John Forsythe’s Autumn Attire in The Trouble with Harry
John Forsythe as Sam Marlowe, touchy artist who scores the town with his belting baritone
Vermont, Fall 1954
Film: The Trouble with Harry
Release Date: September 30, 1955
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Costume Designer: Edith Head
As we settle into what looks like a comfortable autumn—at least for fallphiles like me—I want to highlight what must be one of the earliest movies to truly capture the season’s striking colors.
Though regarded as the “Master of Suspense”, Alfred Hitchcock had long incorporated humor into his movies. The Trouble with Harry differentiates itself among Hitch’s more earnest thrillers and mysteries by emphasizing the comedy, resulting in what may be among of the director’s least suspenseful outfit but still entertaining and certainly aesthetically satisfying.
Surprisingly, much of the foliage seen on screen was artificial, as the production team was shocked to find that much of the foliage had already turned by the time they arrived in Craftsbury, Vermont, for principal photography on September 27, 1954, 68 years ago today. Hitchcock’s team compromised by gluing leaves to the trees to present the full autumnal effect that was intended for the town, which was renamed “Highwater” on screen.
The setting was crucial for Hitchcock, who explained to François Truffaut that part of why The Trouble with Harry continued to appeal to him was that he “took melodrama out of the pitch-black night and brought it out in the sunshine. It’s as if I had set up a murder alongside a rustling brook and spilled a drop of blood in the clear water.”
In the case of The Trouble with Harry, there may or may not have been a murder, but there’s certainly a body. Harry’s body, to be exact, with the titular trouble resulting from no one being quite sure how Harry met his end, though the self-accusing suspects include eccentric hunter Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), Harry’s estranged wife Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine), and the shoe-wielding spinster Ivy Gravely (Mildred Natwick). Though he doesn’t suspect himself of any complicity in Harry’s demise, local artist Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) inserts himself into the drama by setting out to sketch the mysterious corpse and then providing help to the trio that each suspects themselves.
Truffaut summed up that “the whole humor of the picture hinges on a single device: an attitude of disconcerting nonchalance. The characters discuss the corpse as casually as if they were talking about a pack of cigarettes,” to which Hitchcock responded with satisfaction: “That’s the idea. Nothing amuses me so much as understatement.”
What’d He Wear?
Sam Marlowe dresses in the textured layers associated with fall, clad in knits, flannel, and tweed that suit the season but in subdued colors that don’t threaten to clash with his colorful surroundings. The effect of his conservative but seasonally appropriate grays and dark blue presents Sam as a neutral palette in the matter of the eponymous trouble with Harry; as one of the few leading characters who doesn’t suspect he may have taken any actions resulting in Harry’s death, he is the only in the main group of four with total neutrality, assisting only out of a morbid curiosity and—ultimately—romantic interest.
Sam’s base layer is a heathered gray long-sleeved polo shirt made of jersey-knit cotton, comfortably oversized as evident by the seams falling off John Forsythe’s shoulders. The shirt’s short placket is devoid of any buttons, with the only button presumably under the right collar leaf to connect to the loop that extends from the left, though Sam rakishly wears the shirt with the neck totally open and the long sleeves rolled up his forearms.
Adding both a comfortable layer against the falling autumn weather as well as an element of color to disrupt the shades of gray, Sam wears a dark navy-blue wool sweater vest with a ribbed hem and narrowly ribbed V-neck and armholes.
I earlier referred to Sam as a figuratively palette in the case of the trouble with Harry, though the paint that subtly stains his dark gray woolen flannel trousers suggests he’s also a literal palette, allowing himself to become collateral damage in his art as much as his complicity in helping at least one of Harry’s possible murderers would make him an accessory-after-the-fact.
Consistent with trending fashions of the ’50s, these trousers rise to Forsythe’s natural waist with double sets of reverse-facing pleats. Sam’s sweater vest hem covers his trouser waistband so we can’t confirm if they’re rigged with side-adjusters or held up with a belt, but we can discern that there are “quarter-top” slanted side pockets, jetted back pockets with a button through the back-left pocket, and plain-hemmed bottoms that Sam has cuffed himself, harmonizing with his casually rolled-up shirt-sleeves.
No lace-ups or loafers for Sam, who dresses appropriately for one of his usual jaunts into the woods with his low-calf work boots, crafted from russet-brown leather uppers that have been worn to comfortable suppleness. Reflecting typical work boot styling of the era, Sam’s boots are designed with a straight toe-cap and derby-style lacing with brown laces pulled through eight sets of eyelets. His socks are plain white ribbed cotton tube socks.
As the conspirators’ plans take them into the evening, Sam dons an additional layer with a Donegal tweed sports coat, crafted in the traditional “salt and pepper” combination of black and white yarns to create an overall gray effect, further detailed with irregular slubs and “small flecks of colored yarn… literally dropped in at random,” as described by Sir Hardy Amies in The ABCs of Men’s Fashion.
Like the rest of his clothing, Sam’s single-breasted jacket has a fashionably large and loose fit, though it’s neither baggy nor oversized. The shoulders are wide and padded, with roped sleeve-heads and two buttons at each cuff. The two-button jacket has wide notch lapels, a ventless back, and patch pockets over the breast and hips that further distinguish its sporty nature.
Sam’s overall look of a Donegal tweed sport jacket, navy sweater vest, and dark gray flannel trousers may recall the straitlaced Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential, covered on this blog just last week, though Sam’s more insouciant approach swapping out the shirt, tie, and black derbies for a soft polo shirt and work boots illustrates the versatility of these wardrobe staples.
For the brief vignette that ends the film as Sam and his co-conspirators peer out from behind a log, Sam appears to be wearing the same dark-blue sweater vest but with an ecru button-up shirt patterned in a green-and-gold graph check and detailed with a long point collar that he wears open at the neck.
Sam secures his slim yellow gold wristwatch around his left wrist on a textured brown leather strap, though thew watch appears to have stopped working as we observe Sam gauging time by the sun. (Of course, this could merely be an artsy eccentricity.)
How to Get the Look
One of Hitchcock’s less-discussed heroes, Sam Marlowe may have lacked the natty tailoring of the heroes played by the likes of Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart, but he was still dressed appropriately—and comfortably presentable—in layered knitwear, tweed, and flannel that add character to otherwise somber colors.
- Gray heathered jersey-cotton long-sleeved polo shirt with loop collar
- Dark navy-blue wool sweater vest
- Black-and-white color-flecked Donegal tweed single-breasted 2-button sport jacket with notch lapels, patch pockets, 2-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Dark gray woolen flannel double reverse-pleated trousers with slanted side pockets, jetted back pockets, and self-cuffed plain-hemmed bottoms
- Russet-brown leather cap-toe 8-eyelet derby-laced work boots
- White ribbed cotton tube socks
- Gold wristwatch with round gold dial on textured brown leather strap
- MR P. Gray Slim-Fit Merino Wool Polo Shirt in gray merino wool (MR PORTER, $225)
- Saks Fifth Avenue COLLECTION Classic Sweater Vest in navy wool (Saks Fifth Avenue, $171)
- Todd Snyder Italian Donegal Tweed Madison Suit Jacket in charcoal wool/polyester tweed (Todd Snyder, $548)
- Berle Lightweight Flannel Pleated Classic Fit Dress Trousers in in medium-gray Super 130s wool (Nordstrom, $180)
- Steve Madden Troopah-C Boot in dark brown leather (DSW, $124.99)
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie. And if you like seeing autumnal New England richly captured by 1950s Technicolor, check out Douglas Sirk’s melodrama All That Heaven Allows, released the same year.
If I can do anything to make it a little harder for you, you let me know.