Alfred Hitchcock's Funny Side

The Master of Suspense Was Also the Master of Subtle, Dark Humor

We know what you're thinking: Alfred Hitchcock's comedy movies? That can't be right... can it? While the original master of suspense was not known for making comedies, Hitchcock was undeniably a fan of macabre and often ludicrous scenarios.

Much of his work, in fact, contains a subtle layer of dark humor that is impossible to ignore. Hitchcock himself once famously quipped, "For me, suspense doesn't have any value if it's not balanced by humor."

The following Hitchcock classics were made during the famous director's golden period when he commanded total creative freedom and his biggest budgets, the brightest celebrities, and lots of subdued laughter.

In fact, it's a shame that his epic film "North by Northwest," which climaxes on the faces of Mount Rushmore, didn't retain its original title: "The Man in Lincoln's Nose."

"Rear Window" (1954)

Rear Window cover

The light-hearted romance of James Stewart and Grace Kelly takes a side seat to some peculiar happenings in the apartment building across the way. The wonderful Thelma Ritter provides extra fun as the trio attempts to solve "a murder?" in this richly satisfying tale and remarkable study of the connection between voyeurism and cinema. A true original, it has long been my favorite of ALL movies.

"To Catch a Thief" (1955)

To Catch a Thief cover

Hitchcock's dream couple, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, are involved in a cat burglar caper on the French Riviera. One of the lushest of Hollywood movies with expensive settings and a jewel of a script by John Michael Hayes. The witty dialogue is a joy to hear, almost musical, crackling with elegance and charm.

"The Trouble With Harry" (1955)

The Trouble With Harry cover

What's up with Harry? Just that. He's dead and his body keeps popping up. This film has a wry British feel in its pacing and tone, a bit like the Ealing Studios classics of the period ("Kind Hearts and Coronets," "The Ladykillers"), more farce than fierce. Edmund Gwenn and John Forsythe team with newcomer Shirley MacLaine.

"Psycho" (1960)

Scene from Psycho

Hitchcock's personal challenge to make an A-list picture on a shoestring budget became a cultural phenomenon and one of the most influential movies ever. The spooky tale of Marion Crane and Norman Bates is also a very dark comedy stuffed with hilarious foreshadowing (once you know the plot) and sleight-of-hand.

In breaking one film taboo, Paramount worried more about the toilet than the violence. If you're still doubting whether or not Psycho can be called a comedy, consider what Hitchcock himself had to say about the film: 'I was horrified to find some people took it seriously."

"North by Northwest" (1959)

Scene from North By Northwest

The big one. A sprawling adventure with deadly spies chasing Wrong Man Cary Grant, who shows his comic strengths from suave to slapstick. A perfect blend of humor and intrigue, the film, an obvious blueprint for the James Bond and Indiana Jones series, gets better with each viewing. The last shot, a speeding train entering a tunnel, is inspired innuendo and, amazingly, it slipped by the censors.

"Mr. and Mrs. Smith" (1941)

Mr & Mrs. Smith poster


A real curiosity, the great director's only traditional comedy feature. It's the full-speed screwball lark Hitchcock reluctantly made as a favor to his friend, actress Carole Lombard. Nothing frightening happens here, except Lombard discovers her marriage to Robert Montgomery is not legal.

"The Lady Vanishes" (1938)

Scene from the Lady Vanishes

A train headed for England is delayed by an avalanche. While waiting to be dug out from under a torrent of snow, a woman traveling alone discovers that the sweet old lady she'd been talking to has suddenly vanished without a trace. The fact that none of the other travelers remembers seeing the old woman at all causes confusion and mystery.

Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave star as a pair of travelers who work together to figure out what's going on, and their delightful bickering and distinctly British style of snark provide the comedy in this comedy-thriller hybrid.

"The 39 Steps" (1935)

Poster for The 39 Steps

The Hitchcock Zone

Hitchcock's 18th film, and one of his biggest box office successes, follows the standard British spy-chase suspense genre, yet the humor comes in the witty repartee between the characters.

While on vacation in London, Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat) finds himself entangled in an international spy ring. He is also falsely accused of killing agent Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), sending him on the run in a race against time to clear his name and solve the mystery of "The 39 Steps."

"The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956)

Poster for The Man Who Knew Too Much


While vacationing in Morocco, an American doctor (James Stewart) and his wife (Doris Day) and son witness a murder and unwittingly discover a nefarious murder plot. When their son is kidnapped, the couple must solve the mystery.

"Family Plot" (1976)

Poster for Family Plot


While not one of Hitchcock's better received films, "Family Plot" contains perhaps his most blatant attempts at dark humor. Barbara Harris plays Blanche, a fraud of a psychic who is hired by an elderly lady to find her long-lost nephew. Blanche and her husband George (Bruce Dern) track down the adult nephew but find that his checkered past makes him far less than amenable to a reunion.

Sometimes movie-making magic goes wrong. VERY wrong!