Hitchcock was the ‘Master of Suspense’. His plots got rid of horror movies cliches and displayed interesting, multi-dimensional characters. Hitchcock’s films became a major influence to many directors that came after him and his name will be forever associated with suspense. However, his success was not by coincidence, “pure” genius or flair. He applied a series of rules and followed structures that he believed were the key to having a successful suspense thriller.
The first thing he made clear was the difference between mystery and suspense. ‘Mystery is an intellectual process but suspense is an emotional one’, as he explained in this interview. Mystery in a film as an audience means we, the audience, do not know the reason why a character acts in this or that way. On the other hand to create suspense as a director you have to give the information to the audience so that they engage with the character and his circumstances.
Connecting with the idea explained above, for Hitchcock suspense meant to always let the audience know more than the characters. On the book Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock explains this by giving a very simple example. If in a film suddenly there is an explosion, as an audience we are surprised because we were not expecting it. However, if in a film you see someone placing a bomb then you see someone in that place unaware of the danger, then we see a clock marking the time, as an audience you want to tell the characters to run because a bomb will explode. We have engaged with them. We know the circumstances and we guess the terrible luck of the character so we suffer for him. Like in ‘The birds’ when the heroine waits patiently on a bench for a class of children to be finished without realising that a bunch of villainous birds are awaiting behind her.
Hitchcock wanted the audience to feel as voyeurs. He used the camera in a way that mimics a person’s gaze. We are silently left to see every action, every detail of the character and of his action. The most relevant example is his film ‘Rear Window’. The protagonist with a broken leg is confined to his apartment where he spends his hours observing through his rear window and makes the assumption that a crime has been committed.
As the audience we share the character’s sight, we are with him in that apartment, seeing what is going on through that window, spying on other’s people’s lives and making assumptions of our own. In his interviews with Truffaut he explains: “I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look; no one turns away and says, “It’s none of my business.””
The McGuffin is a term adopted by a scriptwriter collaborating with Hitchcock. They used it to describe that thing that in the film is key for the character. It can be anything that would make the character pursue a goal to the end. Sometimes the McGuffin might never physically appear, but it serves as a trigger to develop the plot. Hitchcock was an expert in using McGuffins to build the suspense, ‘It covers all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn’t matter what it is. […] The only thing that really matters is that in the picture it must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatever”, (Hitchcock/Truffaut, pp.111-112). The McGuffin is the most important thing for the character but the plot is about something else.
For example, in Notorious the McGuffin is the radioactive element hidden in the wine bottles. When the main characters go down to the wine cellar and find out about it, this fact doesn’t really matter. What it matters is that the characters, who secretly have desire for each other, are together in that cellar and how the sexual tension between them is build.
The formula of Hitchcock suspense doesn’t contradict his talent or his genius. Having formulas or guidelines, as we prefer to call them, won’t limit creativity but will provide a greater guarantee of success that will come across at the box-office -with more tickets sold- or online -with more watch time per video. In an era where entertainment and engagement are everything, brands can draw invaluable lessons for their corporate videos by analysing the formulas of success of great directors of the past and present.