It’s autumn in rural Vermont, the leaves are changing colors, and all’s not quite right with the world.
Edmund Gwenn, best known as Kris Kringle in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street, plays a retired sea captain who at the start of the film has been shooting at rabbits with about as much success as Elmer Fudd. He’s looking to see what he hit when he comes upon a dead stranger lying in a clearing. Oops. Not wanting to go to jail for an honest accident, he resolves to hide the body. Unfortunately, other people keep happening upon the scene.
Jerry Mathers (later the star of Leave It To Beaver) discovers the body and runs to fetch his mother (Shirley MacLaine in her first film role). Gwenn, hiding behind a fallen tree, is surprised to see that she apparently knew the deceased and isn’t at all distressed by his condition.
MacLaine was 20 at the time, only 14 years older than Jerry Mathers. Such unlikely age differences aren’t uncommon on film. In North by Northwest Cary Grant’s mother was played by an actress (Jessie Royce Landis) only seven years older than Grant. In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Dick Van Dyke’s father is played by Lionel Jeffries, six months younger than Van Dyke. For that matter, a lot of people probably assume that Roger Moore, who replaced Sean Connery as James Bond, was a younger actor. In fact, Moore is just short of three years older than Connery. Movies are magic.
A local spinster named Miss Graveley (Mildred Natwick) happens upon the scene just as Gwenn is dragging the dead body toward the bushes and casually asks, “What seems to be the trouble, Captain?” (Hitchcock reported called this his single favorite line in any of his films.)
John Forsyth gets involved as well. He’s an unsuccessful abstract painter who is rather attracted to Shirley MacLaine, presumably because he has decent eyesight and she’s Shirley MacLaine. Also, at one point he kisses her and she says, “Lightly, Sam. I have a very short fuse.” Whoa, Nellie.
It’s said that Hitchcock made the film partly as an experiment, to see if American audiences would go for a comedy that was dark and understated and lacked A-list stars. It didn’t work as well as he’d hoped, though it was a big hit in Britain and Italy. I liked it well enough, though I smiled a lot more than I laughed.
Much of the film was shot on location in scenic Vermont, but the fall weather proved so rainy that they ended up building the wooded clearing as a set inside a high school gym.