Hitchcock’s Black Comedy: “The Trouble with Harry” (1955) starring John Forsythe, Shirley MacLaine, Edmund Gwenn, Mildred Natwick, & Jerry Mathers

Well, I wasn’t tall or thin or ethereal, so he wasn’t going to grab at me. So, I became his eating buddy. I gained about 15 lbs. during filming, and the studio got concerned. -Shirley MacLaine on her experience w/ Hitchcock

There is a dead man in a meadow in the hills above a small Vermont town. Capt. Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), comes across the body, and believes he accidentally shot him dead while hunting rabbits. Capt. Wiles wants to hide the body instead of going to the authorities. Capt. Wiles sees several other people stumble across Harry, most of whom don’t seem to know him or notice that he’s dead! A middle-aged woman, Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick), sees Capt. Wiles moving the body; she vows to keep it secret. A young single mother, Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine- her first movie after working as a chorus girl), does know Harry and seems happy that he’s dead. Her son, Arnie (Jerry Mathers), saw the body first. This is a time when 6 or 7 y.o. kids played alone outdoors! Later, struggling artist Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe- long before Dynasty) comes along and starts sketching near the body; Capt. Wiles confides in him.

Capt. Wiles: [after Dr. Greenbow trips over the body] Couldn’t have had more people here if I’d sold tickets.

This movie was Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s experiment to see how audiences would react to a movie w/o famous stars. He thought that sometimes big names hindered the flow and style of the story. He also wanted to test how American audiences would react to a subtle brand of humor than usual. Although a perverse sense of humor permeates all of his movies, this was only Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s second outright comedy. American audiences of the ’50s were perhaps uncomfortable w/ black comedy, so this was a box-office failure upon initial release. It ran for a long time in England, France, and Italy.

I just saw this movie for the first time after reading a few rave reviews on a Facebook group. Fans esp. seemed to like the scenery; though filming was done on location in New England, most of the scenes set in the forest were shot on a Paramount soundstage. The musical score is playful, funny, and quirky, adding much to the story. Lyn Murray, who worked on To Catch a Thief (1955), suggested Bernard Herrmann for this film. Thus began a long professional relationship between two innovative creatives; Herrmann composed the music for seven of Hitch’s movies.

[1] Part of the joke is that “nothing happens.” Hitchcock’s “anti-Hitchcock” film defies expectations for action, shock, mayhem, suspense, spectacular climaxes on national monuments, etc. Instead, it’s a New England cross-stitch of lovingly detailed writing, acting, photography, directing and editing.

[2] No Hitchcock film divides viewers more than this one. Some consider the film a masterpiece of understated black comedy; others deem it a plot less, pointless time-waster. …I’d say The Trouble With Harry is a great film that was probably a good two decades ahead of its time. The performances are wonderfully outrageous, especially the elders (Gwenn and Natwick) who give perceptive comic turns that actors nowadays just don’t seem to have the range to do. Forsythe and MacLaine are delightful too

[3] A light film for Hitchcock, but it does contain the transference of guilt theme, and the guilt bounces all over our main players. A small gem of a film that often gets overlooked, watch this one and you’ll be charmed by the trouble that Harry causes.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Hitchcock on the Law: “The Paradine Case” (1947) starring Gregory Peck, Ann Todd, Charles Laughton, Charles Coburn, Louis Jourdan, & Alida Valli

Sir Simon Flaquer: [about Mrs. Paradine] You’ll find her a strange woman with an almost mystical charm.

London police charge a young woman, Maddalena Paradine (Italian actress Alida Valli), w/ the murder of her older/blind/British husband, retired Col. Richard Paradine. She’s a woman w/ a past, but became wealthy/glamorous b/c of her marriage. Her solicitor, Sir Simon Flaquer (Charles Coburn), refers the case to his friend/colleague, Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck). While spending time building her defense, Tony becomes infatuated w/ Mrs. Paradine, threatening his long/happy marriage to Gay (Ann Todd). Tony goes to the country estate where the Paradines previously lived; he sees the grand house and meets the valet, Andre Latour (French actor Louis Jourdan).

Mrs. Paradine: It won’t shock you, I assume, to learn that I am a woman, what would you say, a woman who has seen a great deal of life.

I’m sure there some readers who don’t want to take sleeping pills, so maybe this movie will do the trick (LOL)! How can such a great cast (incl. theater veterans) be wasted? While Sir Alfred Hitchcock (personally) liked the actors, he felt that Peck (w/ white streaked hair to age him up), Valli (one-note and lacking charm), and Jourdan (handsome/intense) were unsuited for their roles. Producer David O. Selznick insisted that the director use them. Judge Horfield’s (Charles Laughton) nervous/bullied wife, Sophie (Ethel Barrymore), had several scenes cut; this will be obvious to astute viewers.

Gay Keane [joking w/ Tony]: I wouldn’t like a woman to be hanged, any woman, just because my husband had a rendezvous with her. In jail.

This movie (part melodrama/part courtroom drama) was nearly as expensive as Gone with the Wind (1939)! Selznick constantly interfered w/ Hitch’s production, incl. having him do many re-shoots. Selznick supervised editing (the movie feels long) and the (over-the-top) musical score from Franz Waxman. This was Hitch’s last movie in his contract w/ Selznick; it’s not very suspenseful (though the trial was somewhat interesting). I liked some of the dialogue; the domestic scenes between Peck (only 30) and Todd (10 yrs. older than her leading man) were done very well.

Judy Flaquer: Men are such horrible beasts. I wish I were married to Anthony Keane for just one hour. I’d make him jump through hoops.

Sir Simon: I wish you were married to someone. Perhaps he could put up with your clap-clap better than I can!

Though The Paradine Case was a box-office failure, critics praised two performances. Time Magazine (January 12, 1948) wrote: “The only characters who come sharply to life are the barrister’s wife (Ann Todd) and her confidante (Joan Tetzel).” Also, Variety wrote: “Ann Todd delights as his wife, giving the assignment a grace and understanding that tug at the emotions.” Judy (Tetzel) could be thought of as the precursor to Barbara Morton (played by Hitch’s daughter- Patricia) in Strangers on a Train (1951); they’re both single, intelligent, and fascinated w/ crime (which could be considered “unfeminine”).

[1] Many viewers feel let down by the film because it lacks the energy and excitement found in most of Hitchcock’s films, and because the courtroom setting creates expectations that are not quite filled.

Many Hitchcock fans will not particularly enjoy this one…

[2] I like Peck normally, but in this film, he’s too young and never convincingly English, despite his accent. Even without the accent, he doesn’t suggest someone who is passionately and irrationally swept away, as the role calls for.

[3] THE PARADINE CASE is generally conceded as among Hitchcock’s lesser films. It’s most interesting parts of the performances of the leads (except for Alida Valli, who is quite dull), and the famous sequence of the portrait of Valli whose eyes seem to follow the camera (standing in for Gregory Peck/Anthony Keane) as it passes from one room to the next.

[4] It is not typical Hitchcock, and fails to fascinate the audience. The high point is the verbal clashes between Laughton and Peck (sometimes assisted by Leo G. Carroll as the prosecutor), Jourdan’s collapse in the witness box when Keane attacks him for secretly betraying his master with the defendant, and Valli’s final condemnation of Keane in court.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The Mother of All Horrors: Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, & Martin Balsam

Marion: Oh, we can see each other. We can even have dinner but respectably in my house with my mother’s picture on the mantel and my sister helping me broil a big steak for three.

Sam: And after the steak, do we send Sister to the movies? Turn mama’s picture to the wall?

A secretary in Phoenix, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), is tired of how her life is going. She has to meet her boyfriend, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), on lunch breaks at a cheap hotel. Sam has to pay alimony to his ex-wife and lives in the back of his hardware store, so thinks they can’t yet get married. One Friday, Marion is trusted to take $40,000 to the bank by her boss. (Pat Hitchcock plays Marion’s co-worker.) Marion decides to steal this money and head to Sam’s town in Northern California. When she’s caught in a storm, she gets off the main highway and pulls into the Bates Motel. It’s managed by a young man, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who seems to be dominated by his mother. Later on, we meet others, incl. Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) and a PI named Mr. Arbogast (Martin Balsam).

Marion: Do you go out with friends?

Norman: A boy’s best friend is his mother.

Psycho (iconic to modern viewers, yet controversial in its day) was made b/c Sir Alfred Hitchcock wanted to experiment w/ a sparser style of filmmaking. He used a crew mostly of TV veterans (incl. from his show– Alfred Hitchcock Presents) and hired actors who weren’t yet well-known. Hitch bought the rights to the novel from writer Robert Bloch for a mere $9,000. He also bought up as many copies of the book as he could find (to keep the ending a secret). Before cast/crew began work, they had to raise their right hands and promise not to reveal one word of the story. Hitch didn’t even tell his cast the ending until he needed to shoot it. The director made all the movie theater owners sign a contract that they wouldn’t let anyone in until the start of the film. Once they were late, they’d not be let in until the next showing. This started the process of mandatory seating times at theaters which continues today!

Norman: It’s not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?

Marion: Yes. Sometimes just one time can be enough.

Paramount gave Hitch a small budget (under $1M), b/c of the studio’s distaste of the source material. He shot in black-and-white b/c he thought it’d be too gory in color and to save money. The studio gave 60% of the proceeds to Hitch (in lieu of a salary), thinking the movie would fail. Though most film critics hated it, Psycho was a big hit and Hitch ended up earning over $15 million- LOL! Hitch was so happy w/ the strings-only score (by Bernard Herrmann) that he doubled the famed composer’s salary. Hitch commented: “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.” The director originally wanted the shower scene to be silent, but Herrmann scored it anyway; Hitchcock immediately changed his mind when he heard the music!

Arbogast: All right, then let’s say for the sake of argument that she needed your help and that she made you out to be a fool in helping her…

Norman: Well, I’m not a fool. And I’m not capable of being fooled! Not even by a woman.

In the novel, Norman is short, fat, older, and unlikable; Hitch decided to re-imagine him as a “boy next door” type. He cast Perkins (his first choice) who has an earnest quality; he is tall and thin w/ boyish looks. Perkins does a terrific job, creating a subtle, creepy, and very unsettling young man. The dinner conversation w/ Marion (amidst the stuffed birds) is a scene studied by budding filmmakers in school. Sam is in most ways the polar opposite of Norman; he represents ’50s “old school” masculinity, while Norman suffers from gender confusion. Sam is bossy w/ the women around him; Norman is timid. Sam’s relationship w/ Marion is portrayed as healthy, but Norman’s relationship w/ her is predatory. Hitch didn’t want Gavin for the role of Sam, but the studio insisted (b/c of his “beefcake” status). Looking back, viewers thought Gavin did a fine job w/ the role.

The structure of this film is rare for its time. We think the protagonist will be Marion, but then the focus shifts to Norman; eventually we follow Lila and Sam. Lila (introduced just before the 1 hr. mark) may be conventional when compared to the risk-taking Marion, but she’s a determined woman also. Miles and Leigh look like they really could be sisters. Arbogast doesn’t have a big role, but he has a fine scene w/ Norman. Hitchcock wasn’t a fan of authority figures; notice how the highway patrolman is portrayed in a sinister manner (never even removing his sunglasses). Many have commented how they hated the scene just before the ending (as did Hitch); the studio insisted on having the psychiatrist wrap things up for the audience.

[1] We can see that he is moody when he angrily leans forward and delivers an angry, though controlled tirade against putting people in institutions. Every camera angle and line of dialogue in this scene has meaning and carries enormous weight, and yet the drama plays out in a light, relaxed mode, and the performers seems truly connected to one another at its conclusion, strangers no more.

[2] …this movie doesn’t have the shock value today for audiences

But, what you WILL see in this movie is (1) superb acting; (2) a fascinating lead character; (3) excellent photography, and (4) a bizarre story.

[3] You can feel the decade literally shifting out of ’50s and into ’60s with this one. Norman Rockwell touches abound, like the decor of the motel, but look at what’s going on around it. People dress well, they still wear fedoras and jackets, but in their tense conversations and hooded gazes, you can feel the culture just ticking away like a time bomb waiting to explode.

Most especially, there’s Anthony Perkins, who plays motel clerk Norman Bates in a very oddly naturalistic way, complete with facial tics and half-swallowed words, not the polished image one expected to see then.

– Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Hitchcock’s Ticket to Hollywood: “The Lady Vanishes” (1938) starring Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas, & Dame May Whitty

Iris Henderson [talking to her girlfriends]: I’ve no regrets. I’ve been everywhere and done everything. I’ve eaten caviar at Cannes, sausage rolls at the dogs. I’ve played baccarat at Biarritz and darts with the rural dean. What is there left for me but marriage?

This film was a hit in his native England; it helped Sir Alfred Hitchcock get a 7 yr. contract w/ David O. Selznick. Orson Welles loved it so much that he saw it 11 times! Hitchcock was inspired by a legend of an Englishwoman who went w/ her daughter to the Palace Hotel in Paris in the 1880s for the Great Exposition: “The woman was taken sick and they sent the girl across Paris to get some medicine in a horse-vehicle, so it took about four hours. When she came back she asked, ‘How’s my mother?’ ‘What mother?’ ‘My mother. She’s here, she’s in her room. Room 22.’ They go up there. Different room, different wallpaper, everything. And the payoff of the whole story is, so the legend goes, that the woman had Bubonic plague and they dared not let anybody know she died, otherwise all of Paris would have emptied.” The urban legend, known as the Vanishing Hotel Room, was also explored in Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955) in S1, E5, “Into Thin Air,” starring Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia (who has a supporting role in Strangers on a Train).

Miss Froy: I never think you should judge any country by its politics. After all, we English are quite honest by nature, aren’t we?

Passengers on train out of a fictional Central European country (Mandrika) are delayed due to an avalanche. They get up close and personal w/ each other while staying at an overcrowded inn one night. Once the train departs the next morning, it seems an elderly English governess, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) may or may not be on it. Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), a wealthy playgirl who was vacationing w/ gal pals before getting married, is certain that Miss Froy was on the train. They sat in the same compartment and had tea together in the dining car, but the passengers/staff who could corroborate Iris’ story say they never saw the lady! Iris could have possible concussion, as brain surgeon Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas) declares; she was hit over the head before boarding the train. A young ethno-musicologist, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in his first movie), is willing to listen to Iris and help her search for Miss Froy.

Gilbert: My father always taught me, never desert a lady in trouble. He even carried that as far as marrying Mother.

Vivien Leigh screen-tested for the role of Iris. The cricket-obsessed pals, Charters and Caldicott (played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), were such popular characters that they were paired up in 10 more movies, incl. Night Train to Munich (1940) which also starred Lockwood. The censors wouldn’t allow the villains to be identified as Germans, though the plot has references to the political situation leading up to WWII. The Brits end up working together to fight off the foreigners, aside from the lawyer, Mr. Todhunter (Cecil Parker), who raises the white flag of surrender. At first, it seems like a short, light, and breezy film. On second look, we note how two women are at the focus of the story; they’re both strong-willed, confident, and capable (when life gets tough).

[1] Many regard this as the best of Hitchcock’s early work, and it is easy to see why: the film demonstrates his growing talent for building suspense from an unlikely mix of the commonplace and the incredible.

[2] Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood simply sparkle as the main couple who of course initially can’t stand each other. Once on the train, the ensuring mystery and sleuthing are riveting,and full of fantastic little details… The shootout is excellently staged and still quite exciting. The laughs are constant…

[3] I think my analysis of Hitch would be his championing the moral fiber of everyman. I think that is why Hitchcock films still stand today as some of the best ever made.

[4] The scene in the hotel showing Caldicott and Charters sharing a bed (and a pair of pajamas) never would have gotten by the American censors. The relationship between the Todhunters as well, was quite obvious and rare for the American cinema of the day.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Murder by Contract” (1958)

Claude (Vince Edwards) is a young man who recently held a regular job and has no history of trouble w/ the law. He also has the arrogance, intelligence, and emotional detachment to become a hit man, as he proves to Mr. Moon (a go-between to a crime boss). A string of successful hits on the East Coast gets Claude sent to LA for his latest job. He is accompanied by two minders (George and Marc): one is often nervous (Herschel Bernardi) and the other comes to admire Claude for his cool demeanor (Phillip Pine). Though self-assured in his previous kills, Claude becomes unglued learning that the target is a woman. She’s a witness set to testify against Clause’s boss, so under police protection 24/7. Claude is worried b/c women are unpredictable- they don’t do what you expect!

Claude: The only type killing that’s safe is when a stranger kills a stranger. No motive. Nothing to link the victim to the executioner. Now why would a stranger kill a stranger? Because somebody’s willing to pay. It’s business. Same as any other business.

I’m sure that the writer was thinking of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) when he came up w/ the above lines! You have to be in a certain mood to enjoy this type of movie; it has a lot of style, though not much dialogue. Edwards looks a bit dangerous, yet also handsome, and is comfortable in his role. He is tall (6’2″), athletic (a former swimmer), w/ thick dark hair and dark eyes. The film has some comic moments when Claude unsettles the two men sent to accompany him. Scorcese and Tarantino consider this to be one of their favorite B-movies.

[1] Is he worried about killing her because he has more moral fiber than he would like to admit or is it genuinely harder to kill a woman? Whatever the case, this is a fascinating look into a dangerous mind.

[2] Stylish direction and some interesting camera work compliment a thoughtful script. Be watching for one particularly unsettling scene which unfolds in a barber shop.

[3] Vince Edwards’ character… was also fun to enjoy. His dialogue, and just the way he carried himself through this film, was fascinating.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews