Film Studies

The Fine Art of Murderous Comedy

Murder Most…Funny?
4 Tuesdays, November 12 to December 3, 6:30 pm to 9:30 pm  
Instructor: Andrew Owen, Ph.D., Department of Sociology, Lebanon Valley College

“Murder can be an art! A murderer can be an artist.”

—  Agatha Christie, Cards on the Table, 1936

Thomas De Quincey, with typical sardonic wit, expressed similar sentiments in his 1827 essay, “On Murder”, observing that, although the murderous art must inevitably be understood as immoral, its artistry nevertheless may still be appreciated by the discerning connoisseur, encouraging the reader to take his hand and wander through such a gallery of gruesomeness in delighted admiration. Concomitant to such endeavors, this course dedicates itself to the analysis of some of the masters of cinematic criminality, focusing on those whose brushwork effortlessly combines the macabre with the comedic. They are proponents of a school identified by André Breton in 1939 as black comedy—artists whose depiction of crimes ultimately serves to produce a satiric indictment of the so-called civilized society that, at times, condemns them.

In exploring the literary and cinematic traditions of black comedy, we will focus on the murderous aesthetics found in Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), and Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939). As exemplars of the genre they are unmatched—peerless in their derision of sentimentality’s artifice, allowing the enthusiast to delight in their twisted criticism of a society trembling in the run-up to, or aftermath of, the 20th century’s second global conflict. These films depict savage cultural landscapes, war profiteers, and cowardly upper classes, but do so in a way that will leave you with a smile on your face . . . and a furrow on your brow.

Course Information

Location: Multimedia Room

$100 for members, $125 for non-members

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  • Tuesday, November 12 · 6:30 pm
  • Tuesday, November 19 · 6:30 pm
  • Tuesday, November 26 · 6:30 pm
  • Tuesday, December 3 · 6:30 pm