You can only get the Suspense element going by giving the audience information.—Alfred Hitchcock
Suspense, Hitch always insisted, was fundamentally different from Mystery. Because the press so often mislabeled his movies as Mysteries, he took more than one occasion to get specific about the difference. The most famous of these was in an interview with Francois Truffaut
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us 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 audience knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that 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 this 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’s a bomb beneath you and it’s 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.—Hitchcock in an interview with Truffaut
Restricted narration tends to create greater curiosity and surprise for the viewer…a degree of unrestricted narration helps build suspense.—David Bordwell, Film Art
So, restricted narration yields mystery and unrestricted narration, suspense. Early in his career Hitchcock sometimes struggled with this distinction. The film often erroneously referred to as the “first true Hitchcock picture”—The Lodger—is a good example of how mystery can actively undermine suspense, and leave you with a less effective plot. The Lodger is a scary movie, but it doesn’t plumb the depth’s of suspense like the director’s later, more accomplished work. Blackmail, from only three years later in 1929, leaves not one story point unrevealed, and the difference in effect is profound—a more disturbing, unnerving, and suspenseful experience.
The 1926 film is the simple story of a unnamed lodger who comes to stay with an innocent family while London is reeling under the knife of a psychosexual killer, the Avenger. The new Lodger acts suspiciously and fits a description that only the audience has been given, so it seems like he’s the killer, and Joe—Daisy’s policeman amour—slowly comes to the same conclusion, while jealously watching Daisy and the Lodger strike up a quick romance. In the end we learn that the Lodger was actually investigating the Avenger himself, because his sister—a blonde—was murdered by him.
Of course, there is some suspense in that story; namely in the scenes of burgeoning romance between the Lodger and Daisy.
Hitchcock takes great care in the film’s opening minutes to establish the audience’s suspicions for the Lodger, finally telling us that the lower half of the killer’s face was hidden by a scarf. This opening is bizarre because usually an introduction like this functions to establish central characters—a detective, victim, or villain in a crime picture.
However, in The Lodger these scenes serve a more important purpose than establishing character. Here the narration is at its most omniscient, and these scenes justify all of the film’s limited suspense. By showing us these random policemen and witnesses—characters that have nothing to do with the main action (the Buntings, Joe, the Lodger) Hitchcock reveals to us the visual signifiers (tall, pale, thin, with a scarf) that make the Lodger’s arrival one of the great and terrifying character entrances in cinematic history.
Then, during the next two acts, because we “know” that the Lodger is the Avenger, the scenes of Daisy and him innocently flirting take on sinister double-meanings. Hitchcock exploits this to great effect in scenes like the Lodger flicking a crumb off Daisy’s apron with a knife—very suspenseful.
Unfortunately most of the rest of the film’s complicating action is wasted on building up more and more phony evidence against our poor Lodger:
- his secretive nature
- his attraction to blondes
- his nightly travels
- his triangular map
- his locked cupboard
Notice anything here? All of these are mysteries. A lot of the viewer’s interest in the Lodger himself is generated by the question, “is the Lodger the Avenger” not “what will happen when Daisy finds out that the Lodger is the Avenger” or even “will he kill Daisy.” Starting with the opening scream, much of the film’s narrative turns on an axis of curiosity:
- Who killed the girl?
- Is the Lodger the Avenger?
- Where’s he going all the time?
- Why does he act so strange?
- Joe confronting the Lodger
- the revelation of his back story
- the real Avenger’s random, convenient arrest
In fact the suspense of Joe the cop’s story line is undercut by the audience’s massive gap in knowledge. His jealousy seems justified and heroic because the Lodger is a psycho until the end’s totally unexpected revelation; if Hitch had shown us the Lodger’s innocence earlier, the audience would be in agony over Joe’s convenient—and growing—misunderstanding. We would have lost the fear that the Lodger would kill Daisy, but Daisy would still be in jeopardy—Joe’s mania, the Lodger’s pursuit of the Avenger, and ultimately the clash between Joe and the Lodger. That sort of movie would really be something—a disturbing portrait of a policeman’s jealous mania. Instead we have a tepid thriller, stuck in a nowhere-land somewhere between mystery and suspense.
32 years later Hitchcock would have the lesson firmly down, although critics never really figured it out.
In Vertigo (1958), his adaptation of the French novel D’Entre les Morts, he even sacrificed the book’s final surprise twist (“Judy is Madeleine”) in order to inject a firm dose of suspense into the story (“When will Scottie find out that Judy and Madeleine are the same person and how will he react?”)…critics at the time had trouble understanding Hitchcock’s intention for us to watch Scottie unravel, rather than to figure out a “whodunit”—Building a Better Bomb, Pete Gelderblom