Hitchcock on the Art of Suspense
In 1939, Alfred Hitchcock gave a lecture at Radio City Music Hall organized by The Museum of Modern Art and Columbia University. The talk (read the full transcript here) takes you inside the creative evolution of Hitchcock’s filmmaking. First comes the bare bones plot, then a fuller treatment, complete with the dialogue and a suspenseful story that drives the movie along for two hours. Hitchcock was the master of creating suspense – of giving the audience the “dope,” as he otherwise calls it – that strings viewers along. And, just what was in that “dope”? He describes it below:
That is the one thing that disturbs me a little. You see modern novels, psychological novels, with frank characterizations and very good psychology, but there has been a tendency, with the novel and with a lot of stage plays, to abandon story. They don’t tell enough story or plot. For a motion picture, we do need quite an amount of story.
Now the reason we need a lot of story is this: a film takes an hour and twenty minutes to play, and an audience can stand about an hour. After an hour, it starts to get tired, so it needs the injection of some dope. One might also say there should be a slogan, “Keep them awake at the movies!”
That dope, as one might call it, is action, movement, and excitement; but more than that, keeping the audience occupied mentally. People think, for example, that pace is fast action, quick cutting, people running around, or whatever you will, and it is not really that at all. I think that pace in a film is made entirely by keeping the mind of the spectator occupied. You don’t need to have quick cutting, you don’t need to have quick playing, but you do need a very full story and the changing of one situation to another. You need the changing of one incident to another, so that all the time the audience’s mind is occupied.
Now so long as you can sustain that and not let up, then you have pace. That is why suspense is such a valuable thing, because it keeps the mind of the audience going. Later on I will tell you how I think the audience should participate in those things.