Humor: Hitchcock's Secret Weapon
me, suspense doesn't have any value if it's not balanced by humor."
– Alfred Hitchcock
-- Filmmakers who attempt to use Alfred Hitchcock's techniques often overlook
comedy, a vital component to his works. Even the most deadly situations
depicted in his films have an undercurrent of facetious wit. Hitchcock’s
own public persona was built on the foundation of his sophisticated British
deadpan humor, and it’s not surprising this sly attitude permeates his
“In the mystery and suspense genre, a tongue-in-cheek approach is indispensable,”
said Hitchcock. (Truffaut) He felt this was the ingredient which
kept audiences coming back begging for more. It is the equivalent
of a roller coaster ride in which the passengers scream wildly on the way
down but laugh when the ride rolls to a stop. (Gottlieb)
In one of his most popular films, Psycho (1960), a hotel owner's
angry mother kills visitors at night, and there are no obvious laughs in
the film. But, Hitchcock often described Psycho as a practical
joke. (Truffaut) Other films such as Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
and Strangers on a Train (1951) are sprinkled with macabre humor.
The Trouble With Harry (1955) is purely a deadpan comedy.
According to Hitchcock, humor does not diminish the effectiveness of dramatic
suspense. In fact, he argued that humor heightens the drama and makes
it even more potent. “For me, suspense doesn’t have any value unless it’s
balanced by humor,” said Hitchcock. (Gottlieb)
Through his quirky characters, ironic situations, whimsical settings, and
a complex balance of laughs and tension, Alfred Hitchcock had found a way
to make his suspense unbearably fun for his audiences:
1. Exploit trivial character
In order to heighten
tension, Hitchcock would turn the focus of the action to the nonessential
and frivolous details. He called this understatement – a way
of calling attention to the trivial aspects of a character as a way of
forming dramatic contrast in a moment of crisis.
always found that, in a moment of crisis a person invariably does something
trivial," said Hitchcock, "like making a cup of tea or lighting up a cigarette.
A small detail of this sort adds considerably to the dramatic tension of
the situation.” (Gottlieb)
The more awkward and drawn out these details are, the better. In
the climax scene of Rear Window (1954) James Stewart, desperate
to delay the attack of Raymond Burr, grabs his camera bulbs and lights
them sequentially to create a distraction. Each time a new bulb flashes,
Burr awkwardly grabs his glasses as it momentarily blinds him. With
each flash Burr struggles with his vision as the tension for the audience
“I make it a rule to exploit elements that are connected with a character
or location; I would feel like I’d been remiss if I hadn’t made maximum
use of those elements,” said Hitchcock.
2. Create situations
working on a screenplay Hitchcock would often ask, “Now wouldn’t this be
a funny way to kill him off?” (Truffaut) He built his stories around
ironic situations. He liked to play
practical jokes on the characters, putting them through the worst possible
things that could go wrong.
In the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "One More Mile to Go" (1957,
directed by Hitchcock) a policeman has stopped a man because of a burnt
out tail light on his car, completely unaware there is a dead body in the
trunk. The more obsessed this policeman gets with fixing the light,
the more uneasy the murderer gets. Hitchcock pushes this situation
to the level of unbearable absurdity as the policeman continues worrying
about the light, and gets closer and closer to noticing the body.
North By Northwest (1959) places Cary Grant in an open field on
a sunny day, where he is then chased by an airplane. “I like to take
a lurid situation and counterpoint it with understatement,” explained Hitchcock.
3. Surround drama with
a happy setting
Hitchcock believed that
in order for drama to be strong it must be surrounded by a light and humorous
environment. He preferred to put his crimes out in the middle of
sunlight and avoid the cliché shadows, bad weather, and creaky doors
most audiences associate with suspense. (Gottlieb)
more happy-go-lucky the setting, the greater kick you get from the sudden
introduction of drama,” said Hitchcock. (Gottlieb)
The opening credits of Hitchcock's films are often playful, many accompanied
by Bernard Herrmann's facetious music score.
One of the best examples of Hitchcock’s use of whimscial envrionment is
in The Trouble With Harry (1955). All is normal in this small
town with grassy meadows, sunshine, and orange autumn leaves, until a dead
body shows up. Harry Warp becomes everyone’s problem – what can be
done about Harry?
“It’s the juxtaposition of the norm, of the accurate
average, against the fantasy... that’s what makes the thing interesting.”
4. Include a burlesque
of Hitchcock’s characters must never take murder seriously, mocking it
in full delight. The most memorable is probably Henry Travers and
Hume Cronyn in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) getting laughs around the
family dinner table figuring out various ways to murder without
getting caught. The shocking sense of humor often disturbs and confuses
a gullible person nearby, unsure of whether they are serious. In
on a Train (1951) Robert Walker teaches a woman at a party how to strangle
someone, and she gets quite a laugh out of it. In
Constance Collier laughs hysterically at Rupert's (James Stewart) idea
of murdering people for sport. In Rear Window (1954) Thelma
Ritter is having a great thrill out of the possibility of a murder across
5. Balance laugh and
Hitchcock used a delicate
combination of tension and relief in his suspense sequences. Often
a laugh was inserted at a key point to release some tension. "...when
you have comic relief, it's important that the hero as well as the audience
be relieved," said Hitchcock. (Gottlieb) This assures that the audience
maintains sympathy for the character.
North By Northwest
(1959) is one of the best examples of the use of humor involving a chase.
Early in the film Cary Grant is intoxicated and becomes comical as he nearly
drives off a cliff. He looks down over the edge and laughs drunkenly
as he pulls away. Later when he is held by captors at a public auction
he becomes a heckler in order to get picked up by the police.
But this balance is not always easy to judge while making a film. "The only question is whether one should always have a sense of humor in dealing with a serious subject," Hitchcock admits, "it's the most difficult thing in the world to control that so as to get the right dosage. It's only after a picture is done that one can judge it properly."
It would be a mistake to think of Alfred Hitchcock's movies as comedies,
but it is with his quirky characters, ironic situations, whimsical settings,
and deliberate gags that raise his films to an unmatched Hitchcockian brilliance.
Written: July 2007, Updated December 2007
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Continue to other articles:
How to Turn Your Boring Movie into a Hitchcock Thriller
Humor: Hitchcock's Secret Weapon
Message in a booth: Arbogast's last words
The Definitive List of Hitchcock MacGuffins
Creating a Hitchcockian Opening
Sound: Hitchcock's Third Dimension
The Cameo: Appearing in Your Own Film
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Written by Jeffrey Michael Bays, an award-winning radio producer most widely known for 'Not From Space' on XM Satellite Radio. He is also filmmaker and film scholar with a Master of Arts in Cinema from La Trobe University. Jeffrey has written for Peter Marshall's Director's Chair, and is currently writing a book for Micheal Wiese Publishing. As an avid fan of Alfred Hitchcock, Jeffrey directed the Australian suspense film Offing David and is currently in development of two new films.
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