The Trouble With Harry (1955): Hitchcock, Humor, and The Macabre

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Idyllic is the word for The Trouble with Harry, and it positively crackles with the autumnal delights one can only know in locales where the seasons give way one to another.

Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography boasts many opulent and gorgeously shot sequences, but Trouble With Harry might have some of the most supernal. Part of this comes from the fact it comes in such stark contrast to his environs in Northern California.

Because the East Coast — Vermont in particular — affords him a very particular canvass and he uses them to full effect. The story goes that he went so far as to have leaves pinned back onto trees to try and replicate the shots on a sound stage. Whatever the techniques it boasts something distinctly tangible.

If the locale is not entirely functional, it still manages to be another integral character in the story just as the satisfying crunch of leaves underfoot or the thought of a lemonade out on the porch conjures up visions of a very specific sort. But of course, all of this connotation would be for naught if it was not juxtaposed with the typical Hitchcockian proclivity for the darkly macabre.

The Trouble with Harry might offer his lightest touch — it’s spritzed more evidently with humor than a great many of his movies — but the blackness at its core cannot go unnoticed. Take, for instance, that opening sequence. It’s emblematic of the whole picture. There’s tiny Jerry Mathers freakishly young (even before the days of Leave It To Beaver).

He’s running off on some boyish adventure his toy gun in hand, only to stumble upon the corpse of a man named Harry. The man’s nicely dressed. Laid out in the middle of an open pasture. More importantly, he’s dead.

Hitchcock employs a trick from the painterly masters using foreshortening to make the man’s body envelop the screen as the little boy stares down at him rather inquisitively, ready to run off and tell his mother. From the outset, Bernard Herrmann’s scoring is both rigorous and rather jaunty, perfectly in tune with the sense of place and tone.

But this is no conventional tale of malice or ill-blood. It is, however, the Macguffin to kick our story off. Edmund Gwenn is another fellow who comes upon the body quite by chance — he was out shooting rabbits unsuccessfully — could it be a stray bullet that took Harry out? He thinks it’s better not to risk it and decides to drag the body to more secluded terrain.

However, he’s met by one of his neighbors. John Michael Hayes’ script does splendidly in moments like these. It’s able to place small-town pleasantries up against a grisly murder as if it’s a small trifle — a mere afterthought to be dealt with in the manner of a pothole or a roach problem. In the end, Captain Wiles (Gwenn) and Ms. Gravely (Mildred Natwick), a kindly spinster, set up a date for afternoon tea with the promise of blueberry muffins and genial company.

forsythe macLaine trouble with harry

What of Harry? It’s true the whole world seems to turn up to find him. Soon little Arnie returns with his mother (Shirley MacLaine), and she hardly bats an eye. A local professorial fellow — his nose always in a book — trips over the body without much of an acknowledgment. Even local artist, Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), has time enough to sketch a crude portrait of the dead man.

He’s your conventional starving artist. Kindly Ms. Wiggs (Mildred Dunnock) puts his particularly exuberant paintings out for sale near her Emporium, though he doesn’t stir up much business from the cows lingering across the pasture.

Ms. Rogers meanwhile is a twice-widowed young woman, and she admits her last husband was too good to live. She’s pursued by Mr. Marlowe even as the old-timers look to start courting in their own way.

The source of the frivolity and the casual delightfulness comes in painting the town as Hitchcock does — this combination of coloring the idiosyncrasies of the quainter side of life as well as the open-air mise en scene, whether pure illusion or not.

What’s lovely about Hitch is the way every movie becomes a sort of game or puzzle in its own right. Because The Trouble with Harry will never be held in the same regard as many of his most obvious successes — movies from this same period of time — but it’s ceaselessly interesting.

Audiences of the 50s would have had a time pinning it down in a conventional sense because it employs fairly frank dialogue whether riddled with innuendo or not, but it also lacks the kind of obvious star power big studios often banked on to sell tickets. Surely Hitchcock could have garnered the best talent and yet he chose not to.

This is a character piece, and it wasn’t meant for the Cary Grants or Jimmy Stewarts of the world — at least not in 1955. It called for something more mundane. And what of the humor? First of all, there are certain expectations from “The Master of Suspense,” and it’s hard to say they are met; it’s almost like he swapped the formula. He leads with the comedy with accents of suspense and the macabre.

A body buried and excavated, put back in the ground, and exhumed time and time again over the course of the day. It’s the film’s prolonged gag. One of the things that makes it feel continually comedic is the lack of a true villain of any consequence.

The closest candidate is Royal Dano, a slightly curmudgeonly sheriff who has a penchant for old cars. He’s sniffing around, always on the side of law and order. No, this is most definitely a comedy, and the two couples join forces to keep their local secret. Because they know quite literally where the dead bodies are buried. Though it’s quite possible none of them is the actual culprit. It’s typical of Hitchcock that his inclinations of Vermont are informed by murder instead of moonlight.

He is, after all, the man who keenly observed that the medium of T.V. “brought murder back into the home where it belongs.” The Trouble With Harry plays with the same form of morbid levity.

3.5/5 Stars

Gambit (1966): Please Don’t Tell the Beginning!

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Gambit is a film that looks as if it could be so very cut-and-dried, a simple run reworking of what we’ve seen time and time again in the age of James Bond, heist films, and romantic thrillers. I’m not saying these can’t be fun but at a certain point, the ideas have run their course. Thankfully this story, helmed by British producer/cinematographer-turned-director Ronald Neame, has a few tricks up its sleeves, and it starts right at the beginning.

I’m not usually keen on SPOILER ALERTS but with Gambit I’ll make an exception as it is a unique case. As the tagline reads, “Go ahead and tell the end. But please don’t tell the beginning!” It’s all very tantalizingly cryptic and as I aim to spoil the beginning and leave the ending open as usual please veer off course and stop reading right this minute if that’s something that you will later come to regret. Anyway, you’ve been fairly warned. For everyone else let’s go back to the opening.

Perhaps the billing does provide a hint of some kind with Shirley MacLaine positioned as our lead and Michael Caine billed second right behind her. Still, it’s the old expectations versus reality hijinks that the film readily unfurls. Michael Caine brings his working-class cockney rogue to the party this time as a two-bit burglar named Harry Dean. Despite being his first Hollywood showing, he takes it in stride and nearly steals the picture. But he’s got to at least contend with his costar. Shirley MacLaine is not much of a French-Eurasian but eventually, her ditsy charm shines through when she’s finally able to lay it on. But that’s just it. It takes a while for her to show up as we’ve always know n her and for good reason.

Gambit gives us a facsimile of the perfect crime as envisioned by a criminal. Everything is planned out like clockwork. He’s made allowances for every wrinkle and his understanding of human psychology is unprecedented. Above all, his female companion, his entry point to the richest man in the world (Herbert Lom), is a mute exotic dancer who does exactly what she’s told and nothing more. What could be better than that? The objective of getting in to snitch a priceless artifact comes off seamlessly.

Except we’ve seen that movie before. Thus, Gambit does us a favor by leaving that on the drawing floor as merely Harry’s conception of how things will go as he explains them to his buddy Emile. Only later the movie begins playing the events out for real and subsequently starts subverting the generally accepted principles of a perfect heist with something marginally more interesting.

There’s no limo to meet them at the airport so they must cram into a taxi. Emile isn’t able to get to a payphone to make contact thanks to a gabby local. The wealthy collector, Shahbandar, is a far more modern and shrewd man than his projected eccentric image would have it. In fact, he already suspects them before he makes their acquaintance and his compound is equipped with foolproof security measures.

Harry hasn’t got a prayer to get away with the goods. And yet thankfully Nicole plays a far more substantial role than she was supposed to (much as we were expecting). Because though she’s hardly predictable and initially disapproves of Harry’s activities, she reluctantly goes along and proves to be a major asset thanks to her knowledge of Eastern culture paired with an intuitive wit.

To spoil the punchline would be an egregious offense so I will do my best at showing restraint. All I can say is that no one goes to jail, two people go off in love, and one artist is in high demand as a result. The look on MacLaine’s face when she exclaims, “You’re not even honest enough to be crooks” captures it all. She’s right. There’s nothing worse than the dreaded PR Stunts of attention seekers. They’re merciless. But love wins out in the end.

In a similar vein to How to Steal a Million (1965), Gambit proves itself to be a repeatedly diverting comic caper with moments of intrigue that would be amiss if not for its light-hearted winks of humor. Its greatest trick is a continual undermining of convention, creating a story with a few more wrinkles than we’re used to. In other words, its mode of narrative is just unconventional enough to make for a fine showing. I do quite like a good gambit and this one doesn’t disappoint.

3.5/5 Stars

Terms of Endearment (1983)

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I owe a comedic debt to James L. Brooks and that’s for the basic fact that he’s made me laugh countless times, namely because of his work with sitcoms. The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi are two prime examples. The casts he brought together and the writing, the writing is just absolutely superb, orchestrating that tricky balancing act between humor and heart.

When I look at Terms of Endearment from a purely objective perspective it looks like a wonderful picture. James L. Brooks, the mastermind of so many great projects is writer, director, and producer. It’s his first time behind the camera for a film and his cast is what most others would only dream about. Looking down the cast list is like a hit parade.

Shirley MacLaine as the widowed Aurora, the quirky mother who is strangely difficult, looking for love and still somehow detached — with both her daughter and a plethora of male companions. The always spirited Debra Winger as her daughter Emma. Her husband, the fresh-faced lawyer, Flap is played by Jeff Daniels. The always devilishly grinning Jack Nicholson plays the washed-up astronaut next door who makes the strangest and somehow most viable of suitors for Aurora. And the other nooks and crannies are filled in by the likes of Danny DeVito and John Lithgow. So with such a rank and file, there’s no question that this film should be remarkable.

But for some reason, it just doesn’t come off. It’s not that it doesn’t have its moments or that it’s not intermittently funny, romantic, and moving. There are tinges of those qualities that this film is undoubtedly looking to elicit. But for some reason, one that is somehow difficult to articulate, Terms of Endearment never brought me in like the truly great films have a habit of doing.

Was the plotting too slow? Were there too many characters? Was it due to the fact that I have never been a huge admirer of Shirley MacLaine’s work? To each of these, I would have to give a fairly decisive “No.” In fact, for me, this is one of MacLaine’s finest roles (along with The Apartment) to date. She’s somewhat perturbing, inscrutable you might say, but that also makes her the most interesting character. Watching her cold maternal figure evolve is one of the interesting aspects of this story.

Because she is trying to learn what it is to love and in a sense what it is to show that affection which comes second nature to most. Over time I’ve become increasingly impressed with Debra Winger because there’s always something so dynamic about her — a certain vitality that allows her to do comedy and tragedy equally well.  Both are on display here but for that same unknowable reason, Terms of Endearment did not move me as much as I expected. That’s no criticism just the simple, honest truth as clearly as I can lay it down.

But I respect this film because any film about people, their relationships, and how they navigate the tragedies of life is worth at least a little bit of trouble. Parsing through those very relationships is what this story cares about like Brooks’ earlier works. Maybe it did not affect me as much as I might have expected but that does not take away from the fact that mother-daughter bonds are worth exploring as are marital turbulence and personal tragedy. Because each of these is a very real circumstance and there’s something incredibly honest in trying to examine such things. For that, I commend Brooks as well as his film.  I will not be singing its praises necessarily but we all can respect Terms of Endearment for the very fact that it’s sincerely trying to dissect our world with wit and grace. Whether it succeeds is very subjective indeed. But then again, that’s part of the magic of the movies. At their very core, they are subjective.

3.5/5 Stars

Some Came Running (1958)

Poster_of_the_movie_Some_Came_RunningSome Came Running is a film that can so easily get lost in the shuffle of 1950s Hollywood. It’s hardly the most well-known picture of director Vincente Minnelli, known generally for his musicals and excellent set direction. Furthermore, this is most certainly a melodrama, certainly affecting, but not quite as falsely superficial to the degree of Douglas Sirk’s work. In a way, it feels like a 50s variation on The Best Years of Our Lives.

In the post-war years drifting vet and one-time author Dave Hirsh (Frank Sinatra) comes back to the town he skipped out on as a young kid. He’s a bit hung over getting off the Greyhound and realizes he has another traveler in his wake. The fellow passenger is the potentially disreputable and slightly dumb Ginny Moorehead (Shirley MacLaine), who came along for the ride from Chicago on his invitation.

Now that he’s back home, he just wants Ginny to head back the way she came, while he gets over with the obligatory meeting with his older brother. After handing his brother over to a boarding school, Frank Hirsh (Arthur Kennedy) did pretty well for himself. He married a wife (Leora Dana) from a good family and inherited a profitable jewelry business. By now he’s living the American Dream and his daughter Dawn (Betty Lou Keim) is growing up to be a beautiful young woman. In fact, you might call Frank a pillar of society, because everything’s working for him and people look up to him for what he has made for himself.

Thus, the arrival of Dave is not without its problems. The brothers have not talked for well nigh 16 years now. Frank looks to play things up like nothing’s changed and they’re both pals. He sets his brother up to an evening with a Professor French and his beautiful and highly intelligent daughter Gwen (Martha Hyer), who happens to be a literature teacher at the local high school. This is his way of trying to get his brother into good company. After all, he can’t bear that people should talk. He’s got a reputation to uphold.

But Dave’s not much for that type of company, although he takes a liking to Gwen, who avoids his advances while still taking a great interest in his work as an author. Furthermore, the cynical drifter begins to keep company with jovial gambler Bama Dillert, played by none other than a boozing, poker playing Dean Martin. Thus, there are some genuinely entertaining moments that feel like nothing more than a Rat Pack hangout.

But Some Came Running is quick to plunge back into dramatic turmoil. There are affairs, hypocrisy, unbridled passion, bar fights, parades, and carnivals all highlighted by the eye-catching staging of Minnelli. In fact, Minnelli always has an eye for his scenes, and there’s nothing different about this film. We are watching the players of course, but the space they fill, the clothes they wear, and so on are almost just as interesting. Colors pop making for vibrant viewing to match the spectacle. The climactic moments feel rather Hitchcockian with the pulse-pounding intensity set to the backdrop of a bustling carnival and the Elmer Bernstein score reverberates with his usual fervor.

Dean Martin is the comedy. Arthur Kennedy is necessary. Shirley MacLaine is the tragedy. Martha Hyer is rationality. But Frank Sinatra is the core of this film because he balances a surface level cynicism with genuine affection. He shows his interior on multiple occasions. His eyes watch over his niece with great care. His heart yearns for Gwen ardently, and he holds a deep sympathy for Ginny. Sinatra was in many quality films, but this is perhaps his greatest performance.

Is it blasphemy that in many ways I appreciate this James Jones adaptation just as much, if not more than, the long-heralded From Here to Eternity?  I suppose I am entitled to my opinion.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Apartment (1960)

The_apartment_trailer_1What has always stood out to me about Billy Wilder’s films and the writing behind them is that you can almost always observe cynicism paired with wit. They are continually sharp, often funny, but they also are underlined by more serious topics altogether. This quality is what allowed him to make films as diverse as Double Indemnity and Some Like it Hot. There’s a subversion of the norm that sometimes is dark, sometimes is funny. His second pairing with Jack Lemmon in The Apartment seems to fall somewhere in between.

The legend is that this story formed in Wilder’s mind after watching a Brief Encounter, about a tryst between an English man and woman. What interested him was a very small detail indeed. What type of person would allow his place to be the location of such a rendezvous? And in such a question came the inception of C.C. Baxter a man who was unwittingly funny, but also pitiful as played by Lemmon.

He’s a man trapped in the bureaucracy, attempting to climb the corporate ladder of a  company. He’s fighting in this game of survival of the fittest and trying to get ahead the only way he knows how. Lending his flat out to higher-ranking executives who are looking for a place to take their dates and have a good time. Baxter is somewhat of a hapless stooge though. He’s far from shrewd and his high ranking pals like him for it. He follows their requests. Does what they want. He’s a perfect cog in their plan. He’s one of them. Even Baxter’s neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss and his landlady get the impression that he’s a real high flyer since there’s always music emanating from his suite and bottles piling up outside his door. But he lives the charade and spends many a frosty evening waiting for his customers to clear out. It’s certainly a sorry existence, but he doesn’t mind at first since it pays off handsomely as he moves up the ranks.

One of the more personable employees in this mass of humanity is elevator gal Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacClaine), who is always friendly with Mr. Baxter since he is a true gentleman. However, she is also caught in an affair with top exec Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) and she is actually in love. It’s a messy situation made even more complicated when Sheldrake asks Baxter for the use of his flat. He enthusiastically agrees, but he has no idea who else will be there. That’s one of those painful moments of dramatic irony where our opportunistic nonetheless lovable protagonist gets hurt. Lemmon is good at playing the drama movingly and filling his scenes with organic humor (much like the late Robin Williams).

At this point, C.C. Baxter becomes the general scapegoat for his colleagues and even his neighbors. Everyone gives him a hard time for things he has not done or does not really deserve. Sheldrake leaves his wife and looks to solidify things with Fran, and this moment is paramount because Baxter finally mans up. He may have lost his job, but he got to finish the best game of gin rummy of his life.

I must admit the themes of The Apartment are not always my favorite. I am much more partial to Some Like it Hot or even The Odd Couple, but Lemmon makes the film for me. Whether he’s straining spaghetti through a tennis racket or trying on his new suave business bowler for size, it’s hard not to like him. Ray Walston, Fred MacMurray, and about every other character is a cad. Shirley Maclaine is pretty good, but then again she’s never been the most captivating for me actress-wise.

When it’s all said in done, this is not Wilder at his absolute best, but teaming up with IAL Diamond elicited another classic vehicle with Jack Lemmon. Now shut up and deal!

4/5 Stars

Being There (1979)

Starring Peter Sellers, the film revolves around a gardener named Chance who gains all his social skills from watching television. When his unknown elderly employer dies Chance is forced out of the only world he knows and he just begins to aimlessly walk through Washington D.C. In a freak accident, he is hit by a limo taking a parking space. In a miscommunication he finds himself going to the residence of an influential couple to get medical attention with them thinking his name is Chauncey Gardiner. He quickly gains their admiration because he has such a calm demeanor and Chauncey quickly becomes a respected confident of the sickly Ben Rand. Chauncey even finds himself meeting the president and giving him sagely advice about garden work which is interpreted as an allegory for the economy. The pithy statement finds itself in the president’s speech and there is a buzz about this mysterious figure named Chauncey Gardiner. This new found fame leads to Chauncey ending up on television for an interview and the American public is captivated by his simplistic wisdom. As Ben begins to slowly die, Eve becomes even closer to Chauncey in her grief. At Ben’s funeral, the president gives a speech and those carrying the coffin decide Chauncey should be the potential candidate for president. At the same time Chauncey is walking nearby in a forest by a lake and then in a final dreamlike moment he literally walks on water off into the distance. I think Peter Sellers should be lauded for his performance because he could be comedic and then play it straight like in this film. He is like a cross between Harvey and Forrest Gump with a love of T.V. I must say though that the bloopers at the end take away from the illusion that is created by the film as a whole.

4.5/5 Stars

The Apartment (1960)

Starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley Maclaine, and Fred McMurray, with director Billy Wilder, the film follows C. C. Baxter (Lemmon). He is a young man working in a large corporation that is very difficult to get ahead in. His only chance of moving up is through loaning his apartment to company executives so they can entertain their lady friends. This set up causes him constant inconveniences and leads to complaints from neighbors.  One of these complications involves a elevator girl from work (Maclaine) who was left sleeping in his bed. Soon Baxter must figure out how to nurse her to health and cover for the executive who left her. During the process he slowly feels himself falling in love but it all ends there when she is to be married to the recently-divorced executive. Finally, finding his backbone, Baxter quits his new high-level job and eventually reunites with his love. Wilder and Lemmon teamed up again following Some Like it Hot and this one is pretty good movie-wise!

4.5/5 Stars