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Alfred Hitchcock:
Six Fundamentals of Good Suspense

Written for Aotg.com by Parker Mott
Parker's Site: www.thefinaltake.com
Twitter: @parkermott

How do us editors recognize “good suspense”? More importantly, how do we make use of it? Film theorist Peter Bogdanovich once said, in these approximate words, that suspense is guided by an audience’s sympathy for its characters and an intense need for something dramatic to happen. Essentially, suspense instills a conflict of emotions in the viewer: we don’t want anything bad to happen to the film’s inhabitants, yet at the same time that is why the viewer is here: to endure some form of imagined danger and, in the end, overcome it.

Heralded as “The Master of Suspense”, Alfred Hitchcock was, to say the least, well-versed in this craft. While his career was notably diverse, suspense became his hallmark and one of the main reasons mass audiences were drawn to his motion pictures. Hitchcock knew theatre-dwellers loved to be tantalized; he famously called movies “slices of cake”; suspense was one of the best ways to offer audiences a fork to dig in.

Drawing from Jeff Bays’s piece “How To Turn Your Boring Movie Into a Hitchcock Thriller”, this article will unpack SIX FUNDAMENTALS OF SUSPENSE, some taken both loosely and directly from Bays’s article. It will also reference scenes in Hitchcock’s movies to demonstrate specifically where these elements come through in his body of work. As a footnote, Bays has generously allowed us to place excerpts of his article into this section. To read his full article, visit his website.

1. Subjectivity

Hitchcock often used Subjectivity for voyeuristic purposes. Like movie audiences, Hitchcock’s characters had a basic instinct to ogle an unassuming subject. Hitchcock cited Soviet filmmaker, Lev Kuleshov, as his inspiration. Kuleshov created what is known as “The Kuleshov Effect”: it cut the same blank facial expression of an actor with a variety of images – a bowl of soup, a little girl lying in a coffin, and a woman stretched sensuously out on a divan. This experiment showed that our reaction to the actor’s indifferent look varied according the feelings produced by the corresponding images. The actor exhibited hunger, grief, then suddenly desire.

Hitchcock cultivated suspense through the rhythmic repetition of this technique – cutting from the ogler to the ogled – and building the action accordingly. The resulting “Effect” was anticipation and the feeling of utter helplessness as the character observed a situation, often dangerous or clandestine, unfold as he or she proved incapable of preventing the unnerving spectacle.

Consider James Stewart in this scene from Rear Window (1954):


In this clip, Hitchcock is faithful to Stewart’s point-of-view, surveying Grace Kelly in long shot (except when Stewart uses his telephoto lens, then Hitchcock zooms closer) as she sneaks into the salesman’s apartment. We respond to the scene according to the range of Stewart’s reactions. Hitchcock uses subjectivity for this purpose: to make the audience feel suspense because ipso facto the character does as well. The audience will believe it is sharing something personal with the character. This point alludes to what Hitchcock calls “pure cinema” (Truffaut).

2. 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) The camera should roam around playfully looking for something suspicious in a room. This allows the audience to feel like they are involved in uncovering the story and one step ahead of the characters. Scenes can often begin by panning a room showing close-ups of objects that explain plot elements.

Consider this scene from Psycho:


It is important to note that just before this scene immediately after Crane’s murder, Hitchcock’s camera had tracked around her motel room, revealing a folded newspaper containing a key piece of evidence on the bedside table. At this moment, if the audience has seen the full movie, it would be privy to the clue that could cause Norman’s arraignment – a clue that Norman is not yet aware of. The audience is awarded this kind of omniscient gaze; tension results in this special knowledge of a situation/object that would solve the entire plot.

This approach goes back to Hitchcock's beginnings in silent film. Without sound, filmmakers had to create ways to tell the story visually in a succession of images conveying ideas. Hitchcock said this trend changed drastically when sound finally came to film in the 1930's. Suddenly everything went toward dialogue-oriented material based on scripts from the stage. Movies began to rely on actors talking, and visual storytelling was almost forgotten. (Truffaut)

3. Montage Gives You Control

Hitchcock referred to pure cinema as “complimentary pieces of film put together,” (Hitchcock) or what is technically known as montage. Sergei Eisenstein viewed montage as “a clash of conflicting images” and a sort of “collision of individual shots” (Hitchcock). On the other hand, Hitchcock wanted to create a “melody”; he would carefully choose a close-up of a hand, arm, face, and gun falling to the floor – and tie them all together to dramatize an action.

This method allows one to portray an event by showing various pieces of it, while having total control of the timing. You can also withhold elements of the scene so that the mind of the audience can fill in the blanks. (Hitchcock) Hitchcock said that this was "transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience." (Schickel)

Consider this classic scene from, again, Psycho::


The famous shower scene in Psycho uses montage to hide the violence. You never see the knife penetrating 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) Interestingly, the most “suspense” in this sequence is generated from that extended shot of the killer creeping toward the shower curtain as Marion Crane has her back turned. This clip demonstrates that montage is important in conveying suspense, but not always necessary. What’s essential though is for a character to be unaware of or powerless towards the underlying action. Oftentimes, montage enables the editor to cut from the beheld characters to the beholding audience. Paradoxically, montage should give the editor control, while at the same time take away all the control from the characters.

4. Use Humour to Add Tension

Humour is a major component of Hitchcock’s suspense storytelling. His murder plots and harebrained thrillers were so absurd, they came off as practical jokes on the protagonist caught in the middle of them. What’s encouraged (but not essential) in a suspense sequence is to have a little dose of irony. Because it is that unexpected gag – that coincidence, that worst possible thing that can go wrong does go wrong – that often becomes the main source of tension.

In Marnie (1964), actress Tippi Hedren is stealing money from an office safe and is just about to leave when she notices a nearby maid cleaning in the next room. The maid is completely innocent and unaware. The humour here is in how the maid happily mops the floor, oblivious to Hedren’s thievery. Hedren’s character will be compromised if the maid sees her, yet that is not the point. The real source of tension comes from the juxtaposition between Hedren’s anxiety and the maid’s cheerfulness.

Footnote: Hitchcock tended to use comical old women to add a flavour of innocent humour to culpable acts of deviancy in his films. The cheery crows will usually be opinionated, chatty, and have a highly optimistic view of crime. If someone were committing a crime they might even join in!

5. Two Things Happening at Once

This point is the most vital. Tension, above all, is derived from a contrast of unrelated circumstances. The audience should be focused on the momentum of one and be unexpectedly interrupted by the other. Usually the second item should be a humorous distraction that means nothing (this can often be dialogue). Either way, it must be something that gets in the way.

For instance, when unexpected guests arrive at the hotel room in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day are in the middle of a tense phone call. The arrival of the guests laughing and joking serves as a dramatic counterpoint to the primary drive of the scene. Also, in Spellbound (1945), Ingrid Bergman sees a note that has been slipped under her door. Just when she reaches for it, her colleagues walk in and speak to her about the disappearance of Gregory Peck, completely unaware they are standing on top of his note.

Now, how about a textbook example of “Two Things Happening At Once”? This sequence from the great Sabotage (1936).


Hitchcock, in keeping with Joseph Conrad’s grim novel, executed one of his most controversial sequences: a bus explosion in the middle of London’s Piccadilly Circus. The director famously rebuked this scene by saying: “I made a cardinal error there in terms of suspense. The bomb should never have gone off. If you build an audience up to that point, the explosion becomes strangely anti-climactic” (Hitchcock).

Still, the sequence is suspense of the highest order, because there is so much happening at once – all of which immediately comes in conflict with itself. You have the parade; the boy with the film stock; the clock; the bus of innocent commuters; the wily puppy; and finally, the bomb underneath the seat. These elements represent what is at stake, something editors must have to create an effective suspense sequence, or just a good story, period. It is important to rile up – but not exhaust – the audience with contingencies, so it knows all the numerous things that are at stake if that bomb goes off.

6. Provide a Twist

A twist is what Hitchcock seems to have wanted in Sabotage’s bus sequence. Once you’ve enticed your audience with gripping suspense, the sequence should not end the way the audience expects. That is: the bomb must never go off! Lead the audience in one direction and then pull the rug out from under them – or relieve them. Of course, there are exceptions. The opening sequence in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958) did not follow this rule. Neither do most action movies. In this case, audiences are awarded or punished with the disaster.

But generally, it is a good rule of thumb to end your suspense sequence on an unpredictable note. Take the climax of Saboteur (1942) when Norman Lloyd is cornered on the top of the Statue of Liberty as Robert Cummings holds him at gunpoint. Just when you think it is over, Cummings begins to speak, startling Lloyd who then falls backward over the edge. Even a subtle shift in outcome ought to rouse your audience and keep it guessing. But note: sometimes predictability is a powerful device. It makes your audience (and characters) victims of the inevitable, which can be very effective, especially if your film wants to convey dread.

And to close, here is the climax of Saboteur, because it is that good. It provides an exemplary mix of a twist and the inevitable. Hang onto your sleeves!


Works Cited

Hitchcock, Alfred. Interview by Peter Bogdanovich. Peter Bogdanovich Interviews Alfred Hitchcock 1963. Print.

Schickel, Richard, dir. The Men Who Made the Movies: Hitchcock. PBS, 1973. Film.

Truffaut, François, and Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967. Print.





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