Alfred Hitchcock reveals the secret ingredient for creating suspense
“Give them pleasure. The same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.” ― Alfred Hitchcock.
The master of suspense in cinema, Alfred Hitchcock, simplified the definition of cinematic suspense when he said, “Mystery is when the spectator knows less than the characters in the movie. Suspense is when the spectator knows more than the characters in the movie.”
Hitchcock, given his impact on film, is one of the most heavily studied filmmakers in the history of the art. He was, however, a keen cinephile and student of the subject himself. “I depend on style more than plot,” he once explained. “It is how you do it, and not your content that makes you an artist. A story is simply a motif, just as a painter might paint a bowl of fruit just to give him something to be painting.”
He added: “I have a strongly visual mind. I visualise a picture right down to the final cuts. I write all this out in the greatest detail in the script, and then I don’t look at the script while I’m shooting. I know it off by heart, just as an orchestra conductor needs not look at the score.
“When you finish the script, the film is perfect. But in shooting it you lose perhaps 40 per cent of your original conception.”
Hitchcock had the precise ability to manipulate the anticipation of events in film and create something truly gripping. In an American Film Institute Seminar dating back to 1970, Hitchcock revealed the skeletal framework of the films that he really enjoyed making, the suspense films (and not mystery films).
Watch this clip to learn more about how Alfred Hitchcock uses the element of suspense to let things simmer for a while and then cool down appropriately:
“There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise’, and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean,” Hitchcock once said. “We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence.
“Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’
“In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.””
This process cannot be accelerated because it destroys the function of suspense and anticipation. In his 1936 film, Sabotage, Hitchcock made the error of doing just that.
Watch the scene below:
Hitchcock’s famous policy of “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it” is typified in the NBC series called Suspicion (1957-1959) that he produced.
One of the episodes called “Four o’clock” was personally directed by him. The episode is about a watchmaker who suspects his wife of cheating on him.
Filled with jealousy, he decides to craft a bomb and murder her with it. His plans go awry when two burglars tie him up in the basement with the ticking bomb.