Monday, August 13, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock, The Trouble With Harry, and the Myth of the Honest Villager: A Short Essay by Payman Akhlaghi (2012)

A Poster for
The Trouble With Harry
the 1955 Film by
Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock, The Trouble With Harry & the Myth of the Honest Villager
A Short Essay by Payman Akhlaghi (2012) [Draft 1]

The Trouble With Harry (1955, 99 mins, English)
Dircted by Alfred Hitchcock
Music by Bernard Herrmann (*)

The dead body of an out-of-towner named Harry is found nearby a small rural settlement. Before it's become clear that Harry had died of natural causes, several characters have assumed their own guilt in his death, and they have tried to cover up their perceived crime. The film is a dark satire that sheds light on the hypocrisy of a small community by examining the cruel cynicism underlying a facade of congeniality, which in fact they share, if less conspicuously, with all other societies, large or small.

Harry is a significant work on the basis of its cinematic, dramatic, and musical merits. The film is further remarkable in that it criticizes uncompromisingly what we may refer to as "the myth of the honest villager", a fallacious assumption which has lingered far too long across epochs and societies. The myth basically implies that unlike city-dwellers, small-towners and villages are categorically more pure, honest, naive and gullible, caring, family-oriented, moral, natural, no-non-sense, real, straight-talkers, closer to their instincts, with convictions to be respected, if not downright adopted. The myth might appear innocently in the works of such poets as the Persian Sohrab Sepehri, or more consequentially in large scale populist propaganda commonly observed in politics of demagoguery. Over the ages, this myth has dragged many progressive movements astray, at times into regression, by unfairly forcing outdated provincial values upon the more dynamic urban cultures. Examples come to mind, from the Spartan-Athenian conflicts of the ancient Greeks, to the domineering air of the early Soviet Union, to the mind-boggling turn of events in 1979 Iran, not to mention the damaging influence of provincial inertia in today's Afghanistan. But the myth might as easily plague modern Western societies, as it may be evident in the anachronistic debate surrounding "The Evolution Theory vs. Creationism", or rather the larger political discourse of the past two decades in the States.

Early on, Hitchcock had viewed the village life with sympathetic eyes as in his 1928 silent, The Farmer's Wife, in contrast to the urban violence permeating his 1927 silent masterpiece, The Lodger. But he would soon address the hypocrisy of the rural myth with sharper eyes, including as early as his 1935 film, The 39 Steps, in which the protagonist briefly runs into a young farmer's wife married inescapably into a miserable life; and by 1960, he would find one of his greatest villains in the body of a psychopath living in the isolation of a far-out hotel. Arguably, however, nowhere else in his feature oeuvre did this very urban filmmaker study the dynamics of rural corruption, in more detail, and with more subtlety, as he did in Harry.

To be sure, each cultural environment has much to contribute to the larger global community, and urban communities would do far better if they approach rural cultures with understanding ears, and with an appreciation of their particular needs. But if experience is any guide, we should never forget that progress has mainly belonged to urban centers which typically afforded higher degrees of cultural exchange, flexibility and innovation, while provincialism has often led to dogmatic adherence to fanatical ideologies. Pampering to cloistered cultures not on the basis of objective merit but for the deception of erroneous myths is to betray the smaller communities from taking part in the larger context of human progress, even as we'd be holding back the latter by weighing it down with the burden of less dynamic cultures.

(*) I feel confident that I share in this critical sentiment against the inertia of rural culture with several of my erudite friends, particularly Ms. Shirin Dokht Daghighian and Mr. Maziar Etemadi, who unaware of each other, helped me see my own bias, and clarify my perspective on the issue. However, I take sole responsibility for the content of the present essay, the shadings of my views on the subject, and primarily, for my content-wise and contextual interpretation of the film in discussion. -- P.A.

(*) Dates, plots, and related information were checked against, or extracted from: and
(**) All films mentioned in the short essay have been reviewed at least once by the author.

© 2012, Payman Akhlaghi. All rights reserved.

No comments: