6 Cinematic Techniques Alfred Hitchcock Used to Create Suspense on TV

Credit: Europa Quotidiano
We know his movies. We've watched them, studied them, extracted all of the cinematic wisdom we can from them. But Alfred Hitchcock's TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents is an oft unopened door inside the genius of the Master of Suspense.

And who better to open that door and show us around than author and leading Hitchcock scholar Jeffrey Michael Bays. In the first of several episodes of his web series Hitch20, Bays examines the cinematic techniques the director used in Presents, including using happy settings to heighten drama, roaming camera movements, "following the eyes," his special attention toward hands, feet, and objects, Hitch's famous "silent murders," and finally, knowing when not to cut.

Here's the first episode:

We certainly love to talk about Alfred Hitchcock here at NFS -- I'm not sure if I've met anyone who doesn't -- and a huge reason for that is because he managed to perfect the way he built tension and suspense in not only his TV show, but in his films. (Of course!) He did this in a number of ways, including the techniques mentioned in list you just saw in Bays' video, but there are many other things Hitchcock did, too -- his focus on his characters' eyes, editing techniques, like the ones he used in Rope, even that crop duster scene in North By Northwest used a setting you wouldn't expect to be used in a distressing scene like that -- all of these are classic Hitchcockian tropes.

Now, you could learn all about the Master of Suspense and try to recreate his magic in your own way, but remember this: Hitchcock became the Master because he understood how cinema affects an audience on an emotional level. That's the crux. You can shoot a murder mystery in Pasadena and make your camera follow barefooted blondes all day until they get bludgeoned by a silhouetted guy in a trench coat behind a malt shop, but that won't make it truly Hitchcockian -- that won't give it that hallmark tension or suspense. 

Paying close attention to how every aspect of your film affects your audience is the essence of Hitchcock -- shot size, camera angle, camera movement, lens, blocking, lighting, costuming, music, sound, editing -- literally everything represents a cinematic word or phrase that you're speaking to your audience through the language of aesthetics. Hitchcock was so knowledgeable of this, that he was once described as having his own "dialect" in terms of visual language. (I suppose you could say all auteurs do.)

Here are a couple of links in case you want to study up on your aesthetic theory and become a little more visually literate    

Your Comment


The films of Alfred often speak of the same subject : a couple who try to make love. Madam really want cuddling from Mr… but we don’t know exactly why, Mr Mister does not feel confortable with that.

« North by Norwest » :

- Georges, come close to me…
(in realty : George watch a TV show)

- George, kiss me…
(in reality : Georges is falling from the sofa]

- Georges ! Take me now!!!
- But we are in a public train station !!!
(in reality : the living room curtains are open)

And finally, when they find a proper place (train cabin), Georges stop to be panicked and they just do their love affair.

« Rear windows » : an impotent man [big « SYMBOL » sign blink here] who one of the most beautiful woman in the world (Grace Kelly) comes to him almost each evening, her eyes crying for embracing him

And what that pervert prefer than kissing her ? Looking at the neighbor panties with binoculars and imagine paranoid story about what he saw. Again, a man who’s afraid of her lover (physical) desire and invent fantasies to avoid it.

« The man who knew too much » : a couple who travel for a sort of « second weeding night », but cannot find their moment to have sex due to their stupid children mess.

« Vertigo » : it's praticaly the subject of the film, a man who transform a woman into another because he cannot have sex with her again.

« The Rope » : two gay males who does not stand it and choose to kill neither to kiss.

« Psycho » : same as Vertigo, it’s the subject of the film. An old boy stuck in his closet, that kill rivals (= other woman) who impeach him to be loved by man.

The only remarkable exception is "The Bird", entirly writen about women desire and with extroardinary women characters. To me it's a model on how to make understand the audience character's deeps feelings with just simple shot and no dialog.

The mother, that any other director would presents as a cartoon is subtilely describe on her pain and freight to be abandoned.

The former « school teacher » girlfriend being trapped in a sentimental
dead end with amazing sequence with her current "rival".

That middle-age woman in the bar, describe as emancipated : traveller, scientist smoking & drinking, the only one who understand that the problem are not natural.

Tipi Hedren wants to be as a woman like this one, but her family tree always make her feels as a spoiled « daddy’s girl »… and she got the same problem as an ordinary male Hitch char, sexual obstruction.

She start as an hard cold and complicated woman and end totally tired and sad, all her depression falling on her shoulders as she cannot even walk.

« Beware of the woman sadness » told us Hitch (to be correct : the Daphne Du Maurier novel he has adapted ).

Sadness of the mother, of the old girlfriend, of the mother about her children in the bar, of a mother about her widow statues . That’s the sadness figured by the birds and no one wants to see it, just focusing on consequence and not on reason.

And that is the proper genius of Hitchcock (and many other directors), make an « ordinary movie » that everyone can see with extraordinary subtile writing structure and sub-speaking.

(sorry for my grammar, I'm not english native)

December 17, 2014 at 12:45PM


This is really amazing, and also made me want to watch Hitchcock films, I started with Psycho and then the 2012 film/documentary about the director and the making of the movie itself.

December 22, 2014 at 12:10PM

Lucas Zanella
Director / DP / Editor