Creating Suspense- Alfred Hitchcock

For at the heart of Hitchcock’s artistic vision is a sense of film’s possessing what seem to be incompatible aspects, irreconcilable tensions or conflicts that crystallize, or crystallize in, an awesome sense of mystery.” (Centenary; p31.)

Hitchcock was known as the “master of suspense” and therefore I wanted to explore what techniques they would use.

Suspense and Point of View 

Hitchcock uses a technique through the identification of the audiences and their viewpoint- getting them involved in the scene itself. The protagonists viewpoint is one that most audiences strive to be part of- Hitchcock uses this to undermine the spectators stability and therefore evoke responses to narrative.

An example of this, is shown in Rear Window (1954). The viewer’s perspective is linked completely to the perspective of the protagonist who is the ultimate spectator, a wheelchair bound photographer spying out of his window. Hitchcock is making our identification with the hero absolutely self-conscious – drawing attention to a cinematic narrative device that is usually functioning invisibly. The result is a constant tension between what we see and what is actually occurring, “Jeffries functions as author as well as spectator, piecing together (and possibly inventing) the story of the murder.” (Thrillers; p.117)

As the hero of Rear Window is ultimately a good guy, this device this is less subversive than it is in a film like Vertigo, where we are being asked to share the perspective of a less stable and attractive character. As in Rear Window, where Hitchcock played with the frame of perspective by constricted Jeffries (and therefore the audience’s) point of view by having the hero physically removed from the action – in Vertigo Hitchcock links us to a protagonist who own vision is impaired by severe bouts of vertigo. As the film progresses the protagonist’s perspective is even further befogged, and his point of view is so severely undermined that the mistaken identities of victim and victimizer lead to the film’s climax.  (, 2016).

Patterns of Suspense; Suspense as a Narrative Process

Another device Hitchcock uses is patterns of suspense, used the whole way through his narratives, through the juxtaposition of local suspense with a global suspense. This technique involves adding strands of suspense throughout a narrative, within the overall suspense pattern of a film, Hitchcock devises clearly identifiable phases of suspense, nodes of localized suspense. It is the transition from these back to the main line of suspense that both involves, and shifts the audience. Hitchcock varies the patterns used- creating a different tension in audiences each time. Timing plays a lot of importance in this– in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1965), “Hitchcock has realized that suspense cannot be produced in an instant, but must be built up carefully. We are ensnared gradually via curiosity, suspicion, apprehension and worry.” (Hitchcock; Suspense, Humour and Tone; p.26) I found a few other examples of how he creates suspense.

Rear Window is a prime example of how Hitchcock works with cumulative, multi-levelled suspense. This is the pitting of one suspense situation against another – the effect can be “…to complicate the notion of suspense as a method for obtaining audience involvement by constructing a rather bifurcatory centrifugal trajectory into, and viewpoint upon, the narrative worlds.” (p31) The ‘Miss Lonelyhearts” storyline in ‘Rear Window’ starts out as self-contained unit in the narrative whole. As the main line of suspense builds (that regarding Thorwald murdering his wife), her storyline becomes a source of distraction for both the film’s characters and the audience. In the film’s final sequence it is Jeffries’ phoning of the police for Miss Lonelyhearts suicide attempt that endangers Lisa as he misses seeing Thorwald return to the apartment.
This local suspense competes with the main suspense by literally delaying the progression of that main narrative line – increasing the audience’s tension at seeing it resolved. By slowing action down almost to a stopping point, Hitchcock draws our attention to the “…waiting , delaying tactic on which all suspense depends….and consequently realize suspense’s potential ability to produce narrative stasis if the flow of information and the trajectory towards resolution are thwarted to an abnormal degree.” (p.34)

We see a similar device in ‘Psycho’ – where Hitchcock pulls the viewer away from the film’s true dramatic centre. He uses the film’s opening moments to establish a ‘red herring’ storyline, where the localized storyline of Marion stealing the money is falsely set up as the main suspense storyline. This is reinforced by the opening title sequence and first moments of the film – which also set up a ‘false’ sense of dread (echoed again when Marion is in the car) – which quickly dissipates. “The film therefore mixes up and reworks the various stages of suspense in a way that is much more disruptive and unsettling than a gradual, predictable build-up of tension.” (p26) The effect of starting the film with this heightened, almost hysterical tone is that we can never really return to a baseline of normal tone – after the film’s true horrors start to occur. By starting at an advanced stage of suspense, the film has nowhere to go but beyond suspense to even deeper fear and horror. Hitchcock maintains fine control – the fact that these ensuing moments of horror are intrusive and quick only contributes to audience anxiety by denying us the chance to absorb the shock. The overall effect of Hitchcock’s patterning of suspense storylines in “Pyscho” is to create a powerful tension that never really gets resolved. (, 2016).

Complex Tonalities; Humour: Framing With Dramatic Irony 

Hitchcock is a master at the use of humour in his films- shifting the tone, so not at the wrong moment or convey the wrong meaning.

The ”Who Killed Cock Robin” sequence in ‘Sabotage’ contrasts humour and fear, as a way of questioning, subverting and then denying audience expectations of the narrative. In this sequence the character of Mrs Verloc sitting in the cinema watching the cartoon becomes a parallel of the spectator’s own complex viewing experience of the film itself. “Her dual response of initial laughter at the cartoon followed by a sobering realization of its relevance to her personal situation is particularly analogous to the kind of ambivalent responses induced by Hitchcock’s own cinema, where humour often appears to offer some form of relieft from the darker aspects of the narrative worlds only to become implicated, retrospectively, within it.” (p13) This sequence brings to our attention the range of complex, often contradictory viewing states audiences must negotiate between when watching a Hitchcock film. This is the old technique of a play-within-a-play, (a frame-within-a-frame) – the cartoon’s re-enactment is bittersweet as it alludes to the recent death of Stevie, but also foreshadows the murder of Mr Verloc to come. It is only through contrasting emotional states (first laughter and then fear) that this complex ‘knowing’ is experienced by the audience.

Often the source of the tension in Hitchcock’s films plays on the concept of dramatic irony – humour is derived from the audience’s knowing something the character does not.  ‘Rope’ is built around this – on various levels. The whole premise of the film hinges on the fact that the audience witnesses the murder in the opening scenes, while for the rest of the film all the characters (except the murderers) are in the dark. There is here a clash between our own frame of reference, and the viewing frame of the film’s characters – and this clash creates much black comedy. Within this frame of dramatic irony are instances of rich poetic irony – involving the character of Mrs Atwater. She makes two ‘mistakes’, first mistaking Kenneth for her murdered nephew David, and then telling Phillip “These hands will bring you great fame.” Both incidents work comedically on the surface to mock her character – bringing attention to her short-sightedness and incompetence as an amateur astrologer. But this surface humour is undercut for the audience by our knowing that David is already dead, and that Phillip’s hands strangled him, and will be the instrument of his undoing. The comedy is further complicated by the ironic way “her acts of misperception are transformed by the narrative context into powerful insights of unnerving accuracy.” (p68). Comedy is ultimately used to subvert the authority of the storyteller in the narrative

In this way, the narrative frame contains a self-reflexive concern – characters whose limited point of view clashes with our own knowledge. Deborah Thomas observes that Hitchcock uses how humour as a narrative strategy; “At the same time as we are drawn into the dark world of Hitchcock’s vision, being made to experience the most disturbing fears and desires, we are pulled back from the characters (through humour, through the multiple points of view, and through the greater self-consciousness of our experience of suspense, which simultaneously lures us in and holds us back). We are given a space, a position from which to survey this world.” (p.50)

Hitchcock proved to be a fascinating case study – analyzing and understanding his films allows one to understand not simply how suspense is built, but the very potential of the narrative in film. A study of Hitchcock is a study of the conditions of film; his films “…are asserting, declaring, something about themselves, something about their medium.”(Centenary Essays; p.30). There is a wonderful notion to his films about makes them both self-reflective and yet virtuosic in their understanding of how elements of film work.  (, 2016).

b                  Kubrick 


“Kubrick’s work revolves around particular dualities of meaning…clarity/ambiguity, order/chaos, symmetry/assymmetry, conventional/subversive, surface/depth, what we know and what remains hidden.” (Kubrick; pxxii)

Examining how a filmmaker like Kubrick dealt with issues related to narrative structure informs my own evolving understanding of complex film narrative structure. Kubrick dealt with every convention of visual narration; from his use of voice-over, editing, sound, and shot composition. Going slightly deeper, other aspects of Kubrick’s work also inform my own approach to creating graphic design adaptations; his use of repetition, time and space in general, and narrative segmentations.

Perhaps beyond all of this, I am curious in better understanding how Kubrick infuses his films with their very own unique sense of suspense and tension. I have come to see through my own research, making and reflecting – that suspense can be built through how one handles narrative conventions. It can be constructed, maintained, and dissipated through certain mechanisms inherent in each media it is applied to; from the novel format, to the television teaser, to a poster.

He further develops my initial interest in the structure of the detective story and how it can be applied to graphic design methods. His films consistently play with using point of view to both reveal and conceal information – while far more subtly than the detective story, there is a similar sense of disconnect between what we know and what we sense. The source of the suspense in his films is born from this wonderful tension. It is Kubrick’s presentation of the narrative that imbues the final piece with an underlying intrigue – constantly playing with deliberate strategies of fragmentation to build an internal tension.

Patterns Of Narrative And Sources Of Tension:

At first glance, the suspense in Kubrick’s films seems to arise from what one might call their unnerving tone; a tone that sometimes fits awkwardly with the underlying narrative content. Part of my thesis research is to really attempt to break open this ‘tone’ and understand how it is created and controlled.

On closer analysis, I suspect there are various sources of this tone. One is Kubrick’s specific handling of point of view; both his own point of view as filmmaker, and how that plays out amidst the points of view of his characters. His films play heavily with dramatic irony and the clash between what the characters know and what we as viewers know. Another source of this suspense is the tension in his work between classical/conventional storytelling and less conventional narrative modes. In what appears to be a conventional film structure, Kubrick works with complex temporal ordering, narrative gaps and repetition of narrative incidents.

Fragmentation, Voice And Subtext:

“We must distinguish between the narrator, or speaker, the one currently “telling” the story, and the author, the ultimate designer of the fable, who also decides for example, whether to have a narrator, and if so, how prominent he should be.” (Seymour Chapman; Stanley Kubrick; A Narrative and Stylistic Analysis; p 90)

The narrative fragmentation in Kubrick’s films is related to the above-discussed use of point of view. Rather than using aspects of point of view (voice-over, camera perspectives) to traditionally narrate and reveal, Kubrick deliberately fragments both the time structure and how information is presented to the viewer. He constantly plays with using the film’s very narrative structure to both reveal and conceal information from within the story. But in doing so, he simultaneously reveals and conceals his own hand as the orchestrater, conductor, and designer of this fictional world.

By creating fragmentation within a film’s structure, Kubrick forces the viewer to become aware of their own gaze, of the filmmaker’s gaze – and of the filmmaker’s mark on making this film. “Both the process of fragmenting information and the film’s non-linear time structure reflexively comment on the process of filmmaking. The complicated structure makes the viewers more aware of the importance of temporal ordering in film, forcing them to reflect on the organizing function of the filmmaker and the manipulation that goes into creating a film’s narrative.” (p.172; on The Killing) This technique strongly echoes what writers like Calvino and Fuentes were doing with narrative; drawing the viewer’s attention to the construct, rather than just experiencing the ‘plot’.

The handling of the character of Quilty in “Lolita” is a prime example; by making traces of this elusive character clearly visible in the foreground of the film’s structure, we become part of the game Kubrick is playing with the character, a game he plays against the film’s protagonist, Humbert. The audience starts to enjoy the fact that Humbert is oblivious to this game we are playing with the director. This is a great source of a really pleasurable suspense, and a way of transforming events into real drama; both knowing more than a character knows, and also not completely knowing what the filmmaker knows.

Dramatic Irony 

Kubrick’s handling of point of view in “Lolita” imbues the film with much of its intrigue and tension. Above all, narrational gaps work to build suspense in an already fairly suspenseful story. This is first and most fundamentally used with relation to the film’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert. He is set up as the ‘narrator’ from the start as he contributes the film’s voice-over. Gradually however, the authority of his narration is questioned and undermined. Much of the film’s narration actually takes place outside of Humbert’s field of vision (from the death of Charlotte Haze, to the entire relationship between Quilty and Lolita). Just as Hitchcock would find ways to physically limit the point of view of his protagonists (see Rear Window), Kubrick more subtly uses the same device. In undermining the authority of Humbert’s viewpoint, he ultimately destabilizes the audience’s of point of view. He exposes to us the illusion that this character is controlling the fictional presentation of events, when in fact the controlling point of view is more accurately constructed by the film’s overall narrating function. The film’s tension is derived from the actual tension between different frames of point of view. Similar to the role of the prologue in “The Turn of the Screw”, what audiences sense to function as the primary viewing frame (in this case the character of Humbert as narrator) is in fact a frame within a larger frame.- Kubrick’s own narratorial voice.

Subjectivity vs Objectivity

Kubrick works with juxtaposing character subjectivity with an objective mode of presentation in “The Shining” to underline this ghost story with a deeper question of what is real. Much of the film’s plot (interestingly, like “The Turn of the Screw”) is about the lead character, Jack Torrance’s mental deterioration and supernatural encounters with ‘ghosts’ in the Overlook Hotel. Beyond the ghost story conventions, it is entirely about the blurred line between subjective and objective reality (insanity aside). Through his use of camera, Kubrick is able to set up, and then contradict character’s point of view – question what is a character’s point of view shot, and what is an objective shot. The question “Whose frame of reference is this incident/action being seen through” is ever-present, and underlines the entire film with an incredible ambiguity. This question is more than just a game Kubrick plays – it is central to the very plot of this film, which is essentially a question of whether we believe a ghostly presence is responsible for the tragic ending, or whether Jack Torrance is responsible. Point of view is the key that could solve this puzzle – and Kubrick never spells it out – “…an understanding of the film relies on what the viewer can see and what is hidden from view, what we think we know and what we can only speculate on…” (p125

Kubrick is able to imbue the story with a sense of the supernatural through his manipulation of how camera behaves – relying on cinematic conventions of what audiences perceive to be a ‘point of view shot’. From the beginning as Jack drives towards the hotel with aerial photography observing him, the audience questions whose view this is. We see this in the way the steadicam follows Danny as he rides his bicycle down the halls, which hints at someone following or observing this character. Many unusual camera angles (either from below or above, as in the opening shots) deliberately detach the camera view from a character view – which forces the audience to subconsciously sense a ghostly presence is affording us this viewpoint.

In other instances in “The Shining” – where audiences would expect to see a point of view shot we are instead presented with an ‘objective’ view. This principle is applied to the protagonist Jack more than any other character – with almost no subjective point of view shots from this character, his inner life is kept hidden from the audience. In contrast the audience often sees what his son Danny sees, mostly in his visions, which are highly subjective shots. When Danny sees visions of the hacked bodies of the two girls, he blots out his view by covering his eyes. When Jack’s mental condition is of prime importance to the audience, Kubrick uses a slow zoom shot of his face- “The elusiveness of the shot lies precisely in the fact that it wants to suggest something but leaves it to the viewer to determine the precise nature nature of Jack’s mental state.” (p126)


Analysis of the filmic and literary models led to a focus on self-reflective narrative structures – structures that expose their own construction. These are also narrative forms that both reveal and conceal their content. As a form – they embody an innate tension for this reason. They withhold information, and hold the audience back from seeing a complete view of the story. They are forms that suspend the audience – that simultaneously involve and distance us. These different narrative models were a rich area to delve into; revealing various methods for creating this tension.

Detective story structure is about the stalling of action, the hold off of resolution until the end, but this delay is highly controlled. The visual equivalent would be a frame that only reveals aspects of one final, complete image. The frame starts too close – and then pulls back too far, scale and angle of frame (metaphorically!) obscures what we yearn to see. Gradually frame allows the pieces to connect and the mystery can be solved. The most literal equivalent of the frame in the detective story is the detective; he/she functions as the framer of content, the eyes through which the reader perceives and grasps clues. The viewpoint of the author becomes the viewpoint of the detective, which in turn becomes the viewpoint of the reader.

The frame in Hitchcock’s and Kubrick’s film work is more complex. Similar to the detective story model – their work is almost a commentary on the medium itself – always tinged with a knowing. While this emphasis on how the medium of film can affect the film’s narrative structure never overcomes the film – it was always a concern of both filmmakers. As Hitchcock commented, “I’m interested not so much in the stories I tell as in the means of telling them.” (Centenary Essays; p.7) Both directors played the tension between the frame of audience perception, versus the frame of character perception. The frame contains a self-reflexive concern and thereby creates dramatic irony, characters whose limited point of view clashes with our own knowledge.

Bonitzer argued that there is an essential relationship between the labyrinth, cinema, and the use of suspense. He picked up on the idea of framing as means by which we see and do not see… “what we cannot see is also an active part of the system and always on the verge of being revealed…” (Thrillers, p.26) I contend that this use of the frame in film has also been used similarly in literary narrative model – though in those instances the frame operates as a metaphorical frame, the mode of narration, the viewpoint of the author, or the protagonist within the novel. I also think this notion of framing is key to my own design of visual narrative, and can have fascinating repercussions in graphic design, precisely because framing in graphic design can be both filmic and literary. One can work with a literal frame (frame of page, screen in motion work) as well as the frame of narrator/designer/author. How can the inherent tension from using the frame in this way work in graphic design? What potential is there? Understanding this tension is the start to applying it – and understanding that tensions like these are not an end, but a means. To what end? I am beginning to see that the main power of this tension is its affect on the audience – and their involvement in the narrative.

References (2016). A Study of Suspense: Film Narrative. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Nov. 2016].


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s