The humor of any Alfred Hitchcock film is British and dry, sure, but it also involves one key factor. Any scene in his films could move from the macabre and tense to the darkly amusing before the audience knows what hit them. In Naremore’s article, he refers to a scene he saw as a boy in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) which illustrates perfectly the ways in which Hitchcock used dark humor to make a scene “frightening, perverse and funny at the same time.” For me, there are two or three scenes that leap to mind as examples of how this can work.
For example, the opening scene from his light-hearted but darkly funny The Trouble with Harry (1955). Capt. Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) is out hunting and discovers the recent corpse of a man called Harry. A little boy happens upon the body in the woods and runs to tell his mother. Meanwhile, Capt. Wiles decides something must be done about the body, but he’s constantly interrupted by various passersby who have different reactions – including the boy’s mother (Shirley MacLaine), who doesn’t seem to think too much about it despite recognizing Harry as her ex-husband.
The humor in this scene comes largely, however, via Hitchcock’s version of what Hollywood has come to call the “Meet Cute”: any scene – typically in a romantic comedy – where somebody meets someone else in a way that could only be contrived by a Hollywood screenwriter and usually has no other purpose than to set up a potential romantic interest. Hitchcock’s take on this phenomena is both cute and funny as well as very much in keeping with his macabre spirit.
Capt. Wiles is dragging the body when he is interrupted by Miss Ivy Graveley (Mildred Natwick), the lonely spinster. Her reaction could best be described as “subdued” (“What seems to be the trouble, Captain,” she asks). The two exchange pleasantries over the dead body, even make a date for a social visit, all the while not talking about the elephant in the room (or in this case the corpse in the woods). It’s all very dry and British and quite funny – and oddly sweet in a way. The precarious balance of the macabre and the dryly sweet will be repeated during the scene of their social visit. While having tea together, they have the following exchange: The Captain refers to a his drink receptacle as “A real handsome man’s cup.” Miss Graveley informs him “It’s been in the family for years. My father always used it…until he died.” The Captain responds, “I trust he died peacefully. Slipped away in the night?” Miss Graveley shrewdly corrects him: “He was caught in a threshing machine.”
[Realizing we haven’t watched it in class yet,] I would like to make a small bid for the underappreciated Frenzy (1972). Here is a classical Hitchcock thriller with a certain sense of reckless abandon in the wake of Production Code that sort of began to give way before it.
In this film an accused killer (Jon Finch) has been set up by his friend (Barry Foster) who is the “necktie killer.” For reasons passing understanding (it’s been a while since I saw it), the killer ends up in the back of a potato truck (I believe it was to retrieve some accidentally left evidence from a corpse). As he struggles to get the evidence while bouncing around in the back of the truck, the leg of the corpse keeps popping out of a potato bag – not unlike the empty closet door in The Trouble with Harry, except here the threat of discovery and capture is very real. It’s almost slapstick the way the leg pops out again and again with pitch perfect comic timing.
Add to that an opening line like “It’s been too long since the Christie murders; a good colorful crime spree is good for tourism” and you’ve got a perfect sense of the comical and the macabre that was right in Hitchcock’s wheelhouse from the get-go.
Note: This was written for Sue Brower’s Hitchcock course in Spring 2010.