For Alfred Hitchcock, The Trouble with Harry is an eccentric film. Although it relies little on the particular techniques of suspense usually associated with his work, it does have a subtle tension of its own. It is an uncharacteristically mellow film in which Hitchcock makes considerable use of his very droll English sense of humor, while at the same time demonstrating his gift for using real locations as counterpoint to his fanciful ideas. The exteriors of The Trouble with Harry were made in Vermont during the autumn, and the camera captures beautifully the reds, oranges, and yellows of the changing leaves and the tranquility of a peaceful countryside.
In the midst of this beauty, a corpse is discovered; three people believe themselves responsible. Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), a kindly retired seaman, believes he has accidentally shot the man while hunting. Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick), a prim spinster who believed the man meant to attack her, has struck him on the head with her hiking shoe. The man's estranged wife, Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine), has hit him with a bottle, which has resulted in his staggering away into the woods in a stupor. A fourth person, Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), conspires with the three guilty parties to hide the corpse. For the entire length of the story, these four people find themselves burdened with the dead man as a result of their indecisiveness about what to do with him. Finally, they hit upon the idea of having Jennifer's son, Arnie (Jerry Mathers), whose' understanding of time is totally confusing, rediscover the dead man at his original resting place.
This is admittedly a slim premise for a film, but for Hitchcock it is only a premise and not the substance of the realized work. The director troubles the audience by making death amusing and by showing no sentiment for Harry, who is unlamented even by his wife and son. More perversely, he uses Harry's death to bring together two couples, Sam and Jennifer and the Captain and Miss Gravely. The film clearly shows that death may be beneficial to the living, since these characters do not know one another before Harry's death, and develop deep mutual affection through their common cause. All four characters refute the mistaken view that Hitchcock is only able to take an interest in mentally unhealthy relationships and psychopathic murderers. Each member of this group may be a bit eccentric in some way, but each has an attitude toward life that is essentially healthy and positive.
The character of Sam is unique in the fact that he is the only major character in a Hitchcock film who is an artist. He is a young man whose talent is unrecognized; all of his paintings are unsold, although his fortunes change at the end. John Forsythe is ideally cast as Sam, who alone does not share in the imagined guilt of his companions, but who assumes the role of leader in all of their schemes by virtue of his quick mind. Forsythe conveys the charm and intelligence necessary to make Sam's manipulation of the others credible.
The other characters are equally well realized. Shirley MacLaine, in her first film,.makes an uncommon Hitchcock heroine, and there is no question that she was chosen for the qualities which set her apart from other actresses. Rather than the pathos associated with MacLaine's most celebrated roles (Some Came Running, 1958; The Apartment, 1960), Hitchcock brings out her comic flair and ability to project sexiness in an amusing way, qualities also evident in her next film, Artists and Models (1955). Edmund Gwenn and Mildred Natwick, both endearing character players, make an unusual romantic couple. They take full advantage of the film's rich possibilities for humor, and are unexpectedly touching in the courtship scenes, evoking the combination of shyness and bravado more commonly associated with romance between adolescents.
The Trouble with Harry was made in Hitchcock's richest period. Robert Burks, a constant collaborator for over a decade, had already photographed a number of Hitchcock films, and his work in VistaVision and Technicolor is entrancing, especially in the attractive scenes of New England which are visually unlike those in any other film. Bernard Herrmann, another valuable collaborator in this period, composed his first Hitchcock score for The Trouble with Harry and expressed regret in later years that he had not been able to score more comedies. His music for the film is alternately wistful and whimsical. John Michael Hayes was scenarist for four consecutive Hitchcock films; these four screenplays abound in verbal wit and are easily Hayes's best work. Hayes deserves special praise for the dialogue in the first meeting between Sam and Jennifer, in which they sit on the porch drinking lemonade as Jennifer talks matter-of-factly about her marriage to the ill-fated Harry. This sequence is one of the most outrageous boy-meets-girl episodes on film and would by itself be enough to justify Hitchcock's high opinion of The Trouble with Harry, which he always cites as a personal favorite.