49. Venus vor Gericht. Faülein Rita “corrects” the orientation of an abstract drawing or print, almost certainly by Wassily Kandinsky.

54. John Ferren (1905-1970) seen here (middle of back row), among the mostly European avant-garde in a group photograph of “Artists in Exile,” taken at Peggy Guggenheim’s New York apartment, 1942. Front Row: Stanley William Hayter, Leonora Carrington, Frederick Kiesler, Kurt Seligmann. Second Row: Max Ernst, Amédée Ozenfant, André Breton, Fernand Léger, Berenice Abbott. Third Row: Jimmy Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim, John Ferren, Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian.

57. John Ferren, Composition aux Plais Jaunes, 1933,

64. The Trouble with Harry. “The stocking feet of the dead man are part of a somewhat lewd joke, in terms of color and orientation.”

65. The Trouble with Harry. Mrs. Wiggs admiring Sam’s latest painting.

66. The Trouble with Harry. Sam corrects the orientation.

67. Ferren’s work of the 1950s includes numerous abstract landscapes, e.g. New York Summer Landscape, 1953.

68. Earthiness and color are dialectically engaged in The Trouble with Harry. With few but significant exceptions, sartorial color is generally neutral, dark and/or earthy, as in this scene, in contrast to the vivid, saturated colors in Sam’s paintings.

69. The Trouble with Harry. “I love freedom. We might be the only free married couple in the world,” says Sam, echoing discourses around abstract painting and freedom that resounded during the cold war.

70. “Ink on orlon produces brilliant colors for abstractionist John Ferren, who stretches orlon over a window so that light comes through and paints it with bright, nearly translucent inks. The paintings must also be displayed in windows.” From the article, “New Means for Moderns: Artists try out rayon, rods and rubbish,” Life, 37, No. 21 (22 November 1954): 162.

72. Ferren’s paintings contribute a benign, spiritually and sensually vivid air to Hitchcock’s film; the director may signal his own appreciation of the paintings by placing his cameo appearance in the scene in which the wealthy collector is admiring Sam’s work.

73. Overdetermined antimodernism. Tschauner’s article in Filmwelt points out that in Venus vor Gericht, “the receptionist (Eva Tinschmann) at Benjamin Hecht’s salon promotes ‘art work’ that today has been eliminated for its degeneracy.” The still and caption conflate the painting and the character, making it clear that Fraülein Rita has been cast and costumed to both echo the “decadent” figures in Paul Kleinschmidt’s “entartete” Duet in the North Café and to blazon her lesbianism. “Benjamin Hecht macht in ‘Kunst’,” Filmwelt: Das Film- und Foto- Magazin 16 (18 April 1941): 411.

74. Rouben Mamoulian, Marlene Dietrich, and Atanas Katchamakoff’s Captive* on the set of The Song of Songs, in which figurative sculpture performs a kind of sexual surrogacy. Within a year a nude statue would have been as taboo on Hollywood screens as a nude actor.


The world gone wiggy:
The Trouble with Harry

In its denunciation of modernism in art, Venus vor Gericht ranges from vitriolic (Brake’s rhetoric) to comical. One of its more clichéd little jabs is a familiar trope in the cinema, and indeed, according to Bruce Barber, "one of the most common popular critiques of modernist abstraction" (156): the disoriented, or “upside-down” abstract picture. In Zerlett’s film, the work is a print or drawing, probably by Kandinsky. A couple visiting Hecht’s gallery exhibit of contemporary art are looking at a piece from a portfolio of works on paper when Hecht’s assistant, Fraülein Rita (a stout, severe woman with a monocle and a necktie—pretty plainly coded and despised as a lesbian), corrects them, rotating it to the “proper” orientation (a rather clever way to impugn her “inverted” sexual orientation, along with the artwork; see fig. 49). The implication of the scene is that the work and the “refined” sensibility that purvey it are utter nonsense. This, of course, is a criticism of non-objective art (art with no recognizable subject matter) that neither began nor ended with the anti-modernism of the Nazis. That Uncertain Feeling (d. Ernst Lubitsch; fig. 50), a Hollywood film of the same year, treats modern art with pretty much equivalent scorn. The upside-down picture trope certainly appeared in Hollywood films prior to and after 1941 (including Stanley Donen’s and Gene Kelly’s On the Town, 1949, and Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris, 1951) and made a noteworthy appearance in The Trouble with Harry, Alfred Hitchcock’s droll black comedy of 1955.

50. That Uncertain Feeling (Ernst Lubitsch, 1941). A scene set in a gallery in which modern art, including an apparent painting by Fernand Léger, is on view. Modernism is more or less as ridiculous in the Hollywood film in 1941 as it is in the German one.

As is well known, Hitchcock was wont to figure art in his films—including abstractions. In fact, a dialectic between mimetic and abstract art works appears in subtle variations across a number of them. In Suspicion (1941), for instance, a visiting police detective, Sgt. Benson, is distracted by a cubist picture in the entrance hall [fig. 51][17] [open endnotes in new window] and a portrait likeness of Lina’s father, General MacLaidlaw, bears down oedipally on the entire household. Rear Window (1954) features a modern still life painting and an abstract quasi-figurative sculpture in progress.  Despite that one of its main protagonists, Sam Marlowe, is a modern artist, however, and a couple of rather lengthy scenes feature a dozen or more of his works, art as a theme in The Trouble with Harry has not been seriously treated by film studies (or art history).

51. Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941). Sergeant Benson bemused by a Picasso (Pitcher and Bowl of Fruit, 1931).

In his chapter on The Trouble with Harry in Laughing Hysterically: American Screen Comedy of the 1950s, Ed Sikov is one of the few scholars or critics to note how central Sam Marlowe’s paintings are to the film: “Sam’s art breaks Harry open into a yawning gulf, a disturbance of epic proportions out of which Harry’s sexual symbols fly.” At the same time, I think Sikov fails to appreciate those paintings. “Wiggy’s store and outdoor market are both crammed with Sam’s work,” Sikov notes [fig. 52-53], “most of it fairly dreadful (though the script describes him as ‘an extremely talented painter’).... (168).”

52. The Trouble with Harry (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955). Mrs. Wiggs' country store is “crammed” with Sam Marlowe’s work, displayed outdoors…

53. … and indoors.

Of course, he is entitled to his opinion. But, in as much as most of the Marlowe works are played by paintings and drawings of a significant artist of the New York School, John Ferren, Sikov’s dismissal seems cavalier. And if the film regards Ferren’s works equivocally, as is almost inevitable, even as it depends upon them in a number of ways, probably Hitchcock did not. It might seem like a mere joke to insert abstract art into the bucolic New England countryside of The Trouble with Harry but the color and disorientation operate at two levels in this droll picture, operating within the setting and the narrative, as well as within the paintings seen en abyme, as indices of psyche and freedom.

First some background. John Ferren (1905-1970), perhaps better known among Hitchcock scholars for his work on Vertigo—he was credited with designing the special dream sequence [fig. 56] and also painted the Carlotta portrait [fig. 55]—was an active member of the New York School, and probably one of the most significant figures of the American art world to have collaborated on Hollywood pictures [fig. 54]. Although not very well known today, he was an artist with a considerable profile in the 1950s. The year that The Trouble with Harry was released was the same year that Ferren served as president of the Club, an organization of New York artists, founded in 1949, by among others, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Ad Reinhardt. Irving Sandler describes him as unusual among that group: a convivial, articulate and intellectual character. Ferren may have constituted one of the New York School’s strongest links to European modernism of the pre-War period, having lived in Europe from 1929 to 1938, mainly in Paris, where he worked among and associated with major modernists: Jean Hélion of the Abstraction-Creátion group, Picasso, Miró, and others [see figs. 57-59]. According to Gertrude Stein, writing in 1938, he was “the only American painter foreign painters in Paris consider as a painter and whose painting interests them” (108). In between these two periods of his work, interestingly, Ferren served in Europe as chief of publications for the U.S. Psychological Warfare Division during the Second World War. Although there is no direct evidence to suggest this, it is not impossible that this is how Hitchcock became acquainted with Ferren, as he had connections among other psychological warfare personnel, American and British.[18]

55. Ferren’s Portrait of Carlotta, from Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958). 56. A frame from Ferren’s special (dream) sequence in Vertigo.
58. John Ferren, Mallorca, 1934, 59. John Ferren, Untitled, 1934, three pictures from Ferren’s European period

John Ferren’s work, including much among the selection visible in Hitchcock’s film, was profoundly influenced by Wassily Kandinsky, and also by Fernand Léger and Joan Miró, as well as by the ideas generated around William Stanley Hayter’s Parisian Atelier 17, the foremost modern printmaking studio. Tensions between figuration and abstraction, both within individual pictures and across works, are evident in Ferren’s oeuvre, including in the work seen in The Trouble with Harry. Ferren was, above all—and more than most of his New York peers—a colorist. New York Times art critic, Roberta Smith’s pithy assessment of Ferren’s work suggests its consonance with Hitchcock’s Technicolor films: “…undiluted color and flashes of pictorial wit.” [fig. 60][19]

60. The Trouble with Harry. Mrs. Wiggs (Mildred Dunnock) and three of Sam Marlowe’s paintings (by John Ferren) at her roadside stand.Tensions between figuration and abstraction, along with “undiluted color and flashes of pictorial wit” (Roberta Smith) characterize Ferren’s work of the postwar period.

61. The Trouble with Harry. Hitchcock connected the colors of Ferren’s painting to those of the autumn landscape in New England.

Ferren’s widow, Rae Ferren, also an artist, recalls that the director was expressly interested in her husband’s paintings for their vivid use of color, which Hitchcock connected to the colors of the autumnal New England landscape [fig. 61]. The Ferrens spent a few days on location in Vermont, as John Forsythe had to be advised on technique for the scenes in which Marlowe drew. Rae Ferren recalls, too, that her husband and Hitchcock got along famously, and shared a predilection for French wine. She also revealed to me that it was she, at the time very recently an art student, and one with a more representational disposition—not her husband, as generally assumed—who drew the sketch of the dead Harry Worp’s head that figures prominently in the film [fig. 62].[20]

Disorientation is a central trope in The Trouble with Harry, beginning with the titular corpse itself. Sikov points out that the stocking feet of the dead man are part of a somewhat lewd joke, in terms of color and orientation. “Hitchcock lends Harry’s feet a whimsical touch by having him wear blue socks with bright red tips,” Sikov notes. The feet, he says, are

“a key element in the pervasive displacement of sexual energy that underlies each of the central characters’ progression through the film…. The joke stands on the fact that the dead human body is metonymically reduced to the feet: while the rest of Harry’s corpse lies flat, his feet stick up in the air… standing at priapic attention (160)” [fig. 63-64].

The question of orientation is addressed directly, in dialogue that often has a suggestive aura. Jennifer says of Harry, “he looked exactly the same when he was alive, only he was vertical.”

62. The Trouble with Harry. According to Rae Ferren, she, and not her husband, drew the sketch of Harry Worp. 63. The Trouble with Harry. Sam discovers the body of Harry Worp when his stocking feet emerge in a landscape sketch.

So, when Hitchcock engages the trope of the upside down picture, it is a joke, but an overdetermined one, that alludes to the upside down world and affect of the film. In the scene where the picture is inverted, Mrs. Wiggs, at whose country store and post office Marlowe attempts to sell his work, is all admiration: “Ah, Mr. Marlowe; it’s wonderful!” she exclaims [fig. 65]. As Sam inverts the picture she is admiring [fig. 66], he explains, quite casually, “I’ve been in a tortured mood lately,” turning her error into something of a matter of interpretation, artistic and psychological. “What is it?” Mrs. Wiggs asks. “Good ol’ Wiggy: my sternest critic,” responds Marlowe. But again, Hitchcock fails to drop it here, at the point where one can laugh at the obscurity of abstract painting. “I don’t understand your work. I think it’s beautiful,” says Wiggy almost rapturously, without taking her eyes off the picture, and having the last word.

The film itself, like Mrs. Wiggs, spends considerable time looking at Ferren’s luminous canvases. Wiggy and Miss Gravely both respond to the paintings with aesthetic appreciation that harbors a hint of eroticism. They function as surrogates for us, and perhaps for Hitchcock, too—whose favorite painter, Paul Klee, like Ferren, made somewhat mysterious and vividly chromatic pictures that shift between and across abstraction and figuration. The bright colors dominant in the paintings are also evident in the autumnal landscape of New England: yellow, orange, red, blue, green. In fact, the painting with which Sam makes his first appearance very clearly echoes colors and textures from the autumnal scene. Although the abstract aspect of Marlowe’s work has generally been regarded as a joke—(how ridiculous that an abstract painter would work in plein air)—this view is misguided. Abstract does not equal non-objective. Several of the pictures used in the film (including a few that may have been made by a second artist) have evident representational content and Ferren’s work of the period in fact includes numerous abstract landscapes [fig. 67]. Abstraction is at some remove from the concrete world and it is this removal that allows Hitchcock to employ the paintings as images of disorientation, play, mystery and freedom.

But is it the painting or the viewer that is disoriented, one wonders? Doesn’t Sam’s nickname for Mrs. Wiggs—Wiggy—imply that there’s something dizzy in this otherwise very down-to-earth viewer of his pictures? Earthiness and color are dialectically engaged in The Trouble with Harry. Richard Allen, in his analysis of Hitchcock’s color designs asserts—employing a metaphor that seems especially apt here—that Hitchcock approached the color film as a “blank canvas in which every element of color placed in the frame is put there for a reason.” With few but significant exceptions—most obviously Harry’s socks and Jennifer’s garb (both combining blue and red)—sartorial color in The Trouble with Harry is generally neutral, dark and/or earthy. The neutrality of their appearance underscores the characters’ absurd nonchalance and the darkness and earthiness of the morbid and sexual humor that pervades the story (e.g. “I’m grateful to you for burying my body.” “Marriage is a comfortable way to spend the winter”).

Thus the brilliant colors of both landscape and art are very much in contrast to the behavior and appearance of the characters [fig. 68]. The colors and forms of the paintings manifestly excite the two middle-aged women: Wiggs and Gravely, as well as—it seems, the elderly millionaire who stops to admire, and later purchase them. This excitement is expressed in a sense by the inversion. These sensual, stimulating objects turn the world inside out, or upside down. As Sikov suggests, they represent unconscious, repressed currents. It is then, utterly silly and yet at the same time quite serious, when Sam turns his painting right side up.

It ought to be noted that Ferren had some experience with his work’s inversion. An undated clipping from The New Yorker found among his papers reports “that the Museum of Modern Art had apparently hung a picture, a modernistic composition by John Ferren, upside down.” Ferren would likely have known, too, that his artistic forebear, Wassily Kandinsky, famously claimed that his move toward abstraction was inspired “by an encounter with one of his own paintings in the dark, set upside down, which though unrecognizable was ‘an indescribably beautiful picture impregnated with an inner radiance.’" Ferren certainly would have known, as well, that Paul Klee’s cryptic, colorful pictures were profoundly influenced by the art of children, and, especially, the insane, the latter through Hans Prinzhorn’s influential publication of 1922, Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Perhaps the painter was in on Hitchcock’s joke.

Such jocular reorientation in a sense celebrates the “craziness” of modernism, and its freedom. Propagandistic discourses linked abstraction, particular Abstract Expressionism, to freedom during the Cold War, and were central themes in official U.S. culture abroad, even as popular audiences in America remained skeptical (see Guilbaut). The equation of abstraction and freedom is echoed in The Trouble with Harry in a rather feminist exchange. Sam says to Jennifer, “if you marry me, you’d keep your freedom,” to which she replies, “you must be practically unique, then.” “I respect freedom,” he confirms. “More than that, I love freedom. We might be the only free married couple in the world” [fig. 69].

But the rotating canvas takes on other overtones when considered in cinematic terms. One element of the cliché of the disoriented painting may be the dynamic possibility afforded by its reorientation. Do the movies turn abstract pictures around because they can? A perennial problem in the representation of painting in film is its stasis, which can act upon the flow of cinema like a stop sign. The still picture, whose stillness does not bother us upon the gallery wall, looks dead in moving pictures… like Harry. The Trouble with Harry, it could be argued, is just this: his inexorable horizontality and stasis. Sikov points out that Harry’s reorientation is a sexual joke, his erect feet “standing” for the organ he couldn’t get up in life. But in moving pictures, even the dead must—and, as I’ve noted elsewhere, often do—move (the movies’ ubiquitous zombies, for instance, and Hitchcock’s own variously re-animated dead: Rebecca, General McLaidlaw, Madeleine Elster, Mrs. Bates). This mortified property of the still image is not only the source of the often morbid poignancy of the cinematic freeze frame (Truffaut’s, for instance) but also gives rise to the much abused impulse in documentaries on art to zoom in on and pan across canvases, as with still photographs: the inevitable and tiresome “Ken Burns” effect!

The abstract picture has virtues and possibilities that the figurative still and the narrative cinema lack, though. One of these is precisely its dynamic openness of form and concomitant reorganization of time. It can be rotated, or disoriented, productively. As Ferren himself wrote in 1958 about the possibilities post-cubist abstraction afforded his generation of painters:

“we found ourselves with a pictorial space which was less finite, less easily contained, full of energy; not the negative space between two planes, but a space in which the mind moves freely and which permits a flux of emotion instead of a timeless fixity. Comparing the classical concept of space which still haunts French painting to our space is like comparing a still photograph to a movie. A painting by Pollock ‘contains’ time in a way that is new” (Ferren, “Epitaph” 26).

And, of course, the upside-down picture is a figure of Hitchcock’s picture’s own inversion, in a sense, too, isn’t it? The same content that would be framed with horror, suspense, and morbid fascination in other movies is here—in the film its director claimed to be fondest of in his oeuvre—turned on its head: made droll, amusing, benign. The reorientation of the picture speaks to those more abstract, dynamic values of composition, color, and line which are such a source of inchoate pleasure in Hitchcock’s pictures: values, however, that generally must serve, or be subordinated to the flow of narrative. In The Trouble with Harry, in which narrative flow is not brisk or subtle, while the setting is uncommonly beautiful, these formal values come to the foreground. Hitchcock, who did once compare himself to an abstract painter (McGilligan 476), wanted Ferren’s pictures “for their brilliant color, like the color of Vermont in the fall.” Ferren no doubt wanted the cinema not only for its paycheck, but also for its dynamism, scale and luminosity. In the same year that he, and his pictures, and his wife were employed by Hitchcock—the painter had been experimenting with paintings made with “bright, nearly translucent inks” on Orlon, meant to be displayed in windows, producing a luminous glow like stained glass [fig. 70].

In hanging Ferren’s pictures at Wiggie’s roadside stand in the autumn sunshine, as well as indoors in her post office and general store, Hitchcock revels in the ways that their chromaticity operates under different conditions (a number of the same pictures are to be seen outdoors and in—perhaps a continuity error, but an illuminating one). A theater poster quite prominently displayed inside Wiggy’s shop points to the chromatic focus; it is for “The Caravan Color Season at the Dorset Playhouse” [fig. 71]. Ferren was also in the mid-fifties, after years of working strictly non-objectively, returning cautiously to figuration. Indeed, most of the works seen in The Trouble with Harry are abstract but not non-objective. Ferren wrote,

“The figure conceived in the Western Humanist Tradition has found its communicable art form outside of painting. To me, it is experienced better plastically and humanly in giant close-ups moving in sequence across a movie or TV screen”  (Art Digest 1953).

He felt that figuration was risky—it could be both reactionary and cowardly for artists in 1953—but also might fruitfully reemerge from the “matrix” of abstract expressionism, a “matrix” he believed could either destroy painting or enable a “leap” to an objectification of mental, emotional, and spiritual energies.

71. The Trouble with Harry. The poster for “The Caravan Color Season,” placed near Ferren’s brilliantly colored canvases, underscores the film’s chromatic focus.

The power that such language attributes to painting may not be evident in these colorful canvases that are all too easily subsumed in mise-en-scène. It doesn’t help that quite a few rather small canvases jostle for attention in the scenes into which they’re crowded, or that they are somewhat inconsistent in style. Indeed, a couple of the paintings seen at the emporium are unlike most Ferren work and might be by Stanley Marc Wright, an accomplished realist painter resident in Stowe, who claimed to have made paintings for the film. “Hitchcock wanted to shoot in Wright’s studio,” according to art historian James Saslow, the painter’s nephew, but “the artist refused to allow the drastic remodeling required.” Wright claimed to have made all the art in the film, which is obviously untrue (perhaps he did not know that Ferren was paid for his canvases and was present for some days during the shoot; one wonders whether he ever saw the finished film), and, since “Forsythe was supposed to be the stereotypically earnest but penniless modernist that Wright never wanted to be,” to have “had a bit of fun at the expense of the avant-garde by cranking out a wildly varied smorgasbord of swirling , daubish abstractions, some of them deliberately dreadful” (Saslow, 26). Few of the canvases seen in the movie could be characterized as such. Hitchcock probably employed Wright’s work sparingly, if at all.[22]

In any case, even the “honest” abstractions by Ferren seem at best to contribute a benign, spiritually and sensually vivid air to the scene [fig. 72]. Certainly one senses through the admiration of Mrs. Wiggs, Miss Gravely, and the wealthy collector who takes up the whole lot, the director’s own appreciation. Ironically, these pleasant, almost decorative elements of Hitchcock’s film are not very unlike some of the works that were cast as ridiculous, dangerous, crazy, and degenerate in Venus vor Gericht. When cast in fiction films, whether to perform as ideological punching bags or as aesthetic diversions, such objects—dematerialized and removed from not only the space but also the cultural context of the studio or gallery—become players rather than objects. This is especially true of easel paintings, like Ferren’s. The large, more cinematic scale of contemporaneous works by New York School artists like Pollock, Motherwell or Kline come to embody a relationship between painting and cinema in a way that the representation, or incorporation, of the portable easel painting cannot, as Ferren himself had observed.

Thus the “Marlowe” paintings in The Trouble with Harry, despite their considerable screen time (in the two mercantile locations they are displayed, paintings are almost continuously to be seen for a total of about fifteen minutes), have been much less noticed, appreciated, and analyzed than the often inferior portraits and pictures upon which plot points turn in other Hitchcock films.  Upon entering the age of its technological reproducibility, according to Walter Benjamin, the work of art loses aura. When art comes into the aura of film, so to speak: when the object of art enters the space of its own symbolic appropriation—the classical fiction film—it gains a strange and paradoxical sort of invisibility, as well.

But even as these concrete objects disappear into the mise-en-scène—even unremarked—they continue to signify. Their signification is not fixed, however. As modernist, abstract works, of the mid-century, Ferren’s are indices of freedom, sensual experience, psyche and spirit. Color and abstract form are difficult to describe and to discuss, but they are felt. Ferren’s pictures participate, albeit somewhat whimsically, in a dialogue about art and value that in fact had some urgency in the post-war period. This dialogue is neither as obvious nor as polemical as the National Socialist case around which Venus vor Gericht was structured during the war but Hitchcock must have been aware of the history of anti-modernist rhetoric and the ways that aesthetic signification were shifting during the Cold War when he changed Sam Marlowe into a modern painter. The modernist works regarded as “degenerate” by the National Socialist ethos of Zerlett’s film signify, too, and not always as intended [fig. 73].

Although the objects themselves are mostly lost to history—a couple recently recovered, battered from it—their withered aura persists to defy the morality tale into which they were abducted. That morality tale pitted modernism against classicism, a classicism framed as virtuous, heroic, and occasionally a little titillating. But classicism is not a stable signifier, either. In The Song of Songs the classical figure is less reactionary than risqué; it is about the body, but not the heroic political body of the Nazi period; rather, it is about the sexual body that is off limits in Hollywood [fig. 74]. American censors must have been as outraged by Mamoulian’s sculptural surrogates as the NS establishment by the art it declared degenerate. By 1934, a nude statue was as taboo in Hollywood as a nude actress.

When art and movies get mixed up with one another, political signifiers get mixed up, too. What to one man is sheer madness is pure freedom to another. One woman’s paragon of virtue is another’s sexual fetish. The aura of the art object decays; the still image moves; the three-dimensional object becomes a mere projection, or shadow, but no more of one than the actor next to it. The mortal flesh and the solid inanimate thing begin to merge. The very notion of the “real” withers, as well.

Go to Notes page

To topPrint versionJC 53 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.