Humor is a delicate thing. Like blowing on a thistle blossom, one whiff of analysis makes it dissipate into the wind.
But theories of humor abound. Plato and Aristotle maintained that humor was rooted in a sense of superiority over the object of laughter. This kind of humor doesn’t interest me one bit, and it really is not what Alfred Hitchcock used in his movies either.
Two other theories are more satisfactory when you think of Hitchcock films. One is the laughter of relief.
This is definitely one of the devices used by Hitchcock. Think of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the second version starring James Stewart. Remember when he is walking on nearly deserted streets in London, going to meet the mysterious Ambrose Chappel, and footsteps are heard behind him? The footsteps gain on him and gain on him; the camera shots are close in to James Stewart’s face, registering his fear and building the tension that he is about to be attacked. Camera shots show only the feet of his pursuer until he comes up even with Stewart, and then the camera draws back to show an innocuous-looking, tall, thin man passing Stewart and giving him a puzzled sort of look, sort of, “Why do you keep looking back at me?” Whew! We let out a nervous giggle and wait for the next wave of tension to build.
In this case the footsteps set up the next scene, in which Stewart encounters the man again inside the “Ambrose Chappel” business. And that scene is a perfect representation of the second theory of humor, which is that of a sense of the ridiculous, used often by Hitchcock.
James Stewart is trying to rescue his kidnapped little boy. He knows “Ambrose Chappel” has something to do with the kidnapping. He has tracked this person down to an address in London and he goes there to try to negotiate. But Ambrose Chappel turns out to be a taxidermist, without an idea in the world of what James Stewart is going on about. James Stewart in turn thinks Chappel is trying to stall, trying to get a bigger ransom. The man who had been walking behind Stewart in the street is Chappel Jr. [And he is played by a friend of mine, the late Richard Wordsworth.] Suddenly James Stewart reaches his limit of frustration and begins to try to fight with all the workers in the shop, and they scramble to and fro with parts of animals in their arms, trying to protect their taxidermy projects from this madman. It is hilarious (you have to see it—like I said, an analysis ruins the laughter). The scene is ridiculous in the extreme. It is exactly what Hitchcock excelled in.
Think of the handcuffs scene in The 39 Steps when Margaret Lockwood’s and Michael Redgrave’s characters tie themselves in knots trying to maneuver in a cramped space. It is silly—absurd—and it works beautifully.
Hitchcock turned taxidermy to even greater ridiculous effect in the black humor of Psycho, in which the audience is made to think Norman Bates’s mother is a vicious murderer, hiding in the basement. So where does the snoopy investigator go? To the basement! The audience is shrieking, “Don’t go in the basement!” but he goes anyway. And Mother rushes out and stabs him. Near the end of the film, another investigator goes in the basement. He sees the old woman sitting in a chair facing the corner. The tension is high—surely she will jump up and rush him with a knife! He slowly turns the swivel chair around. The old woman has been stuffed! Norman has practiced his taxidermy on his own mother! But the taxidermy is terrible! Norman is the worst taxidermist imaginable! And Hitchcock is the master of black humor!
It is only on a second viewing of Psycho that most of us can afford to laugh. The first viewing is filled with squirming tension, starting with those shrieking violins and the juxtaposition of ultra-normal things suddenly turning terrifying. But that is the genius of Alfred Hitchcock’s humor: the same things that turn suddenly from normal to scary turn also to laughter.
Think of the scene in Notorious when Ingrid Bergman is clutching the key to the wine cellar as she greets her party guests, all of whom are enemies to her and Cary Grant, to whom she needs to pass the key. The camera pans from high above the party scene down to her nervous hand with the key in it. The audience is made to feel that terrible things are just about to happen, but this is a party and parties are supposed to be enjoyable.
The normality of the party turning to tension is turned to a laugh of relief and back again in a cycle when Cary Grant gets the key, finds the wine cellar, hides from the servant, breaks a bottle, and discovers it’s the uranium they were after. But none of this matters!
The real drama is whether Ingrid Bergman will escape from Claude Rains and his mother and their henchmen, or whether they will succeed in killing her by slow poison. So the whole discovery of the uranium becomes an absurdity that we can laugh at in our second viewing of the film while we concentrate on how Devlin gets Alicia out of the trap he’s put her in.
The ending of Notorious is replete with the humor of relief. Devlin and Sebastian supporting Alicia down the long, long staircase, with enemies above and below, brings the tension to its height. In addition, Claude Rains has made his portrayal of Sebastian sympathetic enough that we are both relieved and shocked when he’s left behind to deal with his forced betrayal.
Hitchcock used a lot of humor of the absurd in Rear Window. Because every shot in the film concerns the point of view of James Stewart’s photographer character (Jeff), Hitchcock could and did use considerable humor in disclosing the other occupants of the apartment block across the central courtyard. That way he could suddenly switch to one or another of them during suspenseful moments in the ongoing mystery of whether there was or wasn’t a murder in the Thorvaald apartment, thus introducing a light-hearted or silly or sad change of mood to relieve the immediate tension and heighten the overall suspense.
When Hitchcock sends Grace Kelly’s character to retrieve Mrs. Thorvaald’s wedding ring, the tension is extreme, and our laughter very nervous with relief when she safely gets away from the menacing Mr. Thorvaald.
An unintended point of humor in that film is in the casting of Raymond Burr—how could our beloved Perry Mason be a villain? But up to then Burr had made a career of bad guys.
I could go on and on. There are funny scenes and relieved laughter throughout all of Hitchcock’s works. Look for them next time you watch Rope, or Suspicion, or The Trouble with Harry, and especially when you watch Vertigo.
And have fun convincing your friends that Hitchcock’s movies could be filed in the comedy section.