The Liberal Ironist recently watched Alfred Hitchcock’s off-beat black comedy The Trouble With Harry during the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center’s Alfred Hitchcock retrospective. It’s been years since I saw this unrecognized gem by the Master of Suspense. The vibrant depictions of quaint Americana, the dark opening, the various characters’ touching simplicity and often disturbing level of self-absorption, the fixation on obscurity and failure, that meditative dry humor…I hadn’t recognized it as such in my original viewing, but I think The Trouble With Harry is the template for every Coen Brothers film. I’d like to illustrate this, and its significance in depicting Hitchcock’s “ideology,” by recounting its 1st and 3rd scenes. There isn’t much here that counts for spoilers; this is a beautiful but off-beat movie that just has to be experienced.
The action (though that is really the wrong thing to call it) opens in a small, remote New England village on a beautiful autumn morning. (It must be early in that morning, because an awful lot happens on this day…) A rosy-cheeked former ship’s captain is out hunting, and happens to see his first mark: A “Posted: No Hunting” sign. He then stumbles upon a can he has rather expertly (though of course inadvertently) shot. (As he picks the can up and looks it over with a witticism, he overlooks the drop of blood on it–pure Hitchcock.) Shortly thereafter, Captain Wiles (that’s right, Captain Wiles) notices a corpse–heretofore represented almost entirely by its feet, which are always pointed straight up. The Captain immediately reaches the conclusion that he clumsily shot the man while hunting; he appears more-exasperated than frightened by this development. His reaction actually prompted me to the Coen Brothers comparison: “What are you doing there?!” he asks the dead man in a state of perplexity. (George Clooney’s character in Burn After Reading, after a startling development in which he shoots a man, immediately afterwards asks the same question, albeit in a more-vulgar fashion.) He quickly resolves to bury the body, only to run off behind a tree after hearing someone coming. It turns out to be a mother and her young son; she promptly identifies the dead man as Harry–and celebrates his demise! With the young boy asking the usual series of precocious questions, they walk off. The Captain proceeds out from his hiding place, still intending to finish his work as he is convinced that the woman who has seen the body has no intention of reporting it.
At this point Captain Wiles begins pulling the body towards the tree line; he stops however, when an older woman asks with what can only be called excessive politeness whether anything is wrong. This is Mrs. Graves–and no, the dead man is not Mr. Boddy. The irony of the whole scene that follows is once again vintage Hitchcock. Mrs. Graves expresses surprise but a decided lack of shock at the sight of a neighbor with a rifle dragging a dead man towards the tree line, and in a short conversation invites the suspected manslaughterer over her house for tea. This invitation Captain Wiles eagerly accepts, and Mrs. Graves steps over Harry’s body and goes cheerfully on her way. Wiles promptly resumes his work of hiding his apparent victim’s remains.
Once again, however, he is forced to hide as the local physician, who is reading a book while walking, walks over the hilltop and actually trips over the body, simply getting to his feet, then walking off again. Next a tramp hikes up the hill, sees the body, tries to wake the man up. Then, upon realizing he is dead the tramp contentedly takes the man’s shoes.
This isn’t the last or even quite the most-poignant such scene. Shortly afterward a local avant-garde painter happens upon the corpse, and after an anxious glance about his surroundings, he begins intently painting the dead man’s face. (In fact, this is by far the most-precise painting by Sam Rockwell’s character that we see.) The depth of absorption these characters have in their own problems, pursuits and desires feels bizarre–but it does not feel inhuman. Hitchcock, as the Liberal Ironist mentioned in a review of Vertigo, is fascinated by the asocial and often violent unconscious drives in human beings; here the asocial side of human beings is on display even as they share simple and intimate moments with each other.
This strange yet somehow-acceptable combination of quaint Americana with intensely private, vaguely-criminal “ordinary people” forms that unique combination of elements of setting, characterization, theme and tone that has me convinced that The Trouble With Harry somehow inspired the Coen Brothers’ brand of film making. If you take a Barton Fink, a Fargo, a Big Lebowski, an O Brother Where Art Thou? a No Country for Old Men, or a Burn After Reading, a set of distinct but mutually-resonant elements return to the foreground: A deep affection for America with populist undertones or overtones, but also a sobering picture of the idiosyncrasy and darkness in people’s motives and concerns, and a seemingly un-American pessimism about what individuals are capable of and a fatalism about whether we can stand the storm to come. (Captain Wiles repeatedly, almost eagerly tells the painter that he doesn’t have a conscience, and he casually volunteers his atheism. The home country of the Transcendentalists has undergone an interesting evolution.) Many of those elements may seem most-obvious in their beautiful but bleak adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men, but it seems omnipresent in their work. A friend of mine who loves movies once said that he suspects the moral of the story in the Coen Brothers’ movies is that only folkish simplicity can save you. (From some of the grim developments in, say, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, and Burn After Reading among others, I don’t know if I’d say anything can protect us from a bad end, but the point remains that those with simple dreams may seem absurd, but they never look as ridiculous as those with elaborate plans–and if both should fall in the end, the simple man or woman doesn’t have so far to go and tends to meet that end with greater dignity.)
That reminds me: Harry had some pretty complicated ideas about his duty to his family. Of course, The Trouble With Harry takes place in a different World–though I remember the irony of saying “times have changed” that are elemental to Hitchcock movies like Rear Window or Vertigo–but Harry married his brother’s widow out of his belief in his duty–and declined to consummate the marriage on his honeymoon night because he read his horoscope–He was a Taurus, we are informed–and was warned against starting any new projects that night because they couldn’t be finished. This may be a comment about his lack of passion or simply a crack at his impotence, but either way you know he will not be a force in a Hitchcock movie. It’s no wonder, really, that he is introduced dead.
Though there are a few steps along the road to his untimely demise, Harry ultimately died because he didn’t know how to want something. That may sound somewhat vague and postmodern, but I suspect it’s true. The plots of Hitchcock movies frequently turn around the revelation of a desire, whether of protagonist or antagonist, or to the audience or to the protagonist him- or herself. Harry is a perverse human being even in the twisted World according to Alfred Hitchcock. He tries to conform to an ideal when what he most needs is to be moved by a sentiment (or even an unadorned desire), and whether by stumbling about where he doesn’t belong or doomed by a weak constitution, he dies.