Wednesday 23 June 2021

Hitchcock's THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY - Ken Mogg considers the master's dark and droll humour


The Trouble With Harry (1955)  begins 

The dead face of the dead man had given him the inspiration he needed.  [It] held the millions and millions of dead faces of all the centuries.  In that dead face lay all dead humanity; all cold history; all the odd attitudes and mistakes.

-      Jack Trevor Story, ‘The Trouble With Harry’ (1949)

The infantile conflict between actual impotence and dreams of omnipotence is also the basic theme of the universal history of mankind.(1)

  Norman O. Brown, ‘Life Against Death’ (1959)

[Shirley MacLaine] was kooky before that word came into vogue, impish, off-beat, disconnected and beautiful in her own way.

-      Ken Wlaschin


IT’S ALL HOKUM OF course – a tall story about a body that won’t stay buried and about the several people who each have reason to think that they may have killed him. Also involved is the voice of reasonableness, artist Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), and an ‘enforcer’ character, the repressive Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano) whose name is suggestive of both do-nothing, ‘Silent Cal’ Coolidge (30th President of the United States) and of the theologian John Calvin (never a favourite of Catholics).  Others in the cast of characters include Calvin’s mother, the widowed Mrs Wiggs (Mildred Dunnock), who runs the local general store and is given at times to blunt speaking; and the story’s main deus ex machina figure, the absent-minded Dr Greenbow (Dwight Marfield) whose final diagnosis that the titular Harry died of natural causes is to be believed – or not!(2)  A second such facilitator of the plot is the Millionaire, played by Parker Fennelly, who declares that Sam is a genius and who buys all of his paintings.

And then there’s four-year-old Arnie Rogers (Jerry Mathers, pictured top, who would later become the juvenile star of the TV series Leave It to Beaver) who discovers Harry’s fully-clothed body lying on a Vermont hillside and hurries home to tell his mother Jennifer about it. (Jennifer is played by Shirley MacLaine.)  The film constantly skirts questions like, ‘okay, how did Harry really die?’, and, ‘so they constantly dressed and undressed him, did they?’  It’s all part of the fun – Hitchcock reputedly was tickled by what he characterised as the film’s humorous ‘English’ understatement, and was hugely disappointed when his film failed at the box office – except in sophisticated Paris, where it ran for six months.  Obviously, Harry isn’t exactly a film for puritans, and possibly Hitchcock misjudged how two-faced most audiences still were in the 1950s about their ‘unofficial’ thoughts.  He may have expected a more mature response than most viewers brought to his film back then.  Alerted, he would set about educating them with the dark and/or droll humour that he and writer James Allardyce brought to ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ each week.  Its first episode aired on 2 October, 1955.

Shirley MacLaine


Speaking of getting educated about humour … The best theoretical lesson that I received about comedy and the comedy principle was one I got from a schoolteacher in an English class.  (No doubt she was following Henri Bergson.)  ‘Comedy’, she told us, ‘always involves something that is incongruous.’  She pointed out that if you or I slip on a banana skin, it isn’t particularly funny.  But if a self-important gentleman in a top hat slips on a banana skin, that is funny (especially if the context permits us to laugh: for example, if we’re watching a movie, and don’t have a personal tie to the person).  The Trouble With Harry, like the much-translated novel of that name, is built on the two principles of incongruity and impersonality (or objectivity).  We can laugh at the dead Harry’s indignities of being buried and dug up multiple times just because he is only the corpse of a person we never knew (although in life he sounds to have been a lily-livered heel …) and because all of this takes place in ‘Arcadia’, namely, rural Vermont in the Fall, with its autumnal colours underlined by the gloriously mellifluous and variegated music of Bernard Herrmann.  Our attitude to Harry is epitomised by Jennifer, who had been briefly married to him – her big mistake – when she tells Sam Marlowe what he can do with Harry: ‘You can stuff him and put him in a glass case, for all I care … only, I suggest frosted glass!’  And Harry’s unfitness to be here in Arcadia is pointed out by Sam when he refers to ‘City people … people with hats on … little people’.  Arcadia, then, is not congruous with the City!

In other Hitchcock films, though, Hitchcock shows affection for city people, such as the apartment-dwellers in Rear Window.  Each of his films is a subjective world of its own, and not the worse for it.  I was shocked to read that Thelma Ritter, who played the sharp-tongued Stella in Rear Window, actually turned down the part of Miss Graveley in Harry (ultimately given to Mildred Natwick) because she considered the latter film ‘immoral’.  Her actual words, in a letter to her husband, were: ‘I must not have much vision but this one scares me.  It’s lewd, immoral, and for anyone without a real nasty off beat sense of humour, in very bad taste.’  Nonsense, Thelma!  You are confusing immorality with sheer comic amorality, which may simply be more honest than other moralities, let’s face it! Accordingly, in a Hitchcock film, nothing is finally determinate.

Mildred Dunnock. Mildred Natwick, John Forysthe

Life versus death, and vice versa

Nothing, that is, except the film itself.  I mean, it would seem undeniable that Harry is about life versus death, and vice versa.  The ‘life’ is there for all to see – from young Arnie to the trees reaching above him in their autumnal colours (the leaves may be dying but the trees live on: cf the ‘evergreen, ever-living’ sequoias in Vertigo, which are ‘two thousand years [old], or more’) to the admittedly aging characters like Miss Graveley and Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn, in his fourth Hitchcock film).  Whereas, the dead Harry - effectively the film’s MacGuffin - is mostly there for counterpoint!  Critic Ed Sikov wrote in 1994: ‘The Trouble With Harry is a far richer, more complicated film than even Hitchcock’s most ardent defenders have so far been willing to acknowledge.’  But Sam in particular is a facilitator of ‘the ongoing life-force’.  What Hitchcock also shows us is how love brings with it a new lease of life, whether the love of Jennifer for Sam or the love of spinster Miss Gravely for the bachelor Captain Wiles.  Rightly seen, Harry is a feel-good movie.   

Of course, it needs a villain, and it’s not hard to see who that is: Calvin, with his puritanical outlook and policeman’s mentality.  (Nothing surprising there, this being a Hitchcock film – although, as usual, you can find exceptions to Hitchcock’s seeming dislike of the police: for example, the sympathetic character Inspector Oxford in Frenzy.(3))  Mrs Wiggs is very astute when she describes the nature of her son’s work and interests.  Referring to his interest in restoring old cars, she calls them ‘mechanical antiques’; and she says that his job as Deputy Sheriff involves ‘piece-work’. In short, there’s something non-organic and isolated about Calvin.  The contrast is with Sam and Jennifer and the older couple (I call them collectively ‘the conspirators’) whose combined energies are marshalled by Sam.  As he cuts Ivy Graveley’s hair in a charming scene inside the Wiggs Emporium, he foresees that ‘the true Miss Graveley’ will be ‘timeless with love and understanding’.  Not coincidentally, Dr Greenbow is given to reading from Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet with its key line ‘Love’s not Time’s fool’ and its conclusion:

    Love alters not with its brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.


The grim reality which love girds its possessors against (implicit in Shakespeare’s lines) is never gainsaid by Harry; on the contrary, that reality is implicit in the very passing of the seasons.(4)  (At one point, after Captain Wiles has rowed Miss Gravely across his lake, he reminds her that winter is coming and that ‘they’ll be cutting ice here then’.) Henri Bergson was not just a theorist about comedy but also of the essential transitoriness of things, and ways to live with it.  There is a Bergsonian thrust to Harry.

Edmund Gwenn


Someone has suggested that most of us, in our lifetimes, move from a state of innocence to one of innocence-lost to one of innocence-regained.  Young Arnie still dwells in his original innocence, but may have already begun to lose that innocence after his encounter with Harry, the film’s MacGuffin and symbol.  Arnie is just at the age where the Oedipal crisis sets in, and where the child learns that, for all of the world’s bountiful nature, it requires decisions that will limit (or delimit) him.  You have to admire his direct answer when asked about the rabbit he has found (presumably shot by Captain Wiles).  To the well-meaning but condescending adult’s question from Miss Graveley, ‘What do you call it?’, Arnie answers bluntly, ‘Dead!’(5)  (He could of course have answered with a name like ‘Roger’, which would have been what Ivy expected to hear.)  That same bluntness is what Hitchcock’s comedy is offering us, and thereby, perhaps, pointing our own consciousness towards innocence-regained.  Full marks to Hitchcock, the artist, who seems to have already attained that enviable state of mind, and its state of awareness.

Harry is indeed the feel-good movie I have claimed.  Captain Wiles, starting to fall in love (possibly for the first time in his life), tells Miss Gravely, ‘Nobody could not like us today!’  This, in spite of his penchant for killing – he calls his hunting rifle ‘Old Faithful’ (indicating a misplaced faith, surely) – plus his self-protective dissembling, as when he describes Harry’s death as ‘an unavoidable accident’.  But thereby lies one of the film’s subtleties.  Harry opens with a shot of a church and the sound of its bell ringing out across the peaceful countryside, yet nobody during the film seemingly pays any attention to it.  They are all too preoccupied with their own interests! Nonetheless, that opening shot has made its statement, which is to the effect that we are all being watched over, whether we acknowledge it or not.  These are pleasant-enough people, even perhaps including Calvin, who has found his niche as Deputy Sheriff and cultivated his hobby of restoring antique cars. As a writer like Norman O. Brown showed us repeatedly, we inhabit a Lost Paradise which we can only do our collective best to recover: the Arcadia of Harry is a definite start, but many people – predominately ambitious ‘City people’ – are constantly endangering our progress towards it, a narrative which constitutes what Brown calls ‘the universal history of mankind’.(6)  Harry, who put his head where it wasn’t wanted, is arguably its symbol.

Shirley MacLaine, Royal Dano


‘The director of a fiction film must play God’, Hitchcock once said.  Accordingly, he watches over the characters of Harry with a forgiving eye – that is, for their venial sins.  The characters are clearly worthy of that forgiveness, being without excessive ‘attitude’ and simply pleasant and human.  They’re opportunists, of course, from the youngest upwards (Arnie exchanges the dead rabbit for a live frog in a paper bag, then takes the rabbit back and proceeds to trade it for two blueberry muffins!).  The frog will prove a godsend of its own to the conspirators when later Calvin comes calling.  Arnie nearly gives the show away when – referring to Harry – he asks loudly, ‘Hey, what’s he doing in our bathtub?’  Luckily, the quick-thinking Sam covers up by saying matter-of-factly, ‘That’s where frogs belong, Arnie.’  And Arnie simply says, ‘Oh!’  So Calvin is fooled!  The ingenuity of the screenplay from moment to moment is one of its marvels.

A further instance.  The church in the film’s opening shot is like an equivalent for the novel’s elaborate ‘Blakeian’ dimension (suitably, William Blake was both an artist and poet).  When the novel’s Sam first comes into view, he is singing the song ‘Jerusalem’ whose words are taken from a famous Blake poem: ‘And did those feet in ancient time/ Walk upon England’s mountains green ….’  These lines both establish a ‘pastoral’ (or Arcadian) mood and imply an allegory about Christ.  On the whole, though, the allegory is played down in favour of the mood – and Hitchcock follows suit.  The ‘look’ of Harry with its autumnal russets and golds is what what most people bring away from it, albeit we subliminally associate that look, and that mood, with the ‘blessing’ Harry’s characters – and, by extension, its audience - are being given.  Like a parent, Hitchcock is happy to tease us, knowing that reminders of our vulnerability will only engage us the more.  The film’s running gag about the yawning closet door in Jennifer’s house as the conspirators hurry to dress Harry for his final burial works like that, even as it offers a refinement to the allegory: seen aright, there is literally nothing to fear.(7)                        

The Trouble With Harry can be seen as a companion-piece to Rear Window, filmed a year earlier.  Although Harry is virtually a one-joke film about a body, its charming qualities are multiple.  It has a people-ness that is relatively rare in Hitchcock - at least with the breadth of ‘types’ (who are also individuals) seen here. See it in a suitable frame of mind, and you’ll come away both chortling and mouthing your gratitude: ‘Thanks, Hitch!’ 

"...its autumnal russets and golds..."


1.    Norman O. Brown’s ‘Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History’ continues: ‘And … the stakes are the meaning of love.’  Harry’s young Arnie, with his gun, represents what Brown calls ‘infantile conflict’; the elderly Captain Wiles with his frustrated dreams of being a merchant sailor (he’d been a tugboat captain who ‘never got more than twenty miles offshore’) also dreams.  Mercifully, the film offers its couples love …  


2.    Hitchcock’s 1929 film Blackmail was based on a play with the final revelation that its dead man had indeed died of natural causes.

3.   Hitchcock seems to have had what the poet Keats called ‘negative capability’: ‘[the capacity to be] in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.

4.   Such imagery of the passing and recurring seasons figures prominently in scholar and poet David Holbrook’s book ‘The Quest for Love’ (1964) which argues for a relationship between the growth of a sense of reality and the capacity to love. He cites the exemplary work of such literary figures as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, and D.H. Lawrence.

5.   So Arnie - besides taking after his frank-spoken mother - joins forces with other blunt speakers in Harry like Wiggy and Sam.  Sam’s delightful bluntness to Jennifer is heard when he tells her, ‘I would like to paint you nude!’

6.    Brown dwells on such things as our universal restlessness - St Augustine’s cor irrequietum- and our aversion to boredom, which is constantly leading us astray (a very Hitchcockian motif …).

7.   If memory serves, Strindberg’s relatively benign A Dream Play (1907), one of his late works, offers a similar image.  At the end of the play, the mysterious door is opened, and there is nothing there!         


The Trouble with Harry is now over.’

The author of this essay would like to dedicate it to two of his fellow-sharers of Harry’s delights over the years, Dr Adrian Schober and Dr Ina Bertrand.  KM 

 A good quality copy of The Trouble With Harry is on YouTube


Editor's Note: This is the tenth essay by Hitchcock scholar Ken Mogg to have been published on Film Alert 101.

The other essays can be found if you click on these links.

Under Capricorn 

The Man Who Knew Too Much


Vertigo's Cinema Sources

Hitchcock's Methods

I Confess

About the author

Ken Mogg has published widely on Hitchcock; his The Alfred Hitchcock Story(1999, revised 2008) covers every film 'in loving detail'  (Bill Krohn, Cahiers du Cinéma). His recent writing includes a chapter on Topaz and (the script of) The Short Night in Hitchcock and the Cold War (Pace University Press, 2018), a chapter on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in Children, Youth, and American Television (Routledge, 2018), a chapter on "Hitchcock's Literary Influences" for A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock(Wiley Blackwell 2011, pb 2014), and an essay on "The Cutting Room" in 39 Steps to the Genius of Alfred Hitchcock (BFI, 2012). Ken has also written "Psycho Considerations" (2020), on the hitchcockmaster website if you click here    

Ken Mogg's email address is

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