Alfred Hitchcock Explains the Difference Between Suspense & Surprise: Give the Audience Some Information & Leave the Rest to Their Imagination

The Hitch­cock­ian mode of film­mak­ing involves the max­i­mum use of sus­pense to keep view­ers in a height­ened state of anx­i­ety. “There is no ter­ror in the bang, only in the antic­i­pa­tion of it,” Hitch­cock him­self once said. How did he cre­ate sus­pense? In the inter­view clip above from 1973, Hitch­cock explains how his films “con­vey visu­al­ly cer­tain ele­ments in sto­ry­telling that trans­fers itself to the mind of the audi­ence, where­as oth­er films make visu­al state­ments, so that the audi­ence becomes a spec­ta­tor.” Turn­ing audi­ences into spec­ta­tors, he says, accounts for the excess­es of blood and gore onscreen in hor­ror films: “there’s no sub­tle­ty.” The cri­tique goes beyond squea­mish­ness. In Hitch­cock, spec­ta­cles are sec­ondary, at best, to infor­ma­tion.

Visu­al infor­ma­tion also takes prece­dence over expo­si­tion or nar­ra­tive coher­ence in Hitchcock’s cre­ation of sus­pense. “The open-palmed hand reach­ing for the door, the sim­u­lat­ed fall down the stair­case, the whor­ling retreat of the cam­era from a dead woman’s face,” Samuel Med­i­na writes at Metrop­o­lis. “These stark snip­pets imbue the films with their uncan­ny allure and imprint them­selves in the mind of the spec­ta­tor much more effec­tive­ly than any of the master’s con­vo­lut­ed plots.”

Hitch­cock does not deploy images to shock, he says, but to make the audi­ence com­plic­it in the con­struc­tion of the film. “I pre­fer to sug­gest some­thing and let the audi­ence fig­ure it out,” he says. “The big dif­fer­ence between sus­pense and shock or sur­prise is that in order to get sus­pense, you pro­vide the audi­ence with a cer­tain amount of infor­ma­tion and leave the rest of it to their own imag­i­na­tion.”

Hitchcock’s pre­ferred tech­niques of con­vey­ing infor­ma­tion often rely on what fem­i­nist schol­ar and film­mak­er Lau­ra Mul­vey famous­ly called “the male gaze” in her 1975 essay “Visu­al Plea­sure and Nar­ra­tive Cin­e­ma.” She revised and soft­ened her cri­tique in a recent col­lec­tion, writ­ing, for exam­ple, that Ver­ti­go arrived at a time of “melan­cholic lib­er­a­tion” for the Hol­ly­wood stu­dio sys­tem, “as the pro­fes­sion­al world of the mas­ters faced its own end.” Hitch­cock might have striv­en for rel­e­vance by try­ing to revive his hey­day. Instead, he returned to the cin­e­mat­ic lan­guage with which he’d begun his career in the 1920s as a set design­er for silent Ger­man Expres­sion­ist films.

Like Rear Win­dow, anoth­er of the director’s vehi­cles built around a male character’s obses­sive sur­veil­lance of women, Ver­ti­go both enacts and sub­verts its sub­ject. “On one lev­el,” Koralj­ka Suton writes at Cinephil­ia and Beyond, the film is “about the fac­tu­al­i­ty of the unre­lent­ing male gaze that dom­i­nates and dic­tates both our shared col­lec­tive real­i­ty…. But it should also be viewed as a clever decon­struc­tion of it.” What does Hitchcock’s use, and sub­ver­sion, of the voyeuris­tic male gaze have to do with sus­pense? The two are per­haps insep­a­ra­ble in Hitch­cock­ian cin­e­ma.

In an ear­li­er, 1970, inter­view, the direc­tor offered anoth­er dis­tinc­tion: “Mys­tery is when the spec­ta­tor knows less than the char­ac­ters in the movie. Sus­pense is when the spec­ta­tor knows more than the char­ac­ters” — usu­al­ly because they have been spy­ing on the char­ac­ters. Such illic­it knowl­edge revers­es the gaze. Nei­ther able to remain aloof nor stop the hor­rors they see com­ing, “the audi­ence is made aware of itself as audi­ence,” writes Pop­mat­ters, “and they are forced to won­der at their own exis­tence as spec­ta­cle.” Or as Hitch­cock put it in his inim­itable way, “Give them plea­sure. The same plea­sure they have when they wake up from a night­mare.”

via Laugh­ing Squid

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How Edward Hopper’s Paint­ings Inspired the Creepy Sus­pense of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Win­dow

Alfred Hitch­cock Meets Jorge Luis Borges Borges in Cold War Amer­i­ca: Watch Dou­ble Take (2009) Free Online

Andy Warhol Inter­views Alfred Hitch­cock (1974)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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