Generation Y

Vermont in cinema: “The Trouble with Harry”

“The Trouble with Harry,” the 1955 comic mystery film, was technically Alfred Hitchcock’s second movie set in the Green Mountain State: previously, the soundstage “mental hospital” in “Spellbound” (1943) was somewhat arbitrarily designated a Vermont address, a detail that bore little or no significance to the story. On the other hand, “The Trouble With Harry” never specifically mentions Vermont (except indirectly, by a single mention of Mount Mansfield) but is utterly permeated by its idealized picture-postcard essence, upon which the movie’s central joke hangs. Here is a film whose macabre premise simply cannot overtake the wholesome nature of its idyllic small-town setting—it is, in short, the happiest-go-luckiest murder mystery ever filmed.

It was Hitchcock’s first time actually working in the state—his location scouts picked Barre, Morrisville, and Craftsbury Common to stand in for the fictional town of Highwater, Vermont—and his last. Annoyed by rainy weather that had washed away most of the fall foliage by late September and necessitated shooting mountaintop scenes on hastily assembled sets inside a rented local gymnasium plastered with fake leaves, the Master of Suspense eventually called it quits and moved the production back to Hollywood. Although one can easily tell that certain scenes were filmed at the Paramount studio, you’d never guess from the final product that the on-location shooting was so troubled. Hitchcock’s deliberate Technicolor recreation of Norman Rockwell’s Vermont is magnificent—and what he does with it, in his gallows-humor mood, is kind of amusing, too.

Hitchcock’s career spanned the 1920s to the 1970s, but by acclamation, the 1950s—from “Stranger on a Train” to “North by Northwest,” with “Rear Window” and “Vertigo” in between—were his prime years. Among this illustrious group of thrillers, “The Trouble with Harry”—one of Hitchcock’s few true comedies, yet a financial disappointment—is an outlier. It feels like a lark, Hitchcock amusing himself between masterpieces. But it’s an interesting film in its own right, and not only because of its uncharacteristic nature within the filmography of an auteur who rarely worked outside his own wheelhouse.

Written by John Michael Hayes (a Massachusetts native, Dartmouth professor, and frequent Hitchcock collaborator who, coincidentally, also penned 1957’s visually similar “Peyton Place”), the movie begins on a wooded hillside, where an elderly rabbit hunter seems to have accidentally shot and killed a hiker named Harry. He decides to cover up the accident, but before he can hide the body, several of the villagers from the town below stumble upon it. Yet as it turns out, each passerby is too distracted to care much about the corpse. A tramp, encountering the body, would rather steal the dead man’s shoes than report a murder; an absentminded doctor is too engrossed in the book he’s reading to notice the cadaver that he’s tripped over; a local en-plein-air artist is interested only in sketching the deceased man’s face.

This strained bit feels a little like an “SNL” sketch, and “The Trouble with Harry” gets only more insistently comical as the story continues. The rabbit hunter, we learn, is only one of several Highwater residents who believe that they’ve murdered the man in woods. As he and his neighbors learn more about the circumstances of Harry’s death, their plan of action continually changes, and a comedy of errors ensues, in which each new revelation convinces them either to bury the corpse or to dig it back up. Over the course of the day and night, the body of Harry is raised and reburied countless times.

The oddest thing about the movie is its blithe tone: it’s not so much farce (like “Arsenic and Old Lace”)—let alone thriller (like typical Hitchcock)—as it is musical-comedy. No one in the town feels remotely bad for Harry, and no one is perturbed by the violence. The question of how to handle his death is strictly a practical matter, not a moral one: they all just want the least amount of trouble for themselves. Amid Harry’s many resurrections and reinterments, the rabbit hunter finds time to fall in love with a local spinster, and the artist falls in love with Harry’s widow (Shirley MacLaine, in her first movie role—a big “Introducing” banner in the opening credits seems to predict her future stardom). It’s all perfectly charming, all very lighthearted.

Even so, the incongruous brutality of the film’s plot is not a satirical device intended to suggest the “dark undercurrent” within small-town life observed by Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” or Hitchcock’s own “Shadow of a Doubt.” Indeed, this film is more apt to evoke “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Its characters seem to operate under a cheerful spell.

“The Trouble with Harry” isn’t Hitchcock’s only comedy, but it may be his only exercise in pure absurdism: a deliberate mix-up of genre conventions whose endless repetitions vaguely recall Beckett. The whole thing feels a little arch and self-amused; the humor might have been richer if Hitchcock had sought to do more than experiment formally—if, for example, he had worked to imbue Highwater, Vermont, with a more detailed small-town milieu.

Still, the film comprises a memorably creative and effective metaphorical representation of the insularity of out-of-the-way communities. Every village is its own private universe, and the reason no one here cares about Harry’s death is that he was a stranger, an out-of-towner. The happy townspeople trust one another to resolve the issue among themselves, without involving the authorities; nobody is interested in “justice” for the victim. “If you’re going to get yourself shot,” says the hunter, “do it where you’re known.”

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