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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Reading The Trouble with Harry

I recently got to see Hitchcock’s ‘pastoral’—The Trouble with Harry. Set in the fall, this film has the idyllic countryside of Vermont as its setting. But, it is dark and disturbing as we discover guilt, passion, ruthless and idiosyncratic law, foppery and elegance in a heady but well controlled mix. It is a re-telling of the myth of fall in an Eden-like world. It is also the repository of Quixotic humour. Finally, it is banal and candid and challenges every bit of old-world virtue.

The camera pans over a canvas as the credits are listed. It could well be the metaphor for the canvas of the artist in the film—Sam. The camera tracks across the stunning Vermont landscape before coming to a jolt as it focuses on the red blotch on the socks of dead Harry. We generally focus on the face of the corpse—Hitchcock’s aim is to shock with the unusual and he succeeds very well.
Sam’s art seldom sells and he couldn’t care less. The film itself bombed in the United States. Hitchcock makes his cameo appearance in the film when Sam’s prospective customer examines his paintings. The connection is that Sam is Hitchcock’s persona in the film. He connects all the characters, but he has nothing to ‘do’ with Harry. Sam is the ‘outsider’ in the film—the artist who objectively treats his subject but puts his passion in his craft or artistry. The film’s dénouement is achieved as Sam gives up his dispassionate pose and admits his subjective interest in the lives and fates of the characters. The point that Hitchcock makes is that artistic objectivity is dangerous and even in a funny and Quixotic way can compromise human society. Sam, makes a remark quite early in the film—he wishes to paint Jennifer Rogers nude. Nude painting is expected to reveal, objectively, the beauty of the human form. It is a slapstick remark by the standards of 1955 and runs contrary to the film’s New England landscape. The Edenic is challenged by the carnal as well as the human. The character of Sam reminds you of Rope where crime has no purpose and is secured by male-bonding of the most pathological sort. Women are slighted and family bonding demeaned. Murder is almost linked to art—hiding it cleverly is like the artist’s scheme of concealing artistry in his masterpiece. Here, in Trouble with Harry, objectivity is also portrayed as dangerous. Sam, in search of autumnal colours, bumps into the corpse of Harry. He sees it as a model for his ‘sketch’ (he later argues with the Deputy Sheriff over this point—he insists that what the cop calls a ‘painting’ is actually a ‘sketch’. This might seem funny but there is indeed a point to be made—Sam is pretending to be an objective artist when he has actually lost his objectivity as he is in love with Jennifer Rogers and wishes to marry her. This is a self-conscious joke that he brilliantly pulls off.) The sketch later becomes a piece of evidence that could incriminate the two couples. Sam, as already discussed, reverts back to his earlier self to avoid arrest. Objectivity is useful only in a scientist—the doctor is interested in diagnosing the cause of Harry’s death. He doesn’t care a whit more. This saves the couples. But, recall that when he bumps into the corpse twice he doesn’t even care to find out what he exactly bumps into as he is lost in reading Shakespeare’s sonnet 116. It is a sonnet which is ostensibly about love that is unrequited and yet claims to remain steadfast even as the beloved has moved when it ‘remover finds’. The steadfastness is evident and is towards art if not a human being. The ‘art’ in question is that of the sonnet. Yet, ‘art’ fails to teach him to recognize, instinctively, ‘death’—the very corollary of life. The film’s central irony lies in the fact that the objective artist/scientist, much like the film-maker, is instrumental in shaping its destiny. But, the film also critiques the objective pose and ridicules it. The doctor resolves a moral problem—it absolves a woman of the guilt of being a murderer. But, legally the characters had already got themselves in the clear. Physical evidence had been destroyed and tampered with great ingenuity. Law could do very little. In fact, the film condemns all sorts of coldness—Harry’s and the Sherriff’s as well. Harry, would have never have had to resort to the passionate excesses had he not been cold and indifferent to Jennifer in the first place.

Irony abounds in the film. Arnie, the son of Jennifer Rogers is a shrewd child who can bargain hard for muffins and a lot more. He will not part with the rabbit until he has had his muffins. He is the very antithesis of childhood innocence, the Biblical myth of the lamb that Blake uses in his Songs of Innocence. Arnie, and his confusion over the nomenclatures of time—‘tomorrow’ is his ‘yesterday’—becomes the alibi for the couples. Again, in the conniving camaraderie between the naval captain and the artist is the ironical partnership between the game-hunter whose pleasure lies in mindless poaching and the creative human being who seeks to eternalize life’s colours. The passion of the cold and heartless Harry brings trouble to the quiet Boston village while the artist’s sacrificing of his disinterested poise leads to its resolution. The only piece of art that Sam’s buyer misses out becomes the source of a great complexity in the plot. Sam’s artistic skill is important to the film not because he is a Picasso or a Dali, but because he uses it to save someone from charges of murder. The underlying message is that art is important only when it is linked to life. The price that Sam quotes for his work is actually social good. Hitchcock, comes up with a very socialist and Christian message even as he upholds artistic idiosyncrasy and independence.
Mistaken notions and identities give rise to the ironies in this film. Sam connives with Captain Wiles because Captain Wiles believes that he had killed Harry. Captain Wiles confides about his guilt to Ivy Gravely. Ivy herself believes that she had killed Harry as he tried to ‘rape’ her and she hit him with her shoe’s heel. To atone her guilt she invites Wiles to a coy date over muffins and tea. Had she not had this mistaken notion the couple would have never met and never fallen in love. The relationship between Jennifer and sam cements as Sam discusses Wily’s crime with her only to let Jennifer ‘confess’ hers. Crime breeds very strange but warm and beautiful love affairs. The greatest irony is of course that no one in this idyllic country is overtly disturbed by a murder. It is as if nothing has happened. Even as the people are comical in their attitude, it does remind one of the strange indifference in Rope. Again, the sharp and candid dialogue in this film is remarkable. It does not suit a pastoral romance at all. It approximates the frank banality of Frenzy and Vertigo. Hitchcock had this great habit of destabilizing established social myths. In Shadow of a Doubt—the myth of the happy American family is questioned by him. The treatment of pastoral love in this film is also similarly done. The final frame of the film reads—The trouble with Harry is over. It too is ironic in import. It could well mean that the film is over as it could that the ‘trouble’—the legal scare that the death had caused is over.

We must remember that so many people had so easily acknowledged that they had killed Harry because they had no idea as to what it takes to murder someone. They lived in a village far removed from practical cares. They could confess murder over cups of tea. The film is all about discovering what ‘crime’ is and what it takes to cover it up. In other words, the narrative traces the journey of four human beings through a discovery of what crime and criminal action is. They have hidden bodies, told lies, tampered with evidence, created alibi and manipulated witnesses—all are classic steps that a seasoned criminal would take when he commits a murder. The irony is that all this becomes a mock drill. Harry, after all, died of a heart attack.

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