Offscreen sound in the opening scene of Hitchcock’s the trouble with harry: the devil is in the detail
There are directors who know the techniques of filmmaking inside out and use them to make well-crafted films that do moderately well at the box office, and there are directors who understand the craft of filmmaking deeply and apply it inventively to create true masterpieces that withstand the test of time. Alfred Hitchcock was one such director, and one key factor that contributed to his success was his incredible attention to detail. The opening scene of The Trouble With Harry (1955), Hitchcock’s only dark comedy, serves as clear evidence of that.
Here, Hitchcock uses a very simple device to set the story in motion and to create mystery: three simple gunshots heard offscreen followed by remarks that suggest foul play. Not a big deal. But what is impressive about the way he’s arranged image and sound in this scene is that, as well as initiating the story, he achieves a number of other things simultaneously: he introduces the main comedic devices, establishes the thematic elements, and sets the tone of the film – all in one simple stroke.
One source of comedy in The Trouble With Harry is improbable coincidence. Through a number of coincidences, several characters in the story come to believe that they killed Harry accidentally. Through a number of coincidences, too, some of these characters turn out to have what in the eyes of the law might look like a motive for wanting the man dead.
Hitchcock introduces this comedic device in the opening scene by showing a little boy at play in an idyllic landscape, ‘his trusty space gun a deadly weapon to defend himself against the dangers of the unknown’, as the voice-over in the film’s trailer puts it. And then, by some bizarrely improbable coincidence, real gunshots are fired somewhere offscreen that suggest a murder.
The boy’s reaction to the gunshots sets the tone of the film and introduces the second source of humour by mirroring the general attitude the main characters will have towards the situation they face. Instead of panicking, the boy just goes along with the gunshots and makes them part of his pretend play. All excited that there’s actually some real danger out there, he ducks, hides behind a tree, and inspects the scene, ready to deploy his weapon if anyone dears attack him. The residents of the town will be equally nonchalant about the corpse.
With such selection and combination of auditory and visual details, Hitchcock also introduces the main thematic elements. The film explores the subject of ethics and morality by pitting the naive moral relativism of the townspeople against the utilitarian, one-size-fits-all, juridical system of the city, where a person tends to be considered to have done right if the outcome is good, or wrong if the outcome is bad, regardless of whether the action was intentional or unintentional.
In the film, the situation is that one of the town’s inhabitants has killed a man, but since it was an accident, the townspeople don’t see why anyone should go to jail for it. They still go to great lengths to hide the body from the deputy sheriff because they know that, although a local himself, he’s bound by the laws of the city and won’t see things the same way.
Hitchcock introduces these themes by imbuing the elements present in the opening scene with symbolic meaning. The boy stands for the innocent, childlike nature of the townspeople, who’ve been very much tempered by their idyllic surroundings. The gunshots are not a symbol in themselves but act as a link to the dead man, who represents the city. That’s where he comes from and the townspeople often make a reference to it.
What the gunshots do is to bring the two together through juxtaposition, which is how black comedies generate humour – through juxtaposition of contrasting elements that don’t usually go together but that are played out as if they were not incongruous at all. Such arrangement tends to be very satisfactory for audiences. It generates humour, it provides multiple layers of meaning, and it gives them work to do since they have to establish connections and discover the meaning.
This practice of trying to introduce as many as the concepts of the story from the very beginning by cinematic means has been part of Hitchcock’s thinking processes since very early in his career. In his interview with Truffaut, Hitchcock explains how for the opening of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), he had wanted to start the picture by showing an ice skater tracing numbers on a skating rink. With this, he wanted to suggest the idea of an espionage code. He ditched it, though, and this is the reason he gives for doing it:
”It simply had no place in the story. But the point I was trying to make is that from the very outset the contrast between the snowy Alps and the congested streets of London was a decisive factor. That visual concept had to be embodied in the film.”
By the time he made The Trouble With Harry, he had perfected this technique and learnt that through careful combination of image and sound he could more effectively embody abstract concepts and create multiple layers of meaning. It’s undoubtedly the kind of thing that makes him remain among the most influential directors of all times.