Film still: MGM

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

While Alfred Hitchcock is famous for the humor that he injected into his thrillers, there are striking differences in the humor between his British and American periods.


Film Strip by joseph_alban / Pixabay License / Pixabay

“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.


Publicity still for Sabotage (1936) of Oskar Homolka and Sylvia Sidney / The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki

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 heavyweight 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 Winnipeg 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.

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.


Film frame from The Lodger (1927) / The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki

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.


Publicity photograph from Shadow of a Doubt / The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki

Consider Shadow of a Doubt, possibly Hitchcock’s first truly American film. The Santa Rosa setting is imagined as small-town American quintessence: white picket fences border tree-lined streets, where everyone is a comic embodiment of bumbling friendliness and never does a dark cloud stain the clear blue northern California sky. Neighbors live in each other’s pockets; the Newtons are constantly visited by Herb, a geeky busy-body from next-door who routinely enters their household freely and without warning. Herb’s appearance is almost without exception accompanied by news of murder, delivered with salivating aplomb. He and Joseph Newton hold frequent council on the pros and cons of various different types of homicide. That this morbid fascination goes virtually unnoticed suggests that it is, essentially, normal within the film’s American milieu.

Thus far, nothing is out of the ordinary for Hitchcock. It seems that he has inaugurated the “wound culture” of his British film into his American films as well. Indeed, the fantasy of violence recurs throughout the American Hitchcock. The real violence that lurks beneath this simulated violence, however, teeters much more precariously on the edge of exposure than in the British Hitchcock. When a psychotic fit turns Bruno’s faked strangulation into the real thing in Strangers on a Train, formerly amused party guests become appalled and frightened. In Rope, Brandon insists on the privilege of murder, nominally hypothetically, as a real murder remains literally concealed in a chest just half a room away.

In Shadow of a Doubt, the murder is similarly right under their noses: the much beloved Uncle Charlie, who has assimilated with ease into the Santa Rosa community — his departure is preceded by the blessings of both the local Catholic priest and the president of the town’s social club — is actually the Merry Widow Killer, who exists to the townspeople merely as a headline and provokes, naturally, Herb’s macabre obsession. Charlie, Uncle Charlie’s namesake, gradually discovers the truth, the violence beneath the “laughter”. She chastises her father at the dinner table for “always talk[ing] about killing people!” He replies, “We’re [Herb and I] not talking about killing people, Herb’s talking about killing me and I’m talking about killing Herb.” Mrs. Newton adds, “It’s how your father relaxes.” Here, “relax” seems synonymous with “laugh,” going back to its status as the all-encompassing opposite of the “uneasiness” caused by acts of sabotage. Like Mrs. Verloc, Charlie can no longer share in this “laughter”: for her, the real violence has superseded its simulated form.

What resulted from Mrs. Verloc’s alienation was a reaffirmation of her foreignness, but Charlie’s is a little more complicated. She is never a foreigner to begin with; on the contrary, she never seems to appear outside without the company of one or two anonymous friends, and everyone from waitresses to traffic police know her by name. Furthermore, the violence she discovers is characterized not as foreign, as in Sabotage (Mr. Verloc and his co-conspirators are given indistinctly Eastern European accents), but quite the contrary: Uncle Charlie’s allusions to both marriage and being twins, as well as their names, suggests their doubleness.


Lobby card for North by Northwest / The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki

Uncle Charlie’s capacity for murder — visualized in his clenched fingers as impulsive, like the mimetic violence of trauma — is every bit hers as his. Then, Uncle Charlie asks his niece, “Do you know that if you rip the fronts off houses you’ll find swine?” That he asks this at the ‘Til Two, a seedy Santa Rosa bar that Charlie has “never been in,” seems to corroborate his contention: underneath every innocent small town façade lies the cyclical violence of a “wound culture”. This moral education, the exposure of the real violence between the simulation, deprives Charlie of “laughter,” which she notices during a love scene with Detective Jack Graham. “I was laughing,” she remarks with surprise. “It’s been so long since I laughed” (1:26:00).

Shadow of a Doubt, therefore, dissolves the distinction between the enlightened protagonist and the bloodthirsty “wound culture” the persisted firmly through Sabotage, North by Northwest, meanwhile, breaks down the distinction between real and simulated violence. The elaborate espionage in which Roger Thornhill becomes unwittingly embroiled is constantly framed as a joke. When cronies of foreign agent Phillip Vandamm apprehend him, an incredulous Thornhill asks, “What is this, a joke or something?” “Yes, we’ll laugh in the car,” one replies.

When Thornhill escapes Vandamm’s clutches, nobody believes his story, including his own mother, who calls it “silly business” (27:40). Thornhill finds himself in an elevator with the two cronies from earlier, and signals to his mother that they tried to kill him. She then turns to them and asks, “You gentlemen aren’t really trying to kill my son, are you?” Their answer, in medium close-up, is laughter. The passengers behind Thornhill also begin to laugh. A cut to Mrs. Thornhill shows her looking out of the frame towards the laughter, then looking towards her son and beginning to laugh herself. Like Mrs. Verloc, Mrs. Thornhill appears to be laughing in order to socialize herself.

By contrast, Thornhill’s sarcastic remarks throughout hit dead air, eliciting neither laughter nor come-backs within the diegesis. His perception of simulation, the crux of his humor, always meets contradiction. The laughter in the elevator, on the other hand, stems from the shared contention that his fear is a “joke.” The “joke,” of course, is completely real – and completely simulated. Vandamm confuses him for George Kaplan, a completely imaginary agent created as a decoy by the US government, and identifies himself as UN assemblyman Lester Townshend. He even meets Thornhill in Townshend’s real home. Thornhill is photographed holding a knife that had just been thrown into the real Townshend’s back, and although he did not actually kill Townshend, he is forced to become a fugitive of the law anyway.

In the famous crop-duster sequence, a farmer at the bus stop where Thornhill came to meet Kaplan remarks, “That’s funny, that plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.” And indeed, the crop-duster is actually trying to kill Thornhill. It fails and crashes into an oil truck, as several locals look on, seemingly hypnotized. The Professor, the mastermind behind George Kaplan, asks at one point after reading about Thornhill’s dilemma in the newspaper, “It’s all so horribly sad, why is it I feel like laughing?” Everything is a joke, and must remain a joke – Vandamm must remain on the trail of the imaginary agent Kaplan – for the Professor’s plans to work.


The Birds

This works on multiple levels, of course, since North by Northwest is — at least for my money — a great comedy, and Cary Grant, as Thornhill, endures all manners of absurd shenanigans for our amusement. Note that the “joke” on Thornhill always has an audience — in the elevator and in the cornfield, for example — and once he becomes aware of the simulated nature of the espionage, he exploits violent spectacle to his advantage. As the exploded gas truck burns, Thornhill joins four onlookers in medium shot, but as they gravitate towards the explosion like moths to light, he moves in the opposite direction, and steals one of their trucks.

Their directional opposition foregrounds Thornhill’s privileged awareness of the violence in the simulation — and the simulation in the violence. When he encounters Vandamm at an auction, Vandamm accuses him of “overplay[ing] your various roles,” prompting him to do exactly that, disrupting the auction and getting into a fight specifically so police will haul him away. The crowd laughs at his idiotic spectacle until the violence breaks out. Later, secret agent Eve Kendall shoots Thornhill in the middle of a Mt. Rushmore cafeteria. We are as shocked as the gathered onlookers; we only find out later that she shot him with a blank. Suddenly, our status as privileged spectators comes into question: we are as vulnerable to tenuous distinction between real and simulated violence as Thornhill’s diegetic audience.

The films that follow North by Northwest, then, revisit the problematic of the audience that laughs during the Disney cartoon in Sabotage by posing themselves as that cartoon, and us as its audience. As Marion has dinner with Norman in Psycho, he comments that she eats “like a bird,” and the stuffed falcon that looms over their meal foreshadows her death at his hands only ten minutes later. Up until this point, Marion is our primary entry point into the film’s diegesis, an aspect only exacerbated by the interior monologue we hear as she approaches the Bates motel.

Our identification continues through the killing itself, as a shot-reverse-shot alternation between Marion’s close-up and the shower-head continues even after she dies. Hitchcock becomes Thornhill, and we become his audience, deliberately shocked into collective trauma. This twist has rightfully ascended as the pinnacle of manipulation in the cinema. Because we identify so distinctly with Marion, her death registers as ours, and appropriately, the camera floats spectrally afterward before finding a new vessel of identification.

The real and the simulated become one and the same, and Hitchcock dares us to laugh about that. The Birds dramatizes this by realizing the message to Mr. Verloc portending that “the Birds Will Sing at 1:45″. The bird, the object of violent erotics from Sabotage, has emerged fully from simulation and turned on The Birds‘ Bodega Bay. The location is, however, largely incidental: the victims of avian onslaught are us, finally incurring the wrath of our own violent fascination. And that, it seems, is no laughing matter.