Master of Suspense
Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors. His ability to pull his audiences to the edge of their seats always impresses me. He employed his understanding of basic human nature to raise our fears and speed our heart rates.
He mastered the art of mystery and suspense to the point of becoming the standard to which every director strives. He constructed his stories with the precise mixtures of humor, horror, and humanity to keep us all holding our breaths.
He had a theory that when you let your audience know a secret, they become engaged and involved. They cheer and hiss like the viewers of a melodrama.
I remember watching an interview with him, and he spoke about placing a bomb in a scene. He said that if you conceal the bomb under the desk, and have it explode without warning, you get a sudden reaction of terror and fear, but then it’s over.
However, if you allow the audience a peek under the desk so that they can see the timer counting down, the watchers now participate in the scene. They want to warn the actors to run. Now the suspense draws out over several minutes. The viewers struggle to focus on the dialog and the impending disaster at the same time.
Stress equals suspense. And in the words of Hitchcock himself, “The bomb must never go off.”
In the story lines that don’t involve bombs—honestly, most of his films don’t—he employs the same tactics to varying degrees.
In the real-time progression of the classic Rope, you know the identity of the murderers in the first five minutes. You spend the next hour and a half with your stomach in knots, as a dinner party plays out all around the concealed body of the victim.
In Dial M for Murder you watch the entire plot unfold, knowing a great deal more than any of the characters. The stress comes from worrying over whether justice prevails or Ray Milland succeeds in his devious scheme.
Some of Hitchcock’s best films use irony to plant seeds of suspicion. In Shadow of a Doubt Hitch brings a beloved relative home for a visit with his favorite niece. Teresa Wright plays the discontented teenager hoping that her handsome, sophisticated uncle, played by Joseph Cotton, will shake things up in her quiet little hometown. She soon suspects that he may be a serial killer, and the worries begin.
In Suspicion Hitchcock contrasts Cary Grant’s charm with a devilish murder plot that thrills to the last scene.
He used the concept of being trapped in several films to build tension, though usually Hitch places his victims in uncommon snares. In Lifeboat the characters play their roles while stranded in a small boat at sea.
In The Man Who Knew Too Much, the 1956 version, movie mom Doris Day gets sedated by her own husband, leaving her (and the audience) helpless to act against her son’s kidnappers.
Jimmy Stewart, limited to his apartment by a heavy leg cast, suspects murder from the vantage of his Rear Window. He cannot run to the aid of Grace Kelly when she encounters danger, nor can he fight off a personal attack by the villain. His helplessness keeps our guts twisting.
Alfred Hitchcock also wore our nerves thin with the ordinary. Using the backdrop of a beautiful New England hillside, Shirley McLain discovers The Trouble with Harry, her dead husband, is that he won’t stay buried. The characters in this film go about their business with such nonchalance that a constantly reappearing corpse becomes little more than an incidental nuisance. Their comical lack of urgency incites panic in the audience.
Hitchcock’s techniques in story telling remain nearly unchallenged, even decades after his death. Though most of his films avoided graphic gore and violence, his fear factor pushed the envelope for their time, and still encourage nail biting today. Movies like Psycho and The Birds always rate high on the Creepy Scale.
Hitchcock knew his stuff. If you haven’t seen any of his movies, let me recommend that you pick one up this month. The ones mentioned above are all sure to satisfy, but he created dozens more that will make you a fast fan.
Let me know your favorite!
That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading!