4. My Take On…Suspense

This is the first in a series of three pages I want to call the “My Take On…” series.  In essence, it is the way I view three different genres or styles of storytelling and film making.  Ideally, these will help to categorically define what makes for good and bad performances within these genres and give lee-way in evaluating their purpose and delivery.  Recall that this blog is designed to document–retrospectively–my evolution as a movie-goer, and so these pages should, in essence, aid in showing my change of thought and outlook on these facets of film.

So far, this blog has been Hitchcock-heavy.  Already, I have included him on my list of the greatest directors, mentioned him in my second page (my title track, if you will) and have done my first review on his film, Vertigo.  There is a purpose for that.  Hitchcock is perhaps the best way to introduce a casual movie-goer into the new world of competency in being an active movie participant.  He is a “gateway drug”, as it were, into the new realms of artistic expression and human understanding that movies from other eras and other nations provide.  He was certainly my gateway.  I remember watching Psycho my freshman year of college for the first time.  That was a turning point for me, certainly.  Another key moment happened one night in my bedroom at my parent’s home in the weeks preceding my departure for Russia to serve a mission.  I stayed up late that night watching Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest on my laptop.  From that point onward, I was on the fast track to Fellini, Ozu, and Bergman.

I want, therefore, to continue with the Hitchcock theme a little longer; perhaps all this is due to my bias regarding this director, but I can’t see how this would hurt.  What better way, therefore, to start my “My Take On…” series than with a page on suspense?

The Master of Suspense himself is credited for saying that there is no suspense “in the bang–but in the anticipation of it.”  Is this true?  I say yes…and not just because the great Alfred Hitchcock told me so.

My freshman year of college, I audited a creative writing class taught by renowned fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson, of Elantris and Wheel of Time fame.  One period, he invited his friend and former classmate, Dan Wells, as a guest speaker.  Wells had just begun publicity for his debut horror novel, I Am Not a Serial Killer.  As a horror novelist,  one who had achieved relative praise for his book, I think his words to the class were rather quotable (thought I, undoubtedly, won’t remember them as perfect quotes).  In summation, he explained the art of suspense was in creating the aura, creating the tension, through one or both of two mediums: anticipation (as Hitchcock said), and empathy.  The latter is the more vile of the two, and fittingly so: is there anything more frightening in this world than being the bad guy yourself?

While I will focus mostly on the object of anticipation, I first will submit that there is a common strain between these two mediums in that they both deal with getting inside the mind of the consumer.  Make the viewer feel the reality of this concoction, give them a slice of cake, and they won’t be able to swallow it until the movie’s over.  Most of the fears surrounding Hannibal Lecter are not manifest when he escapes from his makeshift cell.  The real fear is manifest when he’s behind the glass wall that you know he can’t escape from.  All that security creates the aura of greatness that is made much more potent when not in practice.  Before we see him actually do something, we allow our minds to do just as a good horror director would have us do; we begin to anticipate and create in our minds the vastness of his ability or his evil.  With each passing iron gate and padlocked steel door, with each cell housing a deranged monster, and with each echoing footstep as we go deeper and deeper into the recesses of a vile underground prison we build up that imagined understanding of invincibility and super-humanity.  Lecter is more sinister the more the moment is built to.  Furthermore, he becomes more terrifying to us as he starts getting into our minds.  The more we speculate, the more we are haunted by his calming, tepid voice, and the more we are seduced by his justifications.  Then, we find ourselves cheering inside ourselves at the end of the movie when we find that he is about to kill the warden who so brutally mistreated him in that prison.  Are we cheering for the bad guy?  That’s when the real horror strikes.  In the same movie, The Silence of the Lambs by the way, the main antagonist, Wild Bill, takes his respective credit for the overall suspense.  Through the genius of Lecter, we–along with protagonist Clarice Sterling–are taken unwillingly into the mind of the psychopath, a place of understanding to which we don’t want to go.

And, as we get into their minds, we come to fear more and more what they are going to do.  That is what makes for good suspense.  The issue in too many movies today is we don’t appreciate that buildup, we’d rather scream than be put on edge.  But, being on edge is the whole point.  The screaming is fine, but that’s elementary.  Anyone can put some gross image on a screen, or have a chainsaw come at you in 3D and make you scream.  It’s the creation of the atmosphere of uneasiness that defines a good suspense picture.  So, coming back to Hitchcock, I want to give one fantastic example.

In the film Notorious, Cary Grant’s character–a spy–has recruited a German-American woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, to not only infiltrate, but sacrifice herself in almost every way in order to infiltrate, a corrupt and clandestine oligarchical organization of ex-Nazis.  The reasons behind her sacrifice are amazing, and the review on this film will explain it deeper.  The most significant part of the story in regards to what makes a great suspense picture is the ending.  Cary Grant picks up Ingrid Bergman, poisoned and almost lifeless, and cradles her in his arms.  There is no way to escape; the Nazi-group is going to kill them.  But still, Grant and Bergman leave the mansion, with the entire group of Nazis looking on, and flee to safety without a single shot being fired.  Hitchcock employs several tricks to prolong the suspense (including an obvious lengthening out of the stairway down which the pair ascends), and all is for the direct purpose to keep the viewer on edge.  The longer we wait, the more and more likely the event will see its culmination.  But how will it end?  We wait and wait…and then we exhale deeply.  The suspense is not in the scream…it is in the deep breath.

That is an aspect of suspense that we lose in so many films today.  The casual movie-goer would be disappointed in this ending because of its lack of action.  But the competent movie-goer is amazed at what has just been seen.  Recall that moment in Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl when Kiera Knightley’s Elizabeth starts to recite the anecdotes she has heard about the great Jack Sparrow.  “You sacked Nassau Port without even firing a shot,” she says.  I find that statement very significant.  Certainly, it contributes to the overall enigma of the Jack Sparrow character, and that is very important in establishing the transcendent qualities that make him such an icon in 21st Century film.  But what makes it so much more telling when it is spoken, but not shown?  It seems to me that if someone were to make a film about the sacking of Nassau Port, no one would really like it because it seems that there is no scene of action in the movie–after all, a shot was never fired.  The bold movie-maker, however, would film it.  Hitchcock does that a lot.  We may be “bored” because there’s no fight scene at the end, no climax of a progressive build-up between two parties.  Instead, he takes a “Nassau Port” statement and chooses to show it in real life.  If a sequel were ever made for Notorious, I could envision a lead character saying to the character Devlin, “You walked right through a circle of Nazi scientists with their prisoner in hand and survived without a single shot being fired!”  Something, at least, to that effect.

While the inclusion of an action-scene ending can be unnecessary and sometimes even detrimental to a film, it contributes to the problem of ruining our perception of good suspense.  Once the fight scene starts, the suspense ends.  If, therefore, you can somehow reach a climax without a scene with which the suspense can be dissipated (i.e. a fight scene), you have prolonged and increased the suspense and, in essence, sacked Nassau Port.

We need to be able to appreciate both: the fight scene, and the Notorious style ending.  When we do, we won’t be turned off by the older films, and instead, we’ll be able to embrace both old and new.

Suspense is incredibly important in a film.  Movies can impact you by touching your emotions.  Some emotions are harder to reach, hence the movie accomplishes more when it does so.  La Dolce Vita, The Bicycle Thief and Sunrise are three of many that do just that.  Other emotions are more on the surface: explicit fear, uneasiness, sadness, or outright elation.  It is important for movies that appeal to these easier emotions that they keep those emotions constantly at the surface in order to provide an atmosphere for the viewing, and to impart forever an aura that will be linked in the mind of the viewer to that film.  I’ll never forget the way I felt the first time I watched The Godfather, it appealed to those surface emotions in a way that most films never do; and it did it, like many other great movies, through proper construction of suspense.

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