That Tell-Tale Cough in the Movies

Before the big romance scene, no one in the movies has to brush their teeth first to suppress halitosis. Before the big action scene, the hero never needs a pee break. And Henry Fonda, as the President, never passes gas.

The side-effect of the general exclusion of such realities of human biology from film is that when one of them appears, an experienced film goer knows it’s highly significant. One such example I have noticed a number of times is that if a movie character coughs for no apparent reason, they are going to die before the credits roll.


I was watching Finding Neverland the other day. “Good movie” I thought as I watched, “but I wonder where the plot is going”.

And then Kate Winslet coughed.

The next hour unfolded entirely as expected. She died, Depp grieved.

Ditto the post-hack Julianne Moore in End of the Affair.

I am sure there are other instances of this phenomenon in the movies. It now awaits for some self-referential film buff director to *really* fool us by having a character cough for no good reason and then survive the movie in perfect health.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

19 thoughts on “That Tell-Tale Cough in the Movies”

  1. The only movie coughs I remember are Garbo in Camille and John Hurt in Alien. They died.

  2. I’m pretty sure that static on any electronic instruments means an alien invasion is imminent.

  3. Denzel Washington in the stellar if under-the-radar Spike Lee film “Inside Man” gts caught in a nasty cough mid-line, says “Excuse me” and then continues the line. He doesn’t die but that’s because cough was probably unintended. Denzel probably had an itch in his throat that day. Props to Spike Lee for including the take. The scene just looks natural.

    1. Pretty good resource!

      “Before Sunrise” with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy seems to violate many of the Rules of Drama (it is worth clicking on the link “for adding drama”). When first watching it, I was not really able to enjoy it because I kept waiting for Something Awful To Happen, as the Rules dictate must happen. The couple walks around town late at night, including in some dark and secluded places, and just when The Axe Murderer or The Psychopathic Slasher should emerge from the shadows, an itinerant street poet appears instead. Penniless, they sneak off to spend the night in the park together, and in the morning they are unharmed and just fine.

      I had to watch the movie a second time to enjoy the fact that Richard Linklater had decided to violate every known rule of filmmaking and tell a sweet story where Nothing Horrific Happens. (The film did have the Sequel Hook, though.)

  4. I saw a Bosnian film the other day (Grabavica) and realized that the director must not have received the list of movie cliches when he went to director school. Early in the movie a teenaged boy pulls out a loaded pistol he’s stolen in order to impress a girl, and after some target practice in an abandoned building, she persuades him to give it to her “for safekeeping” = and by the end of the movie, no one has been shot!

  5. TV critics have taken to referring to it as “Chekhov’s ______ [cough, sneeze, nosebleed, whatever]”, off the old comment from Anton Chekhov that if you introduce a gun in the first act it had better go off by the third. The previous season of “Breaking Bad” had a good time with this when one character (*not* the main protagonist who already has lung cancer) coughed in an early episode and viewers/commenters went crazy wondering when the cough would show that the character is sick. He never did (at least not yet).

  6. The one movie I can think of that takes this cliche and inadvertently turns it on its head is “The Brothers Lionheart”. We are being introduced to the terminally ill Skorpan, who does have a really bad cough. But after that, well … let’s just say that the story turns out to be a bit more complicated.

  7. The same principal holds true for a woman with an upset stomach – it never fails to be the first sign of pregnancy.

  8. Film/video is such a low-bandwidth medium (yes, really — 20 or 30 pages of really good text, e.g. Joyce’s The Dead, is all that fits in two hours of quality film-making) that it could hardly be otherwise.

  9. I recall watching “Jezabelle” for the first time and seeing Henry Fonda swat that mosquito. I said, “uh-oh.”

  10. In Jezebel they used a mosquito bite. It was quite a pot boiler, and despite reform and charity work, Bette Davis had to be punished, I think, for wearing a red dress. A friend of mine explained it to me once.

    Ransom was my favorite movie for bringing cannons on stage and wheeling them off. In fact, most of the movie consists of them doing this so by the time they actually fire one of the cannons, you’ve lost interest.

  11. I may have found your "self-referential film buff director".

    I just watched Spike Lee's "Inside Man" again, for the second time. It's a great movie. (Ironically, I was looking to see if there'd been an RBC review of it, and this post was the first to show up on the Google results.)

    Denzel Washington coughs prominently for no reason, about 85 minutes into the 110 minute film, while he's discussing possible perpetrators with his superior at the police. It's not clear to me if it was scripted or if Denzel merely had to clear his throat. But it does amount to nothing.

Comments are closed.