A Purist Rom-Com: A Touch of Death in ‘The Trouble with Harry’

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From death cometh life and the living can be ridiculous! Fascinating! Oh good, good grief!

Alfred Hitchcock always liked his films to have a sense of humor about them, and “The Trouble with Harry” is the height of funny stuff.

There’s this man who happens to have died at the apex of everybody’s favorite hiking spot. A little boy hears three shots and finds the corpse. He runs away. Just afterwards an old man with a rifle counts his prey on the field: a beer can shot through, a holey metal sign….and the body of a man with a bloody mark on his forehead. Three shots.

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The logical reaction to finding oneself in this unfortunate situation is definitely to pick up the legs and drag the victim to a less exposed area and leave him for bear food. Not really, but as happens in our faulty moments at times, an interruption occurs, offering a pause. The confused old hunter is very fortunately interrupted by one, then another, then another of his neighbors. Each one comes across the body and each leaves it in the sun, just as it was, with at least one guy not noticing the change in scenery at all (some of us do walk around that way). The little boy brings his mother to show her the body. She laughs and marvels and says it’s better that he’s gone. He wasn’t a good man to have around. Odd, but not implicit of murder. So, on the audience will watch, waiting for the murderer to appear. It isn’t so simple. The evidential behaviors float.

“I couldn’t get more people here if I sold tickets,” says the hunter. He comes out of the cover of the bushes and resumes his plan to hide the body. We’ll soon learn he doesn’t take hints, but deliberately leaves them.

Anyhow, the story might end there, if not for the appearance of yet another kind neighbor. Ms. Gravely walks past the dead man and begins making the hunter’s more formal acquaintance. Apparently, they’ve been neighbors for three years, but he’s never come calling. She invites him for coffee, blueberry muffins. Her voice is shaky, her eyes are shifty… and she kicks the body. Still, it’s tricky to figure out, at first, if this nervous behavior is due to shyness or guilt. Giving nothing away, the two agree that the hunter, Captain should hide the body for his own good, then go home, wash up, and visit for a cup of elderberry wine. Cheers, right? I love how odd these characters are, because it really makes it difficult to tell whodunit. Nobody is convincing, especially because we’ve seen so many different odd reactions. It just gets more stranger.

The first break we have from witnessing the treatment of the poor dead stranger is in Ms. Wigg’s convenience shop, where a still young but somewhat weary, mildly disgruntled painter has been trying to sell his work for years to no avail. It quickly becomes apparent that he’s an eccentric in his realizations about romance, but when he later manages Captain’s half-baked cover-up of the non-murder, his sober reasoning about law, justice and judgment comes to light. His balanced attitude in these two dancing Hitch themes might make him the most reasonable, likable male character of the latter half of the director’s career.

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So, “The Trouble with Harry” delves into death and reactions to wrong-doing, exposing all kinds of absurd reactions in the first half of the story. What starts off as an oddly witty murder plot becomes much more about the emergence of two couples, made up of the four accomplices. Ms. Gravely and Captain do have muffins and coffee and wine, but death can’t seem to stay away from these two: they handle a neighbor kid’s dead rabbit, which turns out to be what caught Captain’s third bullet. Uhoh: how did the stranger die, then? And who killed him? Ms. Gravely actually came upon the man called Harry on the hill where he died. He was stumbling drunkenly, he greeted her in a lusty manner, so, naturally she hit him her hiking shoe in the head. No more scuffling, there. But is the end the answer? Not so fast…

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The second couple to form amidst the altogether too lighthearted decomposition of a man’s named Harry’s life is the eccentric, logical artist, Sam (John Forsythe), and Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine), the mother who’s son, Arnie, found the dead Harry. It becomes clear as Jennifer explains her part in the Harry situation that she is off-beat, to put it mildly, while Sam finds her perfectly marriageable. She was married to the dead guy then ran away, so he followed her only to have her greet his romantic advances with a frying pan to the head. The fact that Sam and Jennifer’s speedy courtship happens over the corpse of her ex-husband is no matter in this story. After all, death happens, especially to “good” men like Harry. It’s like the Captain’s rabbit. Rabbits become stew, but only if you’re lucky and find them after you shoot ’em.

After burying and digging up the body a couple times, the four accomplices decide that they must clean him up and figure out how he died with the help of the local doctor. They all had some part in his passing, but they can’t decide which blow killed him. Since this story isn’t a murder mystery or a thriller, after all, it gives nothing more or less away to tell you that Harry died of a stroke. The end part, the falling down at the top of a hill and never waking up again part- that started way before Captain, Gravely, Jennifer, Arnie, or Sam. Case closed. This is a kind of dark romantic comedy, if ever there was one outside of the real world.

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