We all know that Alfred Hitchcock is the master of suspense. It is one of the reasons why so many of us consider him to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. His understanding of the artform allowed him to create complex cinematic worlds that engulfed his audience as they watched his cast of complicated heroes and villains navigate his morally gray worlds.
We’ve broken down many of the ways Hitchcock has created suspense, but Wolfcrow realizes that Hitchcock used a specific formula in each of his most suspenseful scenes throughout his career. This four-step system included camera movement, static shots, Classic Hollywood coverage, and dynamic use of the Kuleshov effect to bring the audience closer to the world Hitchcock wanted to showcase.
Let’s break down how you can recreate a great and suspenseful Hitchcockian scene with this four-step formula.
Camera movement can provide a much-needed layer of visual storytelling to a scene, but Hitchcock takes this a step further, using camera movement to lull the audience in.
In many of his murderous scenes, Hitchcock starts by moving the camera with the subject throughout the space. As Detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) in Psycho walks up the stairs of the Bates’ house, the camera moves up the stairs with him.
The audience knows that Mrs. Bates is somewhere in the house, and the camera opens up the space behind Arbogast, filling us with terror as we try to anticipate what direction Mrs. Bates will emerge from. After Arbogast is attacked, he falls down the stairs and the camera follows him, bookending the scene with the two tracking shots.
Another example of this is in the final scene in Vertigo. As Scottie (James Stewart) and Judy (Kim Novak) climb the tower, a dolly zoom (or the Vertigo zoom) takes us to the top. We are following the action while also becoming disoriented in the space. This mimics how both of the characters feel as the suspense of the scene heightens.
The camera movement intentionally disarms the audience as we assume it is just a simple shot of someone in motion. On a closer look, the camera works subconsciously, manipulating space to reflect the state of mind the character is entering. When the character is firmly in a specific state of mind, Hitchcock’s genius locks in with a static camera.
A static camera
While a camera in motion can feel naturalist and familiar, the static camera creates an eerie language that forces us to watch what is unfolding on screen, after Hitchcock lulls his audience into a false place of familiarity.
In The Birds,the camera stops tracking Melanie (Tippi Hedren) as sits down near a playground. The camera remains static as it watches her, cutting to the playground behind her that is slowly being taken over by birds. As more and more birds appear in each shot, the audience begins to fear for the unaware Melanie, becoming desperate for her to simply turn around.
The lack of movement mimics one of the ways we respond to a threat: freezing. Hitchcock has complete control over how we interact with a scene, and he forces the audience to watch the tension building while knowing there is nothing they can do about it. The audience cannot flee or fight. Instead, they must wait for something to happen.
Hitchcock was hyper-aware that he had control over how the audience watched a scene. The suspense is built by his refusal to let the audience look away from what could happen. That is why the audience is relieved when Melanie looks back and sees all of the birds because we no longer have to anticipate what will happen.
Classic Hollywood coverage
Coverage hasn’t changed much throughout the history of cinema. Classic Hollywood coverage often starts with a long shot that goes to a medium shot, then a close-up, and ends with a long shot. You can find this style of coverage in most films because it works. Why change something that works?
Well, Hitchcock does classic coverage with a twist.
The twist comes with the final long shot which is often positioned from a high angle. The camera, sometimes moving away from its subject, puts the audience at arm's length from the subject to show the character's emotions or state of mind in the scene. The effect can be used as a release from the suspense, but Hitchcock also uses it to build tension in the space, manipulating a character's size in the space, often making them look small and insignificant.
'Psycho'Credit: Paramount Pictures
The Kuleshov effect
The Kuleshov effect of the most subtle yet effective actions in filmmaking. Lev Kuleshov, the film editor the effect is named after, discovered that the expression of an actor can be interpreted as several emotions depending on what shot was shown next.
This effect is the foundation of editing today due to its ability to create the illusion of temporal continuity. It also allows the audience to correctly interpret what the actor is experiencing, playing with the audience’s empathy. Hitchcock, being the sneaky genius he was, often used the Kuleshov effect to tell the audience how to feel by showing the fear in his character’s faces.
When the killer in Psychopulls the shower curtains back and the camera cuts to Marion (Janet Leigh) screaming in terror, the audience immediately understands that what is happening isn’t a shocking joke. Instead, Marion is stuck and afraid, and the audience feels the same way.
'Psycho'Credit: Paramount Pictures
These four steps create a classic Hitchcockian scene. These seem simple enough, yet they are incredibly effective in practice. If there is anything we can learn from Hitchcock, it is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to be a great filmmaker. Instead, you must understand the simple elements of the craft and its effect on the viewer. Understanding and perfecting the basics doesn’t mean that your scene will be basic.
Have you noticed other elements to some of Hitchcock’s greatest sequences? Let us know what they are in the comments below!