When we think of horror films and the most famous horror films that have stood the test of time, there is one director that is remembered more than most. Film director Alfred Hitchcock was renowned as the ‘Master of Suspense’. His films were psychological horrors, delving into how dark and twisted the human psyche can be. Many things influenced Hitchcock’s views on building suspense. In turn, his techniques are still valued today in modern filmmaking. By looking at these techniques and how he developed these, we could see a glimpse inside Hitchcock’s mind.
If you are ever looking for fears and things to frighten others, the best place to start is your fears. Hitchcock knew this as multiple films have themes that are linked to his own experiences. The renowned film director was born in London, England. At this time, London’s East End was still recovering from the horror left behind by serial killer Jack The Ripper. The Jack The Ripper murders had only occurred 11 years before he was born in 1899.
His parents were strict conservative Christians and harsh disciplinarians. In the book Hitchcock’s Appetites: The corpulent plots of desire and dread by Casey McKittrick, there is a reference to one of his father’s methods of discipline. He’d sent young Hitchcock to the local police station with a note, asking the officers to lock him up for a while. He was either five or 6 at that time. The officer complied and told the young boy, “this is what we do to naughty boys.”
From this, Hitchcock grew a fear of the police and being wrongfully accused of something. We see this in plenty of Hitchcock’s films. In Young and Innocent (1937), Robert Tisdell (played by Derrick De Marney) is falsely charged with the murder of Christine Clay (Pamela Carme) and spends most of the film on the run from the police. A similar story appears in The Wrong Man (1956), which was based on the true story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero. Balestrero was a case of mistaken identity, being mistaken for an armed robber. Frenzy (1972) sees Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) being falsely imprisoned as a serial killer.
Another impactful moment of his childhood is that his mother would make him stand at the end of her bed and tell her about his day. There is a scene alluding to this in Psycho (1960), with Bates standing by a bed.
McGuffin and surprising the audience
Alfred Hitchcock was known to employ the use of McGuffins. According to the dictionary, McGuffins are “an object or device in a film or a book which serves merely as a trigger for the plot.” To add an example, the McGuffin of a story could be a secret weapon both the protagonist and antagonist want. The secret weapon is used to trigger the plot. Even if the secret weapon is just a ruse, in the end, it did its job of advancing the plot. Hence, the secret weapon is a McGuffin.
Hitchcock typically used these in his spy features, to tell his audience things are never as they seem in these films. One famous example is The 39 Steps (1935). In this film, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is caught up in a race to stop an organization known as The 39 Steps from stealing military secrets. The content of these secrets is not important to the audience. However, the pursuit of these contents makes them important to the plot. No matter what these secrets are, they would have still driven the plot.
Another example of McGuffins in Hitchcock films is North by Northwest (1942). Another innocent man named Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is being tracked by spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), as Thornhill is believed to be smuggling microfilm that contains government secrets. We never know about these government secrets, but they drive the plot forward.
This was all a part of how Hitchcock fooled the audience. Another way was releasing enough information to the audience to know something is not right. During an American Film Institute Master seminar, Hitchcock explained how giving the audience snippets of information can change the tone of a scene.
He uses the example of two people talking for 5 minutes about baseball. A bomb suddenly goes off, which shocks the audience for a few seconds. He then takes the same scene but shows the audience the bomb before the two characters come into the scene. Already, there is a difference in tension. The audience knows the bomb is there and active. It feeds off their nerves and it keeps the audience on their toes. However, one thing Hitchcock empathizes with is “The bomb must never go off and kill everyone.” By this, Hitchcock expressed that there should be some surprise for the audience. Hitchcock was known to surprise his audience. He created Psycho (1960), a film that supposedly killed off its main protagonist halfway through the film. But that is not the only way Hitchcock created suspense and surprised his audiences.
Many settings have been used by Hitchcock. However, two are of significance when discussing the use of setting and Hitchcock. They are Lifeboat (1944) and Rope (1948). Both are part of his limited-setting films, which means they took place in one place.
Lifeboat is a survival horror film, as several British and American civilians and servicemen are trapped on a lifeboat in the North Atlantic after their ship sank in combat. The audience feels claustrophobic as, like the characters, they cannot escape. They are surrounded by endless freezing water. The limited setting adds to the tension of the entire film, as each character cannot escape. The film does not hide what happens to those who do, such as Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel) and Kapitan Willi (Walter Slezak).
Rope takes a different approach. Two Harvard University graduates strangle their friend in the apartment all three of them share. They then stuff his body in a wooden chest, before hosting a dinner party with many of the deceased’s friends and family. The audience is fully aware of what happened before the party and is constantly on edge. The chest containing the body is on full display. As the evening goes on and the absence of their friend is becoming more noticed, the tension rises to the film’s climax and ending.
Alfred Hitchcock used plenty of ways to build suspense. These are just some techniques Hitchcock used to create memorable, suspenseful, and impactful films that have stood the test of time.