Stop Laughing: A Difference of Laughter Between British and American Hitchcock

by Benjamin Aspray

13 Jun 2010

North by Northwest 

“Laugh is precisely what we do at every Hitchcock thriller.”
—Donald Spoto, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock

When a group of secret agents turn off London’s power grid in Sabotage (1936), the ensuing unrest at the Bijou Theater, a local cinema, suggests a job well done – until a newspaper declares, the following day, that “London Laughs at Black-Out.” It goes on to describe “Comedies in the Dark” in which “Joking Crowds Carry on with Oil Lamps.” The agents are insulted; their attempt at sabotage seems to have had the reverse effect.

Or has it? Does laughter preclude tragedy? Macabre comedy is as much a part of Hitchcock’s vernacular as his icy blondes. It lightens stories of murder and mayhem for us. And so, perhaps, it does for the patrons of the Bijou – only, the story is theirs. In fact, the movie’s first instance of laughter results from an attempt by undercover detective Ted Spenser to subdue the restless crowds after the unfortunate “act of God.” When an unidentified Londoner asks him to specify what, exactly, constitutes an act of God, Spenser quips, “I call your face one, and you certainly won’t get your money back on that,” to congregated guffaws. Such is par for course for the insult humor regularly featured in Hitchcock’s earlier films, and hardly out of the ordinary for his entire oeuvre.

But consider that, amidst all these Brits, the lone American—a nameless protagonist, played by the doll-faced Sylvia Sidney - is incapable of appeasing the angry moviegoers. It takes a fellow female employee, whose accent identifies her as a Londoner, and then Spenser, also demonstratively from England, to deflect their ire. In this world, macabre comedy is the exclusive privilege—and, indeed, talent – of the British. In short, humor becomes a unifying source for Britain.

We see something similar in The 39 Steps (1935). The film begins in a music hall where a certain Mr. Memory is performing for a crowd of skeptical Brits. His introduction is interrupted by two hecklers. That these hecklers are never singled out in close-up frames their sassy remarks as coming from the crowd, not any particular individual within it. When the MC announces that Mr. Memory plans on donating his brain to the British Museum, the crowd applauds wildly, and a medium shot shows bar patrons raising their steins in a hurrah. Then the questions start coming, most of them involving British history and British athletics. One chosen for an answer is, “Who was the last British heavy-weight champion of the world?” Two answers come from the bar: “Henry the Eighth!” “My old woman!” When one man asks about the price of poultry, his wife chides him, “Don’t be so common!” The signifiers of Britishness pile up – historical allusions, class anxiety, national pride, and, of course, sardonic banter. Then, the Canadian asks for the distance from Winnepeg to Montreal, and Mr. Memory singles him out – and welcomes him to Britain, to great applause. In less than five minutes, Hitchcock establishes a vision of Britain as bound by its sense of humor.

Mr. Memory in 'The 39 Steps'

Mr. Memory in ‘The 39 Steps’

A brawl that follows is no less light-hearted: a tracking shot follows a security guard as he runs from the door to the bar, where drunken Brits have started to shove one another. The guard then becomes engulfed in the shuffle, and the violence escalates. He presumably meant to mediate the conflict, but the image implicates him as much as anyone else in inflaming it. The ensuing chaos, lacking any clear provocation, ends up seeming, like everything else in this scene, as simply another outcropping of British nature. The scene makes a jarring about-face, however, when two gun-shots ring out amidst the commotion. As if replicating the shocked faces ending The Lodger’s opening montage, a medium shot shows four audience members staring into the camera, frozen in fright. Their inconsequential violence has been broken up by the introduction of real violence, resulting in demonstrative shock. Lacking the resolution in collective violence that The Lodger provides for its traumatized Brits, The 39 Steps instead seems to anticipate the desensitized “wound culture” of the following year’s Sabotage. The relatively primitive spectacles of the former’s Britain become utter mass-media inundation of the latter’s. What follows is the British, as what Mark Seltzer would term the ‘traumatic subject,’ “yielding to representation [of murdered bodies]... this amounts to the ‘assault’ or ‘bombardment’ of the subject by the burgeoning materialities of communication, reproduction, and representation” (“Wound Culture: Trauma in the Pathological Public Sphere.”October 80 [Spring 1997], 12).

Back to Sabotage: as the film progresses, a sinister backbone shows through the seemingly admirable ability of London to laugh in times of trouble. A cryptic message to saboteur Mr. Verloc, the Bijou’s owner (and the protagonist’s husband), concerning an upcoming bombing of Piccadilly Circus, reads: “London must not laugh until Saturday.” Verloc then has a fantasy about it, which we see superimposed over a fish-tank in medium shot. The tank is a dead ringer for a silver screen. The image melts, caving in from the center—like a film strip burning out mid-projection. Acts of sabotage, and cinematic spectacle, become one and the same.


The explosion is even framed as an occasion for humor: the bomb carrier is the protagonist’s little brother, whose appearance up until this point is always shrouded in slapstick. He is introduced awkwardly trying to cook dinner, ripping an apron and accidentally putting a boiling potato in his mouth, and then, as he scrambles through the daytime London crowds to deliver the package Mr. Verloc has given him, getting unwittingly sidetracked by a snake-oil merchant, much to the amusement of surrounding onlookers. His tardiness causes the bomb to detonate on a bus with him onboard, followed abruptly by a cut to Verloc, his wife, and Spenser laughing. Like the power outage that opens the film, sabotage is greeted by laughter, but now that an innocent child’s annihilation is part of the joke, that laughter seems cruel, even bloodthirsty.

The bomb is a hit. Newspapers bear the giddy headline, “London Bomb Sensation” (57:20), and Londoners rush to get their copies. Mrs. Verloc, meanwhile, wanders the streets in a daze of grief. We follow her into the Bijou, where, from over her shoulder, we can hear the off-screen laughter of children in the theater. She turns to the side, begins to laugh, then turns around completely, and continues to laugh. The reverse shot shows a Disney cartoon being projected, suggesting that Mrs. Verloc started laughing before seeing what was on-screen. Instead, it’s as if she’s laughing to be included, to quell her alienation as a stranger in a strange land. To no avail: another reverse-shot shows the comic death of a cartoon bird by arrow, and her smile fades, even as the audience continues to laugh. She can’t share the audience’s delight in death; she is doomed to exclusion from this bloodthirsty public.

Looking back at The Lodger (1927), the first instance of the ‘Hitchcock thriller,’ we can see a similarly cynical vision of the British. The film opens with a montage that turns the media circus following mass homicide into a kind of assembly line, at the end of which is public fascination and delight. London, therefore, is characterized as a “wound culture,” in which the violent trauma reproduced in mass-media sutures collective shock and collective violence (Seltzer, 12).

When Hollywood lured Hitchcock out of his native Britain, his camera trained on his new home with somewhat different results. Whereas a distinct vision of British identity prevailed in much of the British Hitchcock, an American counterpart fails to persist similarly through his Hollywood period, even though a great deal of them make liberal use of iconic locations and American stereotypes—Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Rear Window (1954), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963), in particular. His Americans are no less fascinated with violent spectacle, but their “laughter” provides less of an us-versus-them binary than a more abstract model that speaks more universally. The American Hitchcock expands Sabotage’s model of the bloodthirsty spectator beyond the constraints of national identity.


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