When Alfred Hitchcock Pushed for Gun Control

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Slate's Culture Blog
May 15 2013 4:54 PM

When Hitchcock Pushed for Gun Control

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Alfred Hitchcock in the epilogue for "A Bullet for Baldwin" from Alfred Hitchcock Presents

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Each news cycle is replete with Twilight Zone comparisons. With incessant surveillance, melting planets, and robot warfare consuming headlines, there’s no shortage of potential comparisons.

But following the recent wave of accidental shootings at the hands of children—culminating in the heart-wrenching story of a sibling fatality in south-central Kentucky from a gun marketed for children as “My First Rifle”—there’s another classic TV show that applies to a chilling degree: Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

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The episode “Bang! You’re Dead,” which originally aired in 1961 and can be viewed in full online, tracks an afternoon of agonizing roulette. A young boy replaces the toy gun in his holster with the real revolver he finds in his uncle’s suitcase, which he partially loads with live rounds. For a pulse-pounding afternoon, the boy waltzes around town, slipping through each townsperson’s grip as he plays cowboy. “Stick ’em up!” he orders. Friends and neighbors all bashfully obey, teasing out the boy’s joke—and the audience’s horror.

The episode, the last Hitchcock directed himself, opens with the trigger-happy boy ogling over the birthday present of a neighborhood trendsetter—a strikingly realistic six-shooter, complete with a “whole boxful” of bullets, which the boys loads into the revolving chamber with tongue-curl concentration. He then sizes up the chintzy hardware on the half-pint’s hip. “What a cheesy gun,” he sneers, crushing his admirer’s hopes and prompting a search for a more convincing sidearm.

I confess a certain familiarity with that dismissiveness. When I was 10, a friend and I would cover his parents’ garage floor with newspapers and spray-paint our cap guns black, transforming “safety”-colored pieces of plastic (maroon, as I recall) into our own eerie Uzis. Fortunately we were only goofing around in forest preserves, not shoving live rounds in the face of the woman dishing out free samples at the grocery store.

“Bang!” is ostensibly Hitchcock’s corrective to the infamous bus bombing scene in his 1936 film Sabotage, a sequence so explosive Francois Truffaut dubbed it “an abuse of cinematic power” during his extensive interviews with Hitchcock at Universal Studios in 1962. Hitchcock agreed and expressed his regrets. The sequence violated his own “bomb under the table” aphorism, which went like so: The audience should know from the start that there’s a bomb beneath the table, thus ratcheting up the tension with each passing moment as the unsuspecting victims at the table blather on, obliviously. The key, Hitchcock felt, was that the bomb must never go off.

Looking back over a career chronicling villainy, guns play a surprisingly secondary role in Hitchcock’s work. He preferred weapons demanding proximity—knives, neckties, a good old-fashioned push—over firepower. And like the bomb under the table, he clearly preferred that guns not go off either, judging by his sobering epilogue to “Bang,” in which he drops his “usual flippancy” to address parents directly about the importance of keeping guns from children.

For those in a more macabre mood, however, there’s always the epilogue to the 1956 episode “A Bullet for Baldwin,” in which Hitch brandishes a large handgun. “It’s an amazingly simple device,” he deadpans. “An idiot can operate it. And indeed, many do.”