or a documentary in the best sense.
Quirky playfulness abounds throughout Herrmann’s score. That type of approach would thwart the film if it were more serious with the subject matter at hand. Of course, Hitchcock is going for the humor; Herrmann compliments the approach and augments it. For instance, when a closet door in MacLaine’s home seemingly opens on its own accord, the score once again hints at the ominous via very low bass strings. It is no sooner played when the woodwinds come in again to declare the supernatural possibilities as being non-existent.
There are the seeds throughout the film that hint at future Hitchcock scores. The romantic theme between Forsythe and MacLaine gets expanded on in Vertigo, the use of strings at times resembles the nervousness of Psycho, the humorous tone presages North by Northwest, and so on. It all began here with The Trouble with Harry and the film should be celebrated as such.
Hitchcock trusted Herrmann and their work during their decade together justified that trust. He would bring Herrmann in on the creative process; the two men respecting each other’s points of view during that time. While time would show that both of them would stubbornly cling to their artistic points of view, here at their creative beginning, the partnership was a joy for them.
As a final product, this first collaboration resulted in Hitchcock’s favorite Herrmann score for his films. Herrmann thought highly of the work as well, even composing a concert suite using Harry’s themes called “A Portrait of Hitch” as a tribute to Hitchcock. The suite is Herrmann’s consummate showcase for the playful side of The Master of Suspense.
The Trouble with Harry is a wonderful movie from Hitchcock, containing a remarkable score from Herrmann. Granted, the film was not enthusiastically accepted by U.S. audiences at the time. Harry also tends to get smothered by other Hitchcock films from the decade. Fortunately, history has been very kind to the film, and it is worthy of another look.
So, before the day comes when you might be late for your own funeral or are the subject of several homemade ones, be sure to follow my mother’s example: don’t be late in seeing what that The Trouble with Harry is all about!
As mentioned up above, this post is part of the Bernard Herrmann Blogathon that The Classic Movie Muse is hosting from October 29th through October 31st. I would like to take a moment to thank The Classic Movie Muse for the opportunity to take part in this terrific Blogathon! So please check out follow this link The Bernard Herrmann Blogathon for further insights on Bernard Herrmann’s music and film scoring career!