6 Filmmaking Techniques Alfred Hitchcock Used to Create Suspense


Although you may not have seen any of his movies (a situation which you seriously need to rectify), you’ve certainly heard the name, Alfred Hitchcock. He is recognized as one of the great minds of cinematographic history and is even hailed as the Master of Suspense.

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But what was it about this icon that made his movies such a huge success? What was the secret he used in creating suspense in his movies? How does Hitchcock manufacture suspense in his films?

In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the methods Hitchcock employed in creating shock and suspense in his movies.

Before we can start analyzing how Hitchcock created suspense in his movies, let us first look at the difference between shock and suspense. To quote the man himself, he once said

“It is indispensable that the public is made aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise, there is no suspense.”

This means that with suspense, you are aware of what’s going to happen, but the anticipation is what makes it so nerve-racking. Whereas with shock, there’s no expectation of what’s to happen. In order words, you’re caught pants down.

Without going on much longer, let’s look at some of the ways Alfred Hitchcock has created suspense in his movies.

1. Hitchcock Leading Ladies

One of the more interesting techniques to create suspense Hitchcock employed was in his leading ladies. Other they were mostly blonde, they all went against most of the female stereotypes popular in the 1940s up to the 1960s.

While the most famous blondes of that era never appeared in his movies, there is no denying that his female leads were sexy in their right. Like most female leads, they were sexy but in a subtle way that combined fashion with fetishism.

They were also capable of mesmerizing their male counterparts who were most times handicapped either physically or psychologically. However, the women in Hitchcock’s movies were not just decorative pieces on the arms of their male leads; they were true lead characters.

This dynamic nature of his female leads and their willingness to take action (Madeline jumping off the church tower in Vertigo easily springs to mind) is probably what created suspense.

You never know what to expect. One minute you’re being seduced by a blond bombshell on screen and the next you see them jumping off towers.

2. Making Use of Subjectivity

Hitchcock often made use of subjectivity for a lot of voyeuristic purposes. Hitchcock’s characters had the uncanny ability to mimic the movie audience by a basic instinct to ogle an unassuming subject.

But this technique is not one of Hitchcock’s creations and in fact named Lev Kuleshov as his inspiration. This technique is known as “The Kuleshov Effect.”

By rhythmically repeating this technique, Hitchcock was able to cultivate suspense in a lot of his movies. He periodically switched from the ogler to the ogled which led to building the action.

What resulted from this was a feeling and anticipation of utter helplessness as you watch the character observe a dangerous situation unfold and you see he or she proved incapable of preventing the spectacle.

In the movie Rear Window, Hitchcock can build the suspense the audience feels by building the one felt by the character. This way the audience feels like they are one with the character or are sharing something personal and intimate together.

3. Information to Create Suspense

Hitchcock believed that information and suspense went hand in hand, he believed in showing the audience what the character was unaware of. If something was going to harm your character in the future, show it at the beginning scene.

Then you let the scene play like there’s nothing wrong. From time to time, remind the audience of the looming danger. This way you continuously build up the suspense level. Remember, the character is unaware of the coming danger.

One method Hitchcock used in increasing the suspense level was by having the camera playfully roam around looking for something or someone suspicious. This way, the audience not only feels like they’re involved in solving the mystery, but they also feel like they’re one step ahead of the character.


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4. Montage

Another method Hitchcock applied was in dividing action into a series of close-ups that were then shown in succession. This is a basic technique in cinematography. However, you should not make the mistake of thinking it is the same as throwing random shots together as you would see in a fight sequence.

This is a more subtle approach. First, Alfred Hitchcock starts with a close-up of a hand, then an arm, then you’ll see a face, followed by a gun falling to the floor, all of which are tied together to tell a story.

This allowed him to portray an event by showing different pieces of it and gaining control over the timing. You can also use this method to hide parts of an event from the audience so that their mind is engaged.

5. Keeping the Story Simple

The confusing and overly complex story requires the audience to memorize quite a bit. It’s hard to squeeze out suspense from stories like that. The key to Hitchcock’s raw energy in his movies is the simplistic linear stories he adopts.

They are usually easy for the audience to follow and grasp. Your screenplay should be streamlined, so it offers the highest dramatic impact.

Abstract stories tend to bore audiences. This is why Hitchcock mostly used crime stories that were filled with a lot of spies, assassinations, and people constantly running from the police. Plots like these aren’t necessary for all movies, but they are the easiest to play on fear.

6. Avoiding Cliché Character When You Create Suspense

Clichés are boring and easy to predict. When you create suspense the best characters are those with hard to predict personalities, make decisions on a whim instead of what is expected from the previous buildup. Audiences tend to find such characters much more realistic which makes it easier for something to happen to them.

What is a MacGuffin?

Many of you might have heard of the term “MacGuffin” floating out there in the ether, but what the is it? The answer is not that straightforward. Legendary director Alfred Hitchcock coined the phrase back in the days of his film 39 Steps and used it throughout his career.

When asked what a MacGuffin was Hitchcock told this story:

A man asks, “Well, what is a MacGuffin?” You say, “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish highlands.” Man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish highlands.” Then you say, “Then that’s no MacGuffin.”

According to Wikipedia:

In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or another motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a McGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. The most common type of McGuffin is a person, place, or thing (such as money or an object of value). Other more abstract types include victory, glory, survival, power, love, or some unexplained driving force.

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