I’d sort of known vaguely that it was about a body, but had always imagined it as a creepy, disappearing corpse drama. Or even, a creepy ‘corpse-won’t-disappear’ thriller. In fact, it was both of these things, but not creepy. It was meant to be a comedy, which is a lot more disturbing. The biggest surprise for me came at the beginning, when the opening titles revealed that it was based on a story by Jack Trevor Story. I remembered him from my teenage, when he used to contribute strange and disturbing shorts to Punch magazine, and was often referred to as the ‘bard of Milton Keynes’. I think he’d been invited to be the writer in residence to the new city when it was completed, but had then decided to stay there. Like name, like nature, I’d thought then. A number of his stories involved men with serious drinking problems and I had often wondered if these were autobiographical.
Anyway, in this strange tale there are lots of misadventures when a small boy discovers a dead body in the woods. Next, a retired sea-captain, out for a day’s hunting, thinks he has shot the man in question by mistake. There then follow a number of ‘comic’ interludes in which the body is repeatedly hidden, buried and then dug up again.
This might give the impression that it resembles the ‘hide-the-stiff’ high-jinx of a Whitehall farce, or the dead guest episode in Fawlty Towers, but it is like neither of these. There is a peculiar jokiness among the villagers about Harry’s death. All of them knew him, yet none mourn his passing. Most seem to think they will be suspected of killing him, although it is never really clear why he was so disliked. His widow is the most pleased to hear he is dead, although his only crime appears to be that he walked out on her on her wedding night.
The BFI’s free handout for the film quoted from an article by David Kehr in Film Comment (May/June 1984). He made a very nice point in saying that in “most Hitchcock films, guilt destroys; in The Trouble with Harry, it brings people together... The ending finds the harmony of a Shakespearean comedy... As if in a fairy tale, the magic day - the day of Harry’s death and the unification of the couples - it is a day out of time. It has disappeared from the calendar.”
This is true, and he’s thinking of the Forest of Arden, which is sort of where this takes place, but in a Shakespeare comedy we need to care about the lovers. However, these characters seemed almost heartless in their laughing flippancy towards the body of the deceased. It made me feel uneasy about them, alienated from their mentality. On the surface it is a somewhat sleepy piece, with no Hitchcockian edge to it at all. Emotionally, there was no focus, either.
I began to wonder whether Hitchcock was stitching in a very subtle message, one that could only be seen in what he was showing but not saying. The one person who says nothing is Harry. What was Hitch telling us about him?
Harry’s body is lying prone on the ground, exactly as though laid out for burial. People who die suddenly, whether shot, brained or felled by infarction do not take the trouble to lie down so neatly before dying... yet this is what the film requires us to believe Harry did. He would have toppled like a tree. Rigor Mortis fixes the body in its final posture - it doesn’t automatically straighten someone out. Harry is a ‘stiff’ and, in life, he must have been very stiff indeed - stiff as a board. Hitchcock is giving us a visual pun on ‘stiffness’ - perhaps, then, there are other visual clues to glean.
Harry’s body is immaculately dressed. He is in a stylish, grey city suit and very expensive shoes. We know he has come from Boston, but why should he be so smart just for a walk in the woods, way out in the country? Those shoes were not made for hiking. The other characters are very casually dressed, save when they are on a ‘date’. Clearly Harry was particular about his attire, but would have been conspicuous in such a rural setting. Fastidious, you might even say.
He is also shown wearing a pink shirt and a flamboyant pink and orange tie. Now, in the present day, a pink shirt has no special significance, but back in the 1950s it certainly had. It would not guarantee that the wearer was gay, but it would very strongly suggest it. Combined with a colourful tie, and baby-blue socks with pretty red toe-tips... I think we are intended to read Harry’s dress as (in the parlance of the day) ‘effeminate’.
Harry’s great ‘crime’ was not to consummate his marriage, and to abandon his wife on her wedding night, then flee to the city. Her son, it is revealed, is not Harry’s. There is a suggestion that he attacked a woman in the woods, but this is then shown not to have had a sexual motive, but because he thought it was his wife, who had assaulted him earlier in the day.
Harry’s surname is Worp, which would be an old Dutch name, originally Vander Worp, and so appropriate to New England, but it is worth noting how it would sound like ‘warp’ in English, as in ‘warped’. Hitchcock would recognise this as very similar to the British slang term ‘bent’ - at that time meaning ‘homosexual’.
It bothered me that there was a kind of running joke about Harry being taken for a rabbit. The body of a rabbit appears later, and the camera dwells on it, without comment. It’s a dead stand-in for Harry himself and matches his stretched out posture. Rabbits are proverbially seen as somewhat sex-obsessed creatures, and ‘bunny’ may have been an old slang term for gay prostitute.
When the sheriff comes to call, Harry’s body is hidden, yet the closet keeps opening all by itself. In fact, the body is not in the closet, but something hidden keeps being revealed. Whether the term ‘coming out of the closet’ in a specifically gay sense was in use at that time is possible though doubtful, but the idea of keeping things in the closet, or hiding a skeleton in the closet was well-known. The camera keeps focusing on the opening of the closet, which seems to be for no real reason. It may be for a symbolic rather than plot purpose.
This idle speculation doesn’t exactly redeem the film - it’s still a lesser Hitchcock, but it does seem to be that there is a curious subtext, possibly that of repressed homosexuality (and Boston at that time was renowned for such repression). It cuts deeper than that, though. There may even be a racial element hinted at.
We never see Harry’s face, save in Sam Marlowe’s pastel sketch, in which the predominant colouring seems to be browns and ochres, with a hint of orange and tan. Harry appears to have a somewhat dark complexion from this picture. In all the shots of the body, the soles of Harry’s feet (either shod or in socks) are shown in close-up. They are Harry’s most prominent feature. All we ever see of his naked body is a glimpse of his bare feet poking out from the bath. The soles of his feet are white, right enough, but then so are everybody’s. The soles of the feet, like the palms of the hands, have no pigment cells, so we can draw no firm conclusion about Harry’s race. Perhaps we are not meant to. Perhaps this is another outrageous visual pun. Could Hitchcock be hinting that Harry is a soul (sole) brother? There’s no clear evidence that this term for a black American was current in 1954, but Ray Charles and Milt Jackson released an album called Soul Brothers in 1958, which suggests it was clearly in use before then, at least.
The gleefulness of the villagers at Harry’s demise is troubling. I wonder if there is a very faint allusion from Hitch about the prejudices of the 1950s, against gay men, against people of other ethnic groups, against the outsider. No matter how they try to bury this body and to hammer down the things they hate, they keep popping up again. No matter how many times they close the closet door, it creaks open once more. Their happy ending may be sweet and nice, but it is not emotionally satisfying. It comes at a price. At the end, all the ‘trouble’ is ready to begin again... Harry will just not go away, and nor will everything he represents.