Friday, 21 September 2012
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.
Saturday, 15 September 2012
Monday, 3 September 2012
Father Death (from Scream)
Nixon / Reagan (Hallowe’en masks)
Hockey masks (Friday 13
Jokeshop ‘Groucho’ glasses/nose/moustache
Gimp mask (Pulp Fiction)
Saturday, 23 June 2012
Tuesday, 19 June 2012
Wednesday, 10 November 2010
Well, thats me told, isnt it? A no-nonsense title, that. Radical, separatist feminists might have worn that on button badges in the 1980s or spray-painted it on walls while they were coming home from their book groups where they read Valerie Solanas Manifesto of the Society for Cutting Up Men. Another popular book from that time was Misogynies, a cheery tome which urged women to creep up behind random men and shove them into the path of speeding trains. My heart sank. Was this film going to be a sequel to that? Would it turn out to be Exploding Misogynies 3: Total Annihilation?
Well, it did and it didnt. It had at least one male character who failed to prove a woman-hater or a murderer, but just the one, mind you. Woe betide you if youre the remotest bit kinky or fetishistic, though, because then it goes without saying that youre a rapist and molester you evil pig bastard. You must be punished! Lets just say its not exactly a sex-positive movie. Shortbus it aint.
However, in the end it was not its politics that made me twitch. I kept thinking: Ive seen this before. Where have I seen this? Now that really bugged me. This plot was very, very familiar, but how could it be? This was a brand new film of a fairly new book. It wasnt until they got to the meatballs that it clicked.
No visit to Swedish furnishing giant Ikea is complete without a plate of meatballs, eh? Once youve got them rattling around inside you, its time to tour the hangar-sized sheds in search of home-assembly wardrobes. As our hero cooked his meatballs I realised that Ikea was the inspiration for the whole plot of Men Hate Women (as I intend to call it from now on). It is constructed from ready-mades, painted in bright colours and slotted together. But where did the pre-fabricated pieces come from? Two novels by another writer had been chopped up, put through the mincer, reconstituted into one big ball and cooked in sauce. Or, to put it another way, they had been disassembled, then screwed back together to make a massive walk-in closet instead of two perfectly formed cupboards.
The first of these source novels had the splendid title of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and the second was called The Skull beneath the Skin. Dont know them? If you liked Men Hate Women then youd love them. Come with me back to the 1970s... (Oh, and I should at this point, of course, say Spoiler Alert!)
Once upon a time, British crime-writer P.D. James decided to mess around with the idea of the gifted amateur, the likes of Miss Marple or Lord Peter Wimsey, say. As an antidote to these untrained but infallible detectives, P.D. James created Cordelia Grey, a young secretary who inherits her bosss private investigation firm when he commits suicide. Cordelia launches into her new career with gusto. Gifted she most certainly is, but her amateur bungling nearly costs her her own life and taxes the other players in the drama even dearer. Trying to clear up the trail of murder, mayhem, burning cars, destroyed families and ruined reputations at the end, Inspector Dalgliesh is convinced Cordelia was behind it all, but cant pin a thing on her. No surprises there. He has only himself to blame. Who trained her boss when he was in the police? Dalgliesh did.
Amazingly, this was not Cordelias last case. In the second book she is hired as a bodyguard for a woman who goes to a mansion on an island and is in fear of her life from a murderer whose identity only she knows. On top form, Cordelias body-guarding skills are such that her poor client doesnt even last the night.
What has this to do with Stieg Larssons bestseller, Men Hate Women? Maybe nothing, but there are some odd coincidences. Oh, one or two would have been nothing more than that - coincidence... but there are maybe a few more than one or two. Consider these plot snippets taken from Dame P.D. James two Cordelia Grey novels...
A detective is invited to find out who killed a rich and powerful mans child many years ago (An Unsuitable Job for a Woman). The killing took place on a small island where there was no access to the mainland. The island was a haunt of Nazis in the past and there had been at least one other death associated with them (The Skull beneath the Skin). The detective uncovers a vital clue in a strange coded message, found on the back page of a book the child once owned. It reveals the family secret that threatens everything (An Unsuitable Job for a Woman). The detective finds a clue in a photograph of a crowd at a pageant. The detective thinks the murder victim must have seen someone in the crowd who wanted to be hidden and finds that the original photograph is missing. On visiting someone who has copy of a local newspaper with the photograph in it, the detective sees the rich man himself in amongst the crowd (The Skull beneath the Skin). There is a very serious attempt to kill the detective but, on escaping, the detective chases after the would-be murderer who leaps into a car, drives off at high speed and crashes, dying in the fire (An Unsuitable Job for a Woman)...
Starting to sound familiar? Meatballs repeating on you, eh? Thats right, its the entire plot of Men Hate Women, but its only now when I write it out that I see author Stieg Larsson had been very crafty in his borrowing... hed done it in badger stripes! One bit of the first James book, then the second, then the first again... The actual ending of his story is less P.D. James and more Raymond Chandler (The Little Sister) but then Dame P.D. did tend to go for complex, morally fraught conclusions, so best to plunder someone else there.
The one original thing Larsson did was to divide Cordelia Grey into two separate characters, the girl with the dragon tattoo and the journalist, but they both come straight out of P.D. James. Mind you, I had to say I liked the new English title. The girl did, after all, have drag on. And it was tat, too.
Friday, 23 October 2009
But, but, but... if it is now possible for Church of England vicars to achieve full communion with Rome and yet still remain Church of England vicars, if the Anglican liturgy is to be incorporated into the Catholic creed... then Rome cannot any longer be Rome. It will have become, at least in part, the Church of England. The Reformation has reached the Vatican.
Of course, I dare say that Archbishop Cranmer would never have seen the Reformation as fully complete until the conversion of the Jews, that being their obsession back then, but I think he might have settled for the conversion of the Pope as a fair compromise. The Jesuits of his day, however, would have demanded an auto da fe and stuck Benedict on top of it themselves. To them, Holy Mother Church would have welcomed the Protestant heresy into its very heart.
Benedict is smiling at the supposed cleverness of his plan. Thousands of Anglicans will defect to his new half-way house, his modified Catholicism, and this will be a deadly blow to the enemy. I would humbly suggest he may not quite thought this through... so uncharacteristic of the present Pope. If married clergy are absorbed unchanged into the Mother Church, are not existing Catholic priests going to feel snubbed? Is it not as likely that disgruntled cradle Catholics may also defect to this new constitution as Protestants?
The Pope has already shown his determination to reunite Christendom at almost any price, welcoming back the traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X despite a Holocaust-denying bishop in its ranks...
The Vatican is acting like Seth Brundel, just after he has been through the telepod. It feels masterful, renewed, all-conquering. After a while, though, evidence of the weird mutation it has undergone will to start to appear. It is not going to be pretty. It will dawn on Catholics around the world that their faith has become a completely new animal, one they thought could never exist in nature.
Maledict could win 400,000 disgruntled Anglicans now, and lose far, far more Catholics later. He could forfeit all of Brazil, for instance. Evangelical missionaries are gaining ground in South America and they now need only point out to hesitant converts that there is no risk to their souls in making the leap, as the Vatican has already smoothed the way!
St Malachis prophesy is fulfilled. Maledict is indeed the last ever Catholic Pope. He has destroyed the church, as it was foreseen that he would. As I commented when Mr Blair converted, I trust that the bears personal sanitary arrangements remain unchanged, but in future, whenever anyone asks Is the Pope a Catholic the answer will have to be ...er, well, no actually...
See also: 400,000 former Anglicans worldwide seek immediate unity with Rome