Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Trouble with Harry—Perhaps a secret to Hitchcock's Art

What is the trouble with The Trouble with Harry? Why does it remain among the least analyzed of Hitchcock’s 1950s films (probably beating out only Dial M for Murder and Stage Fright)? To date, few have seen fit to rank The Trouble with Harry as a key work in the director’s canon. (By far, I most admire Ed Sikov's chapter on the film in his 1996 book Laughing Hysterically. And more recently, Joel Gunz of, has devoted several excellent blog posts to the film.)

For obvious reasons critics have preferred delving into the tragedy of Vertigo, the refined technique of Rear Window, the sweeping movement of North by Northwest, for these films enjoy a certain following because they touched audiences in a way that Hitchcock and his collaborators had planned. They were carefully constructed and designed in a manner consistent with a majority of the director's work. But The Trouble with Harry is so very faithful to the novel by Jack Trevor Story that the film is problematic, creating an instance where Hitchcock’s signature is not easily discerned.

To begin by searching for what Hitchcock brought to the material is the wrong approach. Instead, one must look at The Trouble with Harry for what it brought to Hitchcock. His legendary technique for being “ruthless” when adapting literary material was severely reined in on this one. Hitchcock found a novel that truly spoke to him.

Something I had the pleasure of discussing at length with John Michael Hayes, was the different approach taken by him in each of the four screenplays he wrote for Hitchcock. In one he had concentrated on telling the story cinematically, consistently falling back on the director's preference for supporting the narrative through technique. In another they had fun planting visual and verbal clues, and so on. But Hayes recalled that Hitchcock didn’t want Harry tampered with very much. Had the story been reworked to build up a role for Cary Grant, a notion Hitchcock had considered early on, the film might have had more commercial appeal, but as Hayes pointed out, "Hitch didn't want to lose what was already there."

What was already there was a story where someone's death has an impact on a group of characters, bringing them together, and in this case, resulting in a romance. One need only look at Rebecca, Spellbound, The Paradine Case, Rope, Stage Fright, I Confess, Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho to find variations of this dynamic. Additionally, the theme of redemption looms large in The Trouble with Harry. In Writing with Hitchcock I demonstrate the significance of the confession in Hitchcock’s films, and its particular importance in The Trouble with Harry, a film in which each of the major characters has a confession of sorts.

As for a bit of trivia … John Michael Hayes began working on the script while in Cannes for the location filming of To Catch a Thief—in fact, Hitchcock had him working on both scripts at the same time, since many of To Catch a Thief's scenes were being rewritten during filming. Some of the second unit footage of the New England landscapes which were also filmed in VistaVision made its way into Peyton Place, which was also scripted by John Michael Hayes. Both films share a number of shots that follow their title sequences. Not long ago, I visited some of the Vermont locations used in the film—Morrisville, East Craftsbury, and Craftsbury Common. In fact, the little square in Craftsbury Common, which in the film is opposite the Wiggs's Emporium (where Sam looks off and sees a few cows and asks "Do you think we'd do any better on Fifth Avenue?"), looks very much the same as it did in 1954, minus a few trees.

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