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Alfred Hitchcock remains cinema’s peerless master of suspense

Posted in America, Cinema, Historical articles, History on Monday, 30 September 2013

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This edited article about cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 413 published on 13 December 1969.

Hound of the Baskervilles, picture, image, illustration

The Hound of the Baskervilles

It is dark and late when the silence of the house is broken by a knocking at the door. The sound reverberates through the old house, and the young couple who are visitors to the place look at each other over the guttering candle that rests on a table, casting dramatic shadows over their tense and drawn faces. The knocking is heard again, more thunderous this time. Slowly, taking his time, the young man goes to the door and begins pulling back the heavy bolts. With a great deal of creaking, the door swings open – to reveal the local vicar who, it turns out, is there for some entirely trivial and unconvincing reason.

The scene described could have been from any film of suspense made in the early days of the talkies when sinister happenings in old, dark houses were common. Since then, more sophisticated methods have been used to scare audiences. Which leads us to posing the question – why do audiences like to be scared? To answer this, we must first realise that every time we enter a cinema, we live for a few hours a life other than our own. In the darkened auditorium we become a cowboy bent on vengeance, a police inspector on the trail of a murderer, or an explorer, or whatever other character we see on the screen before us. In the same way that we share their thrills, we also share their fears, knowing in the back of our mind anyway, “that it is only a film.” We actually enjoy being frightened – as long as what is frightening us remains on the screen. Even the young filmgoer likes to be frightened, a fact which Walt Disney knew and exploited in his cartoon films, which had more than their full quota of cackling witches and baleful black cats.

Suspense takes all forms in the cinema. There is suspense in the classic Western situation, when two cowboys move towards each other for the final showdown in the deserted, silent street of some small, Western town. A Harold Lloyd comedy, with Lloyd teetering among the girders of an unfinished skyscraper, can provide suspense. Generally, however, we associate suspense with the thriller.

The classic example of this is probably The Hound of the Baskervilles, in which that most famous of all detectives, Sherlock Holmes, deals with a case involving a ghostly and gigantic hound, chases through the fog, and a number of strange goings-on at Baskerville Hall, where door knobs are turned by mysterious hands and ghostly footsteps are heard in the night.

There have been many makers of suspense films, but none of them has ever equalled the work of Alfred Hitchcock. Unlike most directors, Hitchcock’s work is immediately recognisable. It is not just the fact that he has turned frequently to the mystery thriller for his material, but rather the way he handles it. His most suspenseful moments are built up out of a series of seemingly casual incidents, which culminate in a moment of terror. The most famous example of this technique occurs in his film, North by North-West. The hero, played by Cary Grant, is fleeing from a band of criminals out to kill him. He gets off a bus in a lonely part of the countryside, a treeless and houseless plain. The only thing that breaks the peaceful silence is a tiny plane dusting crops in the distance. All is quiet, and yet we sense a certain unease, which we share with the hero. It is only when a passer-by comments: “That plane is dusting crops when there ain’t no crops,” that we realise the hero is in deadly danger from the plane, which seconds later launches an attack upon him.

All Hitchcock’s films have a moment of horrific surprise, when we realise that all is not what it seems. In one of his most famous films, The Birds, we are conscious, all through the beginning of the film, of the presence of birds, seemingly innocent little creatures, until we realise with a shock of horror that they are gathering for a mass attack on the local population. Unlikely as this situation may seem, Hitchcock manages to turn it into a terrifying essay in suspense.

The thriller has gone through many stages. At one end of the scale, we have a film like The Hounds of Zaroff, made in 1932, which got its thrills from the unlikely subject of a bearded maniac, who lives on an island and wrecks ships. He is a famous hunter who has become bored with hunting animals, and now wants humans as his prey. At the other end of the scale, we have the highly-sophisticated spy thriller.

Somewhere in the middle of this range lies a film like The Spiral Staircase, made in 1945, in which a dumb girl becomes the prey of an unknown murderer. It is a film rich in visual effects, and has one stunning shot when the cameraman gives us an enormous close-up of the eye of the murderer, with his victim reflected in it.

All the films mentioned here were highly skilled pieces of film-making, in which cutting, sound, and technical effects all added something to each individual film. But it does occur to us that film-makers sometimes work too hard at trying to scare us. Fear is often caused by simple things, like that unknown caller banging on the door in the middle of the night. Perhaps film-makers should remember that terror can be induced by simple things.

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