Alfred Hitchcock's 'Bang! You're Dead' Reveals Life in Human 'Vegetables'


Since it first aired in 1961, one particular episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents has lingered in the minds of millions of Americans:

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.

Hitchock directed this episode himself, and it shows.

Not only because it’s a primer in the use of story-boarding and editing to induce tension in viewers, but because, as an Englishman, Hitchcock no doubt looked down on America’s gun culture as crude, juvenile and deeply dangerous.

Another educated guess:

“Bang!” is Hitchcock’s self-imposed penance for widely criticized scenes in two of his films.

Francois Truffaut denounced the shocking bus bombing scene in Sabotage (1936).

Others condemned the climactic scene in the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which a phalanx of unarmed English “bobbies” is unsentimentally shot down in one pitiless sweep.

(Note: Hitchcock’s contempt for the police would make a rapper blush; I’ve always wondered if his justification for that disdain was just a self-serving, apocryphal alibi.)

(And this isn’t the place to do much more than note in passing that the villains in both films were anarchists — the “Muslim terrorists” of Hitchcock’s childhood, but largely anachronistic by the 1930s.)

In any event, it speaks volumes about the power of “Bang! You’re Dead” that that particular 50+ year old, 30-minute long TV episode was chosen as the key component of a potentially game-changing medical experiment.


Paul and Jeff Tremblay (Photograph by Amber Bracken)

Every weekend for over a decade, Paul Tremblay has taken his son Jeff, 35, to the movies. (…)

All this time, Tremblay’s been operating partly on faith. While he’s convinced that Jeff occasionally responds to what’s happening up on the screen—“He’s got a real belly laugh,” he says—he can’t be sure how much his son actually takes in.

When Jeff was 18, he suffered a devastating brain injury after an assault: A kick to the chest sent him into cardiac arrest, temporarily depriving his brain of oxygen.

Since then, Jeff’s been unable to speak, move purposefully, or follow basic commands and cues; he requires round-the-clock care. Even so, week after week, Jeff’s dad keeps taking him to the movies.

Paul Tremblay has never stopped searching for a way to help his son.

When he learned about research being carried out by Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at Western University in London, Ontario, he asked Owen to include Jeff in his studies.

Ironically, Owen’s research into the cognitive abilities of “vegetative” individuals measured their brain activities when they watched movies.

In the new study, published in the journal PNAS, Owen’s team describes showing healthy volunteers and two brain-injured patients, including Jeff (who is not identified in the study), a shortened version of a 1961 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called “Bang! You’re Dead.” Each participant watched the movie inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, which measures brain activity. The healthy volunteers’ brain activity was synchronized to the movie, the study says, suggesting they experienced what they saw in a similar way. Even more remarkable, the same patterns were seen in Jeff. (The other brain-injured patient showed no such response.)

In other words, Jeff’s brain activity suggested he was engaging with the movie as its plot unfolded, following its twists and turns—he was “consciously aware,” as the paper says, despite his injury. Paul Tremblay took it as good news, although he wasn’t surprised. “It was confirmation for me,” he says. “I’d always believed it.”

If a patient like Jeff, who’s been unresponsive since 1997, can follow a movie, then how do we know he isn’t taking in conversations around him, even discussions about treatment—including if, and when, to end it? It’s a disturbing suggestion, one Owen acknowledges will make many people uncomfortable.

“If a patient is able to follow the plot of a movie,” he says, “there is no reason to believe they are not following the plot of their own lives.”

No device is capable of measuring the damage Hitchcock’s “Bang! You’re Dead” has likely had eroding Second Amendment rights in the United States. It’s practically the “Daisy ad” of gun control.

But it’s nice to learn that the episode may also help undermine “progressive” policy regarding the state-sponsored euthanasia of future Terri Schiavo.

Hitchcock’s uncharacteristically straight-faced intro to “Bang!…” seems to suggest that he wanted his little movie to save lives.

Over half a century later, maybe it will, in a manner he could never have anticipated.

But that’s art for you, even middlebrow popular art: the creator can never be certain that his creation won’t take on a life of its own.

A song, a movie, a book, a television show — they’re like that stolen gun. Once it’s out of your hands, all bets are off.

Then again, Hitchcock’s primary motive for shooting “Bang! Your Dead” was probably to do what he did best: manipulating our brains through our eyeballs for an hour or two.

Somehow I doubt he was driven by any abiding concern for the well-being of youngsters…

Bill Mumy, who was about age 7 when the episode was filmed, related in an interview that he had trouble hitting his mark so that he stayed within the key lighting on the set. According to Mumy, Hitchcock became so frustrated that he took Mumy aside and quietly said words to the effect of, “If you can’t stay in your proper place on the set, we’ll get a nail and put it through your foot, and blood will come pouring out like milk.”