Yeesh, didn't like. In fact it was a struggle to finish. I'd be pausing it to browse the internet and check how much time was left until the end. On original release it flopped in America... but on the other hand it ran like gangbusters in Europe and was one of Hitchcock's favourites of his films. Just to put that in perspective, this is one of the "5 Lost Hitchcocks" whose rights he bought back from the studio. The other four were Vertigo
, Rear Window
and his second go at The Man Who Knew Too Much
. That's impressive company. So even if I don't like it (and I don't), clearly this isn't something that can be dismissed as any old load of horse manure.
The one-line summary is that it's a light black comedy about a dead man. (Would that be grey, then?) Edmund Gwenn finds a corpse after he's been shooting rabbits in the woods and jumps to the obvious conclusion. Whoops, what to do? Can't tell the police. The whole film's like that.
My main problem was John Forsythe. He's reasonably effective in the second half, but this still has to be one of the most thoughtless performances from an apparently good actor I've seen in a movie. Oh, he looks great. He's got a twinkle about him and if you ignore the script's requirements (as he's often doing), then he's going to look like a charismatic, likeable lead. I'm sure lots of people think he's good and I can even understand why. However he's coasting on naturalism when the material demanded more. He's not filling this larger-than-life character. Look at the moment where he comes across the corpse, for instance. He starts drawing it! This should have been funny, based on him being an eccentric artist, but Forsythe simply hasn't been doing enough to earn the laugh. He's even more flat and inadequate in the scene where he decides to give Miss Gravely a make-over.
Alternatively for a more pernickity example, take the curious incident of the gag with the lemonade. Shirley MacLaine gives him a glass of lemonade and asks if he likes it. He says that he does, but apparently her reason for asking was that she likes it tart, after which a few minutes later Forsythe stops her from giving him more. Okay, it's a bit generous to use the word "gag", but it's a bit of business that should have been worth a smile. Obviously the guy was lying when he said that he liked it... except that he wasn't! Forsythe doesn't do anything with his "yes", so the gag never happens.
In fairness though, he is charming. He's adorable in his conversation with little Jerry Mathers, for instance, while even I'm crazy for his "can't sell them" scene. It's no chore to watch him, unless like me you're hypersensitive to what an actor's doing as well as who he's being.
To my surprise it wasn't even slightly macabre. Quite a lot of humour is coming from people's understated and/or inappropriate reactions to stumbling on a corpse, which feels very deadpan and British, despite being set in New England. "What seems to be the trouble, Captain?" It's actually one of the least corpse-like corpses you'll see in ages, being basically just another MacGuffin. That was a weird decision. I'm not saying this should have been a Joe Orton play or something, but even something like Frank Capra's Arsenic and Old Lace is far juicier and more resonant. Hitchcock would seem to have been trying an experiment, to see how Americans would take to understated irony. Well, the box office gave him his answer.
It's a sweet-natured film. Hitchcock called it "a nice little pastorale" and the world it evokes is one in which everyone's good-hearted and only endearingly eccentric. Everyone's quick to trust and help each other, while the nearest thing we have to a menace in the film is a weirdly young Royal Dano as the sheriff and village idiot. I actually felt bad for the guy.
The non-Forsythe actors are good, although we begin with a horrible clanger that knocked me right out of the film. Apparently the skies opened when they were doing the location filming in Vermont, so a lot of the exterior scenes were actually shot on sets built in a high school gymnasium and even then the rain still managed to spoil things with its noisy drumming on the tin roof. This kills the scene where Edmund Gwenn first finds the body. The dialogue's obviously been dubbed on in post-recording, but it doesn't match his lip movements and Gwenn's missing the mood by a mile. That's his only flub, though. This was his fourth film for Hitchcock and I'd be very happy to watch him in other things too. I love the way he can say something that could easily have sounded threatening and make it downright neighbourly. Meanwhile Shirley MacLaine (in her first film!) is offbeat and pixie-ish, while Mildred Natwick as Miss Ivy Gravely is the only cast member who's consistently getting the laughs. Oh, and Jerry Mathers is indeed the same Mathers who made an entire career out of Leave It To Beaver.
Whatever you might be expecting from a Hitchcock film, this isn't it. The plot's a bit of a doodle, really. The characters are lovely and whimsical, with for instance Forsythe's character being named after hard-boiled detectives (Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe), yet also being an irresponsible artist who in 1955 equates marriage with freedom. It's compassionate and yet doing all that featherlight black comedy. I can see why Hitchcock loved it... but personally I found it a chore. Forsythe's blowing the whole thing, endearing though he is, and the film isn't anywhere near strong enough to be able to survive that. It's a souffle of a movie, really. If it works for you, I can imagine it being a delight. However for me, it wasn't.