Humor: Hitchcock's Secret Weapon

"For 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 craft.

“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 traits

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.

“I’ve 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 rises.

“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 of irony

While 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)

“The 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.” --Alfred Hitchcock

4. Include a burlesque character

One 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 Stangers 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 Rope (1948) 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 the courtyard.

5. Balance laugh and tension

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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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.


Book Sources:

Gottlieb, Sydney. "Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews" Los Angeles. 1997.
Truffaut, Francois. "Hitchcock" Revised Edition. New York. 1985.

Video Sources:

“Telescope: A Talk With Hitchcock Part I and II” Canadian Broadcasting Center, directed by Fletcher Markle. 1964.

AMERICAN CINEMATHEQUE DOCUMENTARY "ALFRED HITCHOCK: MASTER OF SUSPENSE" City Center of Music and Drama by Richard Schickel, Fox Lorber Associates, Inc. 1973.

2007 Borgus Productions