Dying of Laughter: Death and Humor on the Big Screen

The Thin Man movie poster
Introducing Nick and Nora!
When was the last time you laughed at a funeral? OK, maybe that’s an unfair question, but I’m making a point. In the annals of film, television, and literature, humor and death often go hand in hand. It has been defined as “black comedy” or as the French say, humour noir. This type of comedy has also been referred to as “gallows humor,” because it’s making light of a very serious situation.

In doing my research for this post, I found more material than I could possible use in this series of articles, so I’m just going to talk about the movies I like best. You can tell me about your favorites in the comments!

For three days after death, hair and fingernails continue to grow but phone calls taper off. —Johnny Carson

Way back in 1939, William Powell and Myrna Loy starred in The Thin Man, based on Dashiell Hammett’s book. The movie was a huge success and even though Hammett never wrote another book about the light-hearted couple solving mysteries, there were five movie sequels starring “Your Favorite Mister and Missus,” according to the movie poster. People loved the couple so much they were convinced they were really married.

Nick is a hard-nosed PI who mended his ways after wedding the lovely Nora. When a friend of the couple’s disappears and the gentleman’s girlfriend is found murdered, Nick is recruited to solve the crime while Nora cheers him on and enjoys the thrill of a murder mystery.

The dumber people think you are, the more surprised they’re going to be when you kill them. —William Clayton

Arsenic and Old Lace movie poster
Not your average family reunion.
The comedy is bumped up a notch with Cary Grant’s Mortimer Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace, which was released in 1944 and directed by Frank Capra. That alone makes me laugh.  When I think of Capra, I remember It’s a Wonderful Life and It Happened One Night, or maybe Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But Capra saw a movie in the original Broadway play of Arsenic and Old Lace, and he was right on. Like most comedies of this nature, it builds the laughter by giving the star one problem on a top of another and it’s fun for all of us to enjoy it because, hey, it’s not happening to us.

Mortimer comes home to introduce his new bride to the maiden aunts who raised him and discovers his brother thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt and there’s a body in the window seat, which he fears is Teddy’s doing. His distress increases, however, when he discovers his aunts are poisoning lonely old men as part of their “charity” work.

The ensuing insanity keeps you laughing until the movie’s final line when Mortimer is thrilled to discover he’s not . . . well, I’d better not give that away.

Much can be accomplished with a smile. More can be accomplished with a smile and a gun. —Al Capone

Some Like It Hot movie posterI don’t think anyone will argue with me when I say Billy Wilder was a genius, and Some Like It Hot, released in 1959, was a work of art. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon played Joe and Jerry, unfortunate witnesses to a mob murder who have to leave town quickly. They dress as women and join an all-woman band to “hide in plain sight.” The complications pile up as Joe falls in love with Sugar, played by the wonderful Marilyn Monroe. Of course Jerry’s romance with Osgood Fielding III (the delightful Joe E. Brown) can’t be discounted either. So while these to cross dressers are chasing love, the criminals are chasing them. Be careful, there is a chance you’ll die laughing watching this one.

Death, the one appointment we must all keep, and for which no time is set. —Charlie Chan

You can’t mention great movies of the 60s without talking about the Pink Panther series, which was directed by Blake Edwards and starred Peter Sellers. In 1964, A Shot in the Dark came out and was one of the best in this series. Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Sellers) is called to the country home of a wealthy Parisian businessman whose chauffeur has been killed. The driver had been having an affair with the maid, played by Elke Sommer. Everything points to her guilt, but Clouseau is attracted to her and refuses to believe it. The real murderer is forced to keep killing to stay hidden. Much mirth and death ensue. Clouseau is even arrested himself on four occasions.

I’m trying to die correctly, but it’s very difficult, you know. —Lawrence Durrell

High Anxiety movie poster
Nobody does it better.
High Anxiety (1977) was the first movie Mel Brooks produced where he assembled what became his trademark cast, including Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, and Cloris Leachman. Brooks played Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke, the new head administrator of the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. Not only is he trying to treat patients’ problems, he suffers from high anxiety himself. He is framed for murder and has to overcome his own fears (while being forced to stay on the top floor of the Hyatt Regency San Francisco) to prove his innocence. There’s no shortage of laughs in this film. I think you’ll have to watch it more than once to catch all the gags.

Either he’s dead or my watch has stopped. —Groucho Marx

And then there is Weekend at Bernie’s (1989). When two low-ranking insurance company employees discover a big scam among their tons of paperwork, their boss, Bernie Lomax (Terry Kiser) invites them to his Long Island mansion for a weekend of partying as a reward. When Larry (Andrew McCarthy) and Richard (Jonathan Silverman) realize the people arriving to party at Bernie’s don’t even notice he’s dead, they carry the corpse around all weekend so the party continues. The hapless hit man who actually killed Bernie becomes overwrought trying to ensure the greedy insurance man is dead. This movie is one belly laugh after another.

The idea is to die young as late as possible. —Ashley Montagu

Drop Dead Gorgeous movie poster
Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse.
In 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous we have a mockumentary: the young girls of Mount Rose, Minnesota, are all abuzz about the Sarah Rose Cosmetics Mount Rose American Teen Princess Pageant. Amber Atkins (Kirstin Dunst) is thrilled to be a part of it to emulate her idols, Diane Sawyer and her mother (Ellen Barkin), who was a former contestant. When the young contestants start dying (one dies on an exploding tractor), Amber decides to back out for fear she’ll be killed. When her trailer home is blown up and her mother has to have a hand amputated because a beer can is melded into it, Amber goes back to the pageant for her mother. Though Amber clearly shines, the richest girl in town actually wins. No surprise there, but what happens next really is.

Death doesn’t bargain. —August Strindberg

I end my little film study with Nurse Betty (2000), a lovely little movie about a woman so traumatized by witnessing her husband’s brutal murder that she escapes into the land of make believe. Betty (Renee Zellweger) has always loved Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear), star of her favorite soap opera and, to her shattered mind, her lost lover. She goes to rejoin him in L.A., but of course, she doesn’t realize her husband’s drugs, the ones sought by hit men (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock), are in the trunk of her Buick. It all adds up to a funny chase.

Well, those are my favorite big screen murder mysteries that include humor. How about yours?

Leigh Neely is a former newspaper and magazine editor. She currently does freelance work, recently had a short story published in the anthology Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices, and is a contributor to the blog WomenofMystery.net.


  1. Laura K. Curtis

    Great list, even if you did leave off my personal favorite…

    Murder by Death.

    If you haven’t seen it, you totally need to!

  2. Deborah Lacy

    This is a great list, I’ve added Drop Dead Gorgeous and Murder By Death to my list of movies to rent…

  3. Laura K. Curtis

    OMG, Deb, I can’t believe you haven’t seen Murder By Death. It’s a parody of every crime movie ever, with a basic plot like 10 Little Indians/And Then There Were None. Only all the people at the party are parodies of famous literary sleuths with names like Sam Diamond and Jessica Marbles. And it has an AMAZING cast. You have to see it!

  4. Deborah Lacy

    @LauraKCurtis – from our description it does sound like I would love it! I think I’ll step up the rental timeline.

  5. Leigh

    Somehow I missed these comments earlier. Thanks for the kind words and the suggestions. I’ve seen “Murder by Death” and loved it, Laura. It was truly difficult to pick the movies because there are so many good ones.

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