Hitchcock on the Art of Suspense

In 1939, Alfred Hitch­cock gave a lec­ture at Radio City Music Hall orga­nized by The Muse­um of Mod­ern Art and Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. The talk (read the full tran­script here) takes you inside the cre­ative evo­lu­tion of Hitchcock’s film­mak­ing. First comes the bare bones plot, then a fuller treat­ment, com­plete with the dia­logue and a sus­pense­ful sto­ry that dri­ves the movie along for two hours. Hitch­cock was the mas­ter of cre­at­ing sus­pense – of giv­ing the audi­ence the “dope,” as he oth­er­wise calls it – that strings view­ers along. And, just what was in that “dope”? He describes it below:

That is the one thing that dis­turbs me a lit­tle. You see mod­ern nov­els, psy­cho­log­i­cal nov­els, with frank char­ac­ter­i­za­tions and very good psy­chol­o­gy, but there has been a ten­den­cy, with the nov­el and with a lot of stage plays, to aban­don sto­ry. They don’t tell enough sto­ry or plot. For a motion pic­ture, we do need quite an amount of sto­ry.

Now the rea­son we need a lot of sto­ry is this: a film takes an hour and twen­ty min­utes to play, and an audi­ence can stand about an hour. After an hour, it starts to get tired, so it needs the injec­tion of some dope. One might also say there should be a slo­gan, “Keep them awake at the movies!”

That dope, as one might call it, is action, move­ment, and excite­ment; but more than that, keep­ing the audi­ence occu­pied men­tal­ly. Peo­ple think, for exam­ple, that pace is fast action, quick cut­ting, peo­ple run­ning around, or what­ev­er you will, and it is not real­ly that at all. I think that pace in a film is made entire­ly by keep­ing the mind of the spec­ta­tor occu­pied. You don’t need to have quick cut­ting, you don’t need to have quick play­ing, but you do need a very full sto­ry and the chang­ing of one sit­u­a­tion to anoth­er. You need the chang­ing of one inci­dent to anoth­er, so that all the time the audience’s mind is occu­pied.

Now so long as you can sus­tain that and not let up, then you have pace. That is why sus­pense is such a valu­able thing, because it keeps the mind of the audi­ence going. Lat­er on I will tell you how I think the audi­ence should par­tic­i­pate in those things.

The rest of the lec­ture con­tin­ues here. And be sure to find many Hitch­cock films in our col­lec­tion of Free Movies Online.

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