Black Comedy is a revealing and subtle genre strand of comedy. A good dark comedy movie manages the difficult task of blending the dark and twisted with the hilarious, often delivering both at the same time. If you’re watching a black comedy and laughing your head off – but feeling horribly guilty about it – or laughing out of panic – seeking your own means of tension release, then you are at the mercy of that successfully delivered balance.
This list is a guide to some essential films in the genre. They are important films of the genre because they establish a set standard or infuse its conventions in unique ways. They may not be the greatest films ever made but they are prime examples of how the genre works and are a great starting point for anyone looking to see the different kinds of films this genre has to offer; some subtle, some in your face, some lurid – but always hilarious.
1. Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
Charlie Chaplin’s first film not featuring his iconic ‘Tramp’ persona is a black comic treat. Based on an idea by Orson Welles, “Monsieur Verdoux” follows bank teller Henri Verdoux (Chaplin) who has been laid off after thirty years’ service. To support his wife and child who he loves dearly, he marries and murders a series of wealthy widows.
Before “Kind Hearts and Coronets” made the act of murdering many a fun affair, Chaplin hilariously reveled the task in a bold outing after finally leaving his classic Tramp character behind. While some might not be ready for it yet at the time, “Monsieur Verdoux” has aged remarkably well, revealing a dark side of the famous auteur and comedian.
The film is not without Chaplin’s usual social and political commentary as seen in earlier works such as “Modern Times” and “The Great Dictator”, here Chaplin is able to voice his views on crime and punishment during Veroux’s trial when he dismisses his killing of a few, for which he has been condemned, as no worse than the killing of many in war. While his finest work was in the silent age, “Monsieur Verdoux” is a deliciously dark treat for fans of both black comedy and the man himself.
2. Kind Hearts And Coronets (1949)
Undoubtedly this is one of the finest black comedies ever made. The film is presented as the memoirs of Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), an impoverished, dapper gentleman in Edwardian Britain, who plots to inherit the title and riches of the Duke by murdering the eight members of the D’Ascoyne Family who stand in succession to the title before him.
The film is iconic for its fun and mesmerizing performances from Alec Guinness who portrays all eight heirs (one of which being a Lady Suffragette). It is not laugh-out-loud comedy, but delivers a biting wit that often leaves you wondering whether you should be laughing at all.
Screenwriter Robert Harmer takes seeming delight in the witty and clever dialogue, culminating in an astonishing minimalist performance from Price who carries the film as the very likeable and cunning murderer. He draws sympathy and delight to his cause, as the audience reveling with each murder. Part social satire and part murder farce, “Kind Hearts and Coronets” is a terrific product of Britain’s famous Ealing Studios.
3. The Trouble With Harry (1955)
You may be surprised to hear that the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock, tried his hands at a little comedy, delivering this wickedly dark comedy about four residents of a small Vermont village who end up working together to solve the problem of what to do with Harry…. the corpse of a man found in the hillside.
The film is essentially a romantic comedy presented in bright techni-color, with an undertone of the classic Hitchcock thriller. The devilish director implores his staple Macguffin in the form of the body while the bigger story sees the four pairing off and falling in love. “The Trouble With Harry” lies in stark contrast with the rest of Hitchcock’s iconic filmography, but it shows the director can handle a little heart and humor when he wants to.
4. The Ladykillers (1955)
Another defining film of the genre and a classic Ealing Studios production, “The Ladykillers” can give any modern comedy a run for its money. The film follows a group of thugs headed by Alec Guinness’ Professor Marcus, who rent rooms in the house of a sweet widow while they execute a robbery at the nearby Kings Cross Station. When the widow discovers the loot and threatens to go to the police, the criminals decide she must be dealt with.
The film delivers great performances from Guinness, Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom (the latter two becoming the future pairing in “The Pink Panther” series) and other seasoned British actors with a balance of witty dialogue and humorous sight gags. Perfectly paced and executed, “The Ladykillers” is simply brilliant filmmaking that leaves you wanting more.
5. Dr Strangelove: Or ‘How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb’ (1964)
Widely considered to be one of the greatest black comedies of all time, “Dr. Strangelove” came at the height of Cold War tension, boldly illustrated the ridiculousness the many strategies involved in avoiding any major conflict.
The film was adapted from the novel ‘Code Red’, a nuclear war thriller, by Peter George. When Kubrick came along and saw how absurd it sounded, the tone of the film as born. ‘Dr. Strangelove” centers on a paranoid military general who dispatched orders for a nuclear attack and the subsequent rush to stop it. Satirizing the tension between the US and the Soviet Union, “Dr. Strangelove” would be Kubrick’s only real comedy.
Kubrick’s’ reveled in the experience of directing a comedy, employing many sight gags amongst his trademark meticulousness in both storytelling and style. With a tour de force performance from Peter Sellers in three roles, “Dr. Strangelove stands as one of the greatest satires ever made and is a truly ageless masterpiece.
6. M*A*S*H (1970)
The perfect complimentary film to “Catch-22”, “MASH” follows a group of medical personnel stationed at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) during the Korean War.
The delightful dark comedy sees the troops trying to keep themselves together at a time of horrific war. The film still holds up as an illustration of the complete insanity of war. The film was considered gruesomely bloody, yet ironically there were no battlefield scenes.
This can be due to Robert Altman’s spot on direction of atmosphere, with the horror of war portrayed with a subtle blend of a very human sense of humor. From the opening shots we feel the slow mood of the film, yet if we look a little closer, we see comedy and havoc all around. It is a real, moving watch.