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Point of View Editing
Jimmy Stewart looks at dog and then we see him smiling. Jimmy Stewart looks at a woman undressing and then we see him smiling. Those two smiles have completely different meanings, even if they are the exact same smile.
Putting an idea into the mind of the character without explaining it in dialogue is done by using a point-of-view shot sequence. This is subjective cinema. You take the eyes of the characters and add something for them to look at.
- Start with a close-up of the actor
- Cut to a shot of what they're seeing
- Cut back to the actor to see his reaction
- Repeat as desired
You can edit back and forth between the character and the subject as many times as you want to build tension. The audience won't get bored. This is the most powerful form of cinema, even more important than acting. To take it even further have the actor walk toward the subject. Switch to a tracking shot to show his changing perspective as he walks. The audience will believe they are sharing something personal with the character. This is what Hitchcock calls "pure cinema." (Truffaut)
Note: If another person looks at the character in point-of-view they must look directly at the camera.
Montage Gives You Control
Divide action into a series of close-ups shown in succession. Don't avoid this basic technique. This is not the same as throwing together random shots into a fight sequence to create confusion. Instead, carfully chose a close-up of a hand, an arm, a face, a gun falling to the floor - tie them all together to tell a story. In this way you can portray an event by showing various pieces of it and having control over the timing. You can also hide parts of the event so that the mind of the audience is engaged. (Truffaut)
Hitchcock said this was "transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience." (Schickel) The famous shower scene in Psycho uses montage to hide the violence. You never see the knife hitting Janet Leigh. The impression of violence is done with quick editing, and the killing takes place inside the viewer's head rather than the screen. Also important is knowing when not to cut. (Truffaut)
Basic rule: anytime something important happens, show it in a close-up. Make sure the audience can see it.
Keep the Story Simple!
If your story is confusing or requires a lot of memorization, you're never going to get suspense out of it. The key to creating that raw Hitchcock energy is by using simplistic, linear stories that the audience can easily follow. Everything in your screenplay must be streamlined to offer maximum dramatic impact. Remove all extraneous material and keep it crisp. Each scene should include only those essential ingredients that make things gripping for the audience. As Hitchcock says, "what is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out..." (Truffaut)
An abstract story will bore the audience. This is why Hitchcock tended to use crime stories with spies, assassinations, and people running from the police. These sort of plots make it easy to play on fear, but are not mandatory for all movies.
Characters Must Break Cliche
Make all of your characters the exact opposite of what the audience expects in a movie. Turn dumb blondes into smart blondes, give the Cuban guy a French accent, and the criminals must be rich and successful. They should have unexpected personalities, making decisions on a whim rather than what previous buildup would suggest. These sort of ironic characters make them more realistic to the audience, and much more ripe for something to happen to them.
Hitchcock criminals tend to be wealthy upper class citizens whom you'd never suspect, the policeman and politicians are usually the bumbling fools, the innocent are accused, and the villains get away with everything because nobody suspects them. They surprise you at every step of the plot.
Use Humor to Add Tension
Humor is essential to Hitchcock storytelling. Pretend you are playing a practical joke on the main character of your movie. Give him the most ironic situations to deal with. It's the unexpected gag, the coincidence, the worst possible thing that can go wrong - all can be used to build tension.
In Marnie, Tippi Hedren is stealing money from an office safe and is just about to leave when she notices the maid happens to be cleaning in the next room. The maid is completely innocent and unaware. Hedren will get caught if the maid sees her, but the audience is already hoping that she gets away with it. The more happily the maid mops the floor and the closer she gets to seeing Hedren, the higher the tension.
You'll also find that Hitchcock tended to use comical old women to add a flavor of innocent humor in his films. They will usually be opinionated, chatty, and have a highly optimistic view about crime. If someone were committing a crime they might even help with it!
Two Things Happening at Once
Build tension into a scene by using contrasting situations. Use two unrelated things happening at once. The audience should be focused on the momentum of one, and be interrupted by the other. Usually the second item should be a humorous distraction that means nothing (this can often be dialogue.) It was put there by you only to get in the way.
When unexpected guests arrive at the hotel room in the Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day are in the midst of a tense phone-call. The arrival of the guests laughing and joking serve a dramatic counterpoint to the real momentum of the scene. In Spellbound (1945) Ingrid Bergman sees a note which has been slipped under her door. Just when she grabs for it, her colleagues walk in and speak with her about the dissapearance of Gregory Peck, completely unaware they are standing on top of the note from him! The end result is - the audience pays more attention to what's happening.
Suspense is Information
"Information" is essential to Hitchcock suspense; showing the audience what the characters don't see. If something is about to harm the characters, show it at beginning of the scene and let the scene play out as normal. Constant reminders of this looming danger will build suspense. But remember -the suspense is not in the mind of the character. They must be completely unaware of it. (Schickel, Truffaut)
In Family Plot (1976) Hitchcock shows the audience that brake fluid is leaking out of a car well before the characters find out about it. In Psycho (1960) we know about the crazy mother before the detective (Martin Balsam) does, making the scene in which Balsam enters the house one of the most suspenseful scenes in Hitchcock's career.
"The essential fact is to get real suspense you must let the audience have information." --Alfred Hitchcock
Surprise and Twist
Once you've built your audience into gripping suspense it must never end the way they expect. The bomb must never go off! Lead them in one direction and then pull the rug out from under them in a surprise twist.
In the climax scene of Saboteur (1942) Norman Lloyd is cornered on the top of the Statue of Liberty as Robert Cummings holds him at gunpoint. Just when you think it's over, Cummings begins to speak, startling Lloyd to fall backwards over the edge!
Warning: May Cause MacGuffin
The MacGuffin is the side effect of creating pure suspense. When scenes are built around dramatic tension, it doesn't really matter what the story is about. If you've done your job and followed all the previous steps, the audience is still glued no matter what. You can use random plot devices known as the MacGuffin.
The MacGuffin is nothing. The only reason for the MacGuffin is to serve a pivotal reason for the suspense to occur. (Schickel) It could be something as vague as the "government secrets perhaps" in North by Northwest, or the long detailed weapons plans of Mr. Memory in the 39 Steps. Or, it could be something simple like the dog blocking the stairway in Strangers on a Train. Nobody cares about the dog. It's only there for one reason - suspense. It could have just as easily been a person, an alarm, a talking parrot, or a macguffin!
Written by Jeff Bays, June 2004 Updated: July 2004, January 2006, December 2007. Jeff Bays is a graduate of the Webster University School of Communications, and is an award-winning radio producer and independent filmmaker. For made in this article click here.