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The Techniques Of Suspense In Alfred Hitchcock’s Works

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This thesis basically focuses on Alfred Hitchcock’s works on creation of suspense in his movies. He was a British born director and is one of the most recognized movie directors of all time. The thesis aims on the films of Hitchcock generally pointing out the elements that are directed towards suspense and how he created suspense in his films by using various techniques.

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it”, said Alfred Joseph Hitchcock. The English filmmaker, arguably one of the most celebrated, was a master of the suspense thriller. The genre depends heavily on the structural device of creating anticipation – making the viewer tense, making them look forward to the fallout. Hitchcock did not believe in shocking his viewers, just in making them suffer.

In a career of over 60 years, he directed 50 feature films in Britain and in Hollywood. These have cemented his place as the ‘master of suspense’. Most films of this genre that have been made post-Hitchcock have been read and perceived in relation to his work.[footnoteRef:1] Suspense was a crucial feature of his work alongside cinematic devices such as voyeurism, MacGuffin and the cold female protagonist who is humiliated in the end.[footnoteRef:2] The suspense genre is often connected to horror or mystery. The key point of distinction between these categories is the difference between shock and suspense. Horror or mystery relies on taking the audience by surprise or keeping them guessing. Suspense takes a different route. The viewer is given all the information – they know more than the characters in the film. This creates a sense of unease in the audience and incites an emotional response from them, even when the outcome is obvious. For instance, the very first image of Orson Welles’ ‘Touch of Evil’ (1958) is a man with a bomb, who then plants it in a car. What follows is a long take three minute tracking shot of people in and near the car before the bomb finally explodes. The lightness of mood and the joyful ambient music suggests that no one is aware of the impending danger and hence, there is only one possible outcome – the explosion. The viewer knows this. Even then, there is a deep sense of anxiety throughout those three minutes in simple expectation of what is already implicitly understood. This is an experience unique to the suspense genre. [1: DERRY, Charles, “The Suspense Thriller: Films in the Shadow of Alfred Hitchcock”, McFarland & Company Inc. Publishers, London, 1988, pp. 8-9] [2: EBERT, Roger, “Vertigo”, Chicago Sun Times, Chicago, 1996]

These techniques have been dubbed as ‘Hitchcockian’ because they came to represent his trademark style. He used cameras to imitate the human gaze, turning the viewer into a silent voyeur. The audience can see the characters, know they are in imminent danger, but can do nothing to warn or help them. This maximises fear and anxiety.[footnoteRef:3] [3: WOOD. Robin, “Hitchcock’s Films Revisited”, Columbia University Press, New York, 2002, pp. 56-59]

Hitchcock’s weapon of choice is editing. He intercuts shots of an unaware character with shots of the element of danger. For instance, in “The Birds’ (1963), when Melanie Daniels is riding a motorboat to the bay, she is attacked by a bird. It is a quick shot and we see a drop of blood. With the bird established as the threat, he can go on to create tension in a later scene where Melanie is sitting in a park, smoking a cigarette. Shots of her calmly smoking are intercut with shots of birds crowding on to a jungle gym behind her, one by one. Her shots are longer and those of the birds are quicker, lasting only a few second each. The final shot of her relaxed face lasts almost 30 seconds before she looks up to see a bird. And then when the film cuts to the jungle gym, it is crawling with tens of black birds perched on the bars. It is quietly terrifying. Moreover, we can hear children in a nearby school singing an eerie, monotonous song throughout the scene.

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock born on 13th August, 1899 in Leytonstone, Essex, England at a greengrocer’s family to William and Emma Jane. At the age of 11 he was sent to Jesuit Classic School St. Ignatius College in London. After that he finished his studies, he started working he begun working at Henley Telegraph Company, where he worked as a draftsman and advertising designer. Simultaneously he took courses at London University where he studied art. Hitchcock was already interested in film at this time and from the age of seventeen, he read movie newspapers. Hitchcock began to express his creativity during his time at Henley by regularly submitting short articles for in-house publishing established at the company. Hitchcock soon became one of the most prolific contributors and his first ever short story called Gas from 1919 revealed what themes and topic were close to him. The story was about a young woman who thinks she was assaulted only to reveal that it was hallucination.

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Hitchcock’s first films to finish was The Pleasure Garden, which was a flop though. The film was shot in Germany where Hitchcock had spent time before and that was important to him as he had immersed himself in expressionism. The real breakthrough came when The Lodger: a London fog story was released in 1926. This is regarded as the first true thing. The films feature a man who is on the run and is hunted by the mainstream society. In the next sound stage of Hitchcock’s career, the influence of silent films remained important until the end of his career. He expressed regret at the arrival of sound in his interviews with Truffaut as he believed that the availability of dialogue had reduced the importance of film narrative. Evidently, the manifestation of silent film techniques is present in The Man Who Knew Too Much, and most notably in Psycho, characterized by sparse dialogue and long stretches where the narration proceeds only through visual images. In the movie The Man Who Knew Too Much, the sequence of attempting to prevent assassination attempts by Dr. Mckenna and his wife, last 10 minutes ae without dialogue. Actually, the two protagonists speak, but we can’t hear them, we can only assume what they’re saying like in a silent movie. This scene illustrates the philosophy of Hitchcock that was shaped in the era of silent movies.

Psycho was Hitchcock’s most profitable film and it was the most profitable black and white sound film ever made at the time. But not only did Psycho mark the high point of Hitchcock’s career, at least popularity and money wise, but it also signalled the approaching end of his career as none of the subsequent films released matched the public reception and the quality of Hitchcock’s features of the 1950’s.

Bird, shot in 1962 & released a year later, was based on Daphne du Marier’s short story. In Birds and later in Marnie, which was a disappointment later mainly from a commercial point of view, Hitchcock used Tippi Hedren, who is known to have had a very distinctive and rather unpleasant experience working with Hitchcock who allegedly destroyed her professional life, as the last icy-blonde quasi of his career.

Hitchcock’s last 15 years of careers were limited by the deteriorating health of the director and it was evident that the director was in decline. This fact was reflected in Hitchcock’s films’ quality and reception.

After shooting Family Plot, Hitchcock’s heath deteriorated further, and the director spent the last years of his life in his home in Bel Air, California, where he died on April 29, 1980.


The single most connecting element of Hitchcock films is the utilization of suspense. Suspense is a dramaturgy technique uses the difference in knowledge between the audience and the characters on the screen. Suspense can also be considered as the enjoyable experience between hope & fear and relies on certain cognitive mechanisms and often goes along with autonomic, physiological arousal. Suspense can be understood and defines as an intense feeling experienced by spectators while awaiting the outcome of some events. The most common source of suspense in films is the genre of thrillers and horrors that naturally rely on intense anxiety to maximize their potential. The suspense history is closely linked to thrillers- a genre of film that is most closely linked to suspense. The history o thrillers dates back to the 1920s and 1930s, so back to the era of silent movies. Hitchcock’s first successful thriller film The Lodger in 1926 was one of the first major thrillers that shaped this genre for more than a decade. If we look closer at the stage from which suspense films originated, the most common denominator is Alfred Hitchcock, who was really at the very beginning of the whole genre. The early stages of thrillers evolution clearly became and English issue in the 1930s when a large number of suspense films were released, notably by Hitchcock, who would continue this trend in the next decade and many years later as well. However, suspense is not just limited to thrillers and horrors, and if there is an opportunity to exploit dramatic tensions, it can be found and used in any given film.

Apparently, the basis of suspense always revolves around the fact that the film audience is constantly anticipating what can happen next in a given narrative situation and can manipulate the spectators in such a way as to generate suspense. When the audience is repeatedly reminded of the possibility of an event, this fact allows the building of suspense and more importantly the maintenance of tension throughout the narrative so that the identification of the audience with a relevant story does not decrease.

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