MPW Blog: Alfred Hitchcock on the Difference Between Surprise and Suspense – by Jason Pyles

Hitchcock Blog

Prelude
Welcome to the resurrection of the Movie Podcast Weekly blog articles. This will probably only last for one or two articles, so enjoy it.

The Disappearance of Suspense
Lately I’ve been lamenting the absence of genuine suspense in our present-day cinema, especially in the Horror genre. I’m worried that it’s getting to be a lost art, or at least, a lost portion from the cinematic form.

The cynical side of me suspects that the recent generations of filmmakers have stopped spending time learning from “the great ones,” the pioneering filmmakers of the 20th century. I’m worried that black and white film has scared them away.

But I have a more likely theory: I believe we’ve lost genuine suspense with the advent of computer-generated imagery (CGI). Because we’re now able to conjure any being or environs out of thin air, I think the erroneous but pervasive belief must be that we don’t need to spend time “building up” to something; we can just make it happen right now.

Hence, the death of suspense.

Let me tell you a few things about the man we call “The Master of Suspense.”

Alfred Hitchcock worked in the cinema for 50 years. During that time, his efforts spanned silent film and sound films. Hitchcock worked in three different countries for various studios, and he worked independently. Here are just a few of his greatest works. If you haven’t seen any of them, consider them “must-sees”:

Sabotage (1936)
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Notorious (1946)
Rope (1948)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Rear Window (1954)
Vertigo (1958)
North by Northwest (1959)
Psycho (1960)
The Birds (1963)

This has been a long-winded preamble, but I was attempting to keep my readers in suspense, despite the computer-generated imagery that you’re reading.

Here is a remarkable explanation where Hitchcock plainly explains the difference between suspense and surprise. He said:

“There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise,’ and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

“We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s 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 public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware 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, the 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 is a bomb beneath you, and it is 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, except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.” —Alfred Hitchcock

Jason again: From the Master himself, that is the difference between surprise and suspense.

If you’d like to study this matter on a much more in-depth, much more scholarly level, then I’d recommend reading the greatest living film scholar, David Bordwell.

If this blog article was even remotely interesting to you, please know that we have a weekly movie podcast where we review new movies that are in theaters every single Wednesday. Last week we reviewed “Pixels,” “Southpaw” and “Paper Towns.” And this upcoming week we’ll be reviewing “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” (2015). Join us free on iTunes or here at Movie Podcast Weekly.com.

Postlude and Dedication
Today is August 1, the 57th birthday of one of my all-time favorite teachers in life: Dr. Rick Moody. He taught me Film History and Intro to Film classes, and I loved the latter so much that I still attended his class (while in significant pain) on the very same day I had heart surgery and was released from the hospital. His class was that good to me. I didn’t miss it for anything. 10 out of 10.

In honor of Dr. Moody’s birthday and his greatness, I’m going to provide a couple of my all-time favorite Dr. Moody quotes from his class (which I wrote down verbatim), and I’ve written the short article above about suspense, as taught by The Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Happy birthday, Dr. Moody.

Regarding “Jurassic Park”: “I’m OK with little kids being torn apart by dinosaurs, but not everyone is…” — Dr. Moody

Regarding Meryl Streep: “Do you dress up like her when you watch her movies? … ‘Cause I do.” — Dr. Moody

Regarding “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”: “If you’re good enough at Kung Fu, you can fly.” — Dr. Moody

Regarding “The Real World” TV show: “I know all their names, and they’re all my friends.” — Dr. Moody

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7 thoughts on “MPW Blog: Alfred Hitchcock on the Difference Between Surprise and Suspense – by Jason Pyles

  1. I haven’t read this yet but I promise I will soon. I love when you post blogs, Jay and judging by the title of this I’m going to be in agreement with you. many modern filmmakers seem to assume that audiences will find “suspenseful build up” boring and instead just resort to mindless action bereft of any real sense of meaning or effectiveness.

    • Yes, Sir. Totally agree. Your fellow countryman had it right. The irony is, it’s precisely the slow build-up that filmmakers are avoiding that can make films so engaging.
      J

  2. While reading your piece on suspense vs surprise, it got me wondering something. Do modern horror audiences (See: the average run of the mill moviegoer, not the super fans that may be posting on these podcast pages) want true suspense in their horrors? It seems as if whenever there’s a film that tries to add some legitimate suspense to their film, moviegoers cry out that it’s boring and it’s too slow moving. It seems as if modern horror audiences are trained to believe surprises make up true horror and suspense is mostly just dull non-action.

    • Sal,
      Jay here. As the host of Horror Movie Podcast (http://horrormoviepodcast.com/), I really appreciate your question. You are very wise to wonder such a thing.

      Here’s what my alter ego, “Jay of the Dead,” proposes in answer to your great question:
      I submit that if a horror filmmaker can generate genuine suspense that builds up to the scares and the horror, then horror fans will absolutely love it! They will have a great experience because the suspense super-charges the scares.

      Case in point: In 2009, I was the print film critic for a newspaper back East. I saw “Paranormal Activity” at a midnight screening, and regardless of how you feel about that film, the audience I watched it with (myself included) experienced genuine suspense, and even though very little actual horror occurs during the course of that film, we all had a blast because the building of the suspense made the scares that much more potent!

      I’m not saying it’s always going to be easy for a filmmaker to conjure suspense, but if he or she follows Hitchcock’s explanation quoted here in my blog article, I don’t think the filmmaker can miss…

      Thanks for writing, Sal.
      Jay

      • Jay, I’m glad you brought up PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. That was actually the film I had in mind while typing up my previous comment. Just quickly, I’ll say that I loved the movie. I thought the standing still scenes were absolutely terrifying. It’s a film that stayed with me long after I got home from the theater. In fact, I found the film to be even more scary while I was at home instead of being at the theater. I’m a night owl so I’m typically up late. After seeing the movie, any time I heard a creak in the house (My house is over fifty years old, so it has some noises), I was far more tense than I would have been just twenty-four hours earlier. The funny thing is I don’t even have a firm opinion on ghosts. Do they exist or are they not real? I don’t know. I suppose I’m ghost agnostic. Yet, hearing those noises in my house after watching PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, I was tense. I did not feel comfortable. Feeling this way about a movie that had been finished for several hours or even days, made me realize how much I loved it.

        At the same time, while I thought the original PARANORMAL ACTIVITY was a great source for suspense and scares, it was very easy to find someone with the opposite opinion. I’ve encountered two types of people when it comes to the movie. Those who feel the film was terrifying and those who felt it was long, dull, and nothing ever happened. So ultimately, some moviegoers showed that the suspense style horror was not what they viewed as scary or even entertaining. They wanted something more over the top and in your face. Basically, they wanted jump scares.

        • I’m so glad the two of you are discussing PARANORMAL ACTIVITY as a recent example of a film that creates genuine suspense. I agree 100%, which is why it sits at #3 on my top 5 scariest films of all-time list. (it sounds like my theater experience was similar to J’s, which also helped with the suspense/scare factor)

  3. This was an entertaining read, J. Thanks for bringing it to the site.

    It’s also made me realize how criminally ignorant I am to Hitchcock’s works. I need to get on that.

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