If you simply relay the plot, The Trouble With Harry  comes across as your usual Hitchcock, as it is centered around a corpse. This time, however, the corpse is Hitchcock’s excuse for comedy as much as it for intrigue. Typical for Hitchcock most of the intrigue is sexual. Atypical of Hitchcock, potential violence isn’t stirring within the plot. Instead, the violence happens prior to the story beginning, and the story mostly follows its characters as they do their best to forget the violence — mainly in their haste to do the hanky-panky.
Violence doesn’t disrupt the lives of the characters in The Trouble With Harry; they absent-mindedly stumble over it. Ol’ Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) is trudging through the forest of a quaint little Vermont country town one day, musing aloud over the ways of the Hunt, himself having had nary a piece of luck hunting rabbit. He suddenly stumbles across a body, and curses his luck, taking it to be the product of his own careless shooting. But Wiles’ luck picks up — enter Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick), a homely middle-aged woman, who comes across the Captain dragging the body to burial, only to invite the Captain to tea later that afternoon. Gravely then goes on her way.
Soon after, the Captain has to hide in the bushes as others stumble across the body — the twice-widowed mom Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine) who happily identifies the body as Harry and self-styled artist/genius Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) who inadvertently draws the body into a landscape.
Before you know it, everybody’s got trouble with Harry, mostly because he has inconvenienced their pursuits of each other. Newly coupled Miss Gravely and Captain Wiles, and Jennifer and Sam, can hardly wait to hit the sack. It’s only that knowledge of Harry’s corpse — and their perceived complicity in his death — that impedes the speed at which they can get at it and the ensuing absurdity makes for the comedy.
Again and again, for a new reason each time, Harry gets buried, unburied, forgotten, remembered, and otherwise abused. The charm of the film is that, even with all this disrespect of the dead, it’s nearly as quaint and innocent as the Vermont town in which it’s set (not to mention a pre-Beaver Jerry Mathers as Jennifer’s son). Maybe it’s the 1955 release date; the socially imposed sexual repression of the era could be the key to the success of Hitchcock’s sex comedy, because the restraint leaves the sex implied, as is the violence. This makes the characters’ conspiracy against the law all the more cute, as cute as your standard romantic comedy.
To succeed, a romantic comedy must make us laugh about love by depicting the crazy things love makes people do. The easiest way for this to happen is for a film to distill love down to its basest elements — longing, on the puppy dog side of things, and desire, on the cat-in-heat side of things. My favorite romantic comedies swing heavily to one side or the other; there isn’t a scene in Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express, for instance, not wet with longing (really wet: pay attention to the metaphor of water in the film), while the desire is relegated to a single flashback.
The Trouble with Harry has it both ways. While the longing of the characters is as bright red as the leaves on the trees, ready to fall at any minute, every word or phrase is fringed with the innuendo of desire. If the double entendre of their names isn’t obvious enough, Gravely and Wile’s references to “crossing threshholds” certainly is.
With these innuendos wrapped around the corpse laid out in the plot, the film’s “What me?” attitude about its dirty business ensures its cuteness is not as shallow as poor Harry’s many graves. Instead, each burial takes on a new meaning, and plays for a new laugh. Thank you, Alfred Hitchcock, for making us laugh about love, again.
Contributed by Andrew, one of the writers for Lucid Screening.