Hitchcock, the proclaimed Master of Suspense, is naturally celebrated for his long and illustrious career of thriller films that have induced many a viewer to sweaty palms, clenched buttocks, and acute hypoxia over the years. Naturally, there has been much debate over the years as to which of his films reigns supreme, particularly since 1958’s Vertigo managed to unseat Citizen Kane (1941) as the greatest film of all time (according to the BFI’s Sight and Sound critics’ poll). But rather than sloughing off yet another rank and file list debating which of Hitchcock’s films reigns supreme (in no small part, I admit, because my list would not be likely to incite much surprise). I thought a more compelling exercise in this case would be to rank what the Master did best: individual sequences of sustained suspense.
Naturally I’m operating under Hitchcock’s own definition of suspense, best characterized by the director’s famous example of the bomb under the chair scenario: if the audience is not aware of the bomb, then its eventual explosion would merely be surprise because we had no knowledge of its existence until the explosion, however if we know that the bomb is under the chair while the characters do not, the scene becomes a protracted experiences of sustained tension, or suspense. Surprise can be a wonderful thing, and Hitchcock himself is not above employing it in some key moments, but its effects can be counted in seconds, whereas suspense (when executed properly) has the audience eating out of the palm of the director’s hand for minutes at a time. In the interest of your sanity and time, however, I will not be indulging in any protracted suspense and will, as they say, get on with it. Here are the Master of Suspense’s 10 best sequences of suspense, in this thriller aficionado’s humble opinion.
10. The Windmill
Last, but certainly not least, comes the central set-piece of Hitchcock’s second Hollywood feature, Foreign Correspondent (1940), a rollicking spy thriller that also functions as a rousing rallying cry for a nation poised to enter the second World War. This slight sequence may not be as captivating as the other entries on the list, but it does make for an excellent case study in how to use geography– in this case a windmill turned spy headquarters– to maximize suspense. The physical set itself drives all the creative choices that generate the suspense of the scene. First, the verticality necessitates high and low angles in order to keep both our hero (John, flatly played by Joel McCrea) and his threats in frame at the same time, allowing the shots to be both expressive and informative (two key ingredients in suspense). Second, the atmosphere of the set, rendered in almost as German Expressionist patchwork of shadows, odd angles, and staircases that seem to loom over nothingness, adds both an unsettling air to scene as well as the perfect opportunity to play with sight-lines; John almost gets caught several times as turning cogs or unexpected corners break his cover. By incorporating the set itself as an active participant in the suspense (at one point John even gets his coat caught in a gear), the audience can no longer reliably fret about the human dangers lurking in the frame but instead must agonize over the frame itself, as any nook or cranny could mean the end for our hero.
9. The Tail
Torn Curtain (1966), an oft maligned latter period Hitchcock, is home to a number of standout suspense sequences, but the greatest comes early on when recent defector to the Soviet Union Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) has to lose the sinister, trench-coat clad, guard Gromek that his Soviet hosts generously provided him. The lengthy sequence begins with a surreal and eerie trip through an empty painting museum. The only audio are the footfalls that are left to echo ominously through the halls, and Hitchcock’s use of matte paintings makes the whole sequence feel like a nightmare trip through an MC Escher painting. The sequence’s climax is its highlight, as Gromek’s sudden reappearance at the small farm that was Armstrong’s destination compromises his undercover identity and he is forced to murder Gromek. This is no quick cinematic slaying however, as Hitchcock drags the struggle to show in morbidly hilarious, and suspenseful, terms just how difficult it can be to kill another human being. In addition to being a great prolonged, multi-stage sequence, the ramifications of this early setpiece carry forward through much of the rest of the film as the hastily buried body and motorcycle of Gromek acts as the perfect Hitchcockian “bomb” that is ticking right under the investigators’ noses, waiting to be uncovered and pitch our protagonist into further peril.
8. The Potato Truck
Perhaps Hitchcock’s final classic film was his second to last: 1972’s debauched Frenzy, about a depraved serial killer’s (Bob Rusk, played by Barry Foster) murder streak in London. The sequence in question sees Rusk disposing of one of his victims by unceremoniously dumping her body in a sack and hiding it in the back of a truck carrying sacks of potatoes. There’s a bit of suspense there already, but the ride really doesn’t start until Bob returns to his apartment for a celebratory drink, only to realize that he’s missing a crucial piece of identifying evidence: his brooch marked by his last initial. What follows is a scene that plays upon both our desire to see this disgusting character humiliated, and our baser desire to not have a character we’re invested in get caught. Rusk returns to the truck to look for his brooch in the sack with the body, but the drivers return and start their journey with Rusk in the back along for the ride. The harrowing drive alternates between hilarity and nail biting intensity as everything that could go wrong does. Rusk has to stifle sneezes, wrestle with the corpse of his victim, avoid being spotted by cars behind the truck, hide from an inspection after knocking a sack of potatoes into traffic, and finally — just as the brooch is within his reach — has to pry the rigor mortis death-grip of his victim to get at his prized belonging. It’s a stomach churning scene, as the corpse-induced body humor (made all the more sickening after how harrowing we know the killer’s M.O. is: rape followed by strangulation with a neck tie) adds a noxious undercurrent and nervous titters to the nail-biting suspense of a truck drive from hell. But nervous laughter and a bit of nausea make for a queasily good suspense sequence, and a hell of way for Hitchcock to prove that he still had it.
7. The Orchestra
The Albert Hall sequence in Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of his own earlier thriller, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), gives the master a chance to build upon his own skills and work and create a masterful suspense sequence that is built purely on visuals. Set in a majestic concert hall, this is grand scale suspense, and Hitchcock paints with appropriately grandiose strokes, utilizing the architecture, crowds, and, crucially, the music, for maximum effect. By incorporating a diegetic music cue as the endpoint of the sequence –the assassin in the box seat’s cue to shoot is the cymbal crash at the climax of the symphony–Hitchcock uses the soundtrack of the scene as the crux of the suspense. The crucial importance of music in suspense is playfully foregrounded by the inclusion of Hitchcock’s composer, Bernard Herrmann himself, as the symphony conductor within the sequence. By pushing the music to the front of audience’s mind, this frees Hitchcock from the constraints he so often pushed against: dialogue. There is no dialogue throughout this sequence, it is suspense purely crafted around visuals and score. In this regard, the sequence is one of Hitchcock’s purest explorations and indulgences of his preferred form, juggling multiple characters to weave a tapestry of suspense suitably epic enough to one-up his own earlier rendition of this set-piece. Hitchcock’s first go at the scene had him cutting away to the villain and one of the protagonists listening into the action on a radio, but in the remake the sequence is wholly unbroken and allows both of the protagonists to have concurrent suspenseful arcs in the scene. The movie as a whole may not have topped the original, but this scene certainly did.
6. The Sinking Car
While there are more pure moments of clammy-handed suspense than watching a car slowly vanish into the mud, there are no comparisons to the genius use of audience identification that this sequence from 1960’s Psycho brings. An interesting thing begins to happen as we watch Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates clean away the traces of his brutal murder of our erstwhile protagonist: we become invested in his success. Suddenly, Norman’s concern with not being caught for his heinous act becomes our concern as well. Through cruel sleight of hand Hitchcock reveals how inherently empathetic the screen can be, and uses that against us. This sequence of silent betrayal, as we ally ourselves so easily with the monster that had just betrayed us, is finally laid bare in the perfect bit of suspense in which all of Norman’s hard work (and all of our rapid emotional investment) is paid of as he pushes the car full of evidence into the swamp for it to disappear forever — until it doesn’t. The car refuses to sink, but, in a moment of perfect audience identification, Norman’s stomach, and ours, do. The terror is only brief, as it always is, and the car sinks to our collective relief; but it is a queasy relief, a moment shared with a monster. He is our monster now.
5. The Carnival
There is an air of kinky menace to the virtuoso sequence in which Robert Walker’s blithe psychopath Bruno stalks his prey, a devious and sexually hungry young woman, across the noxious innocence of the carnival-turned-hunting ground in in Strangers on a Train (1951). The funhouse games act as juxtaposing literalizations of the entirely different sort of games that are being played between Bruno and his quarry, who is essentially cuckolding the young men vying for affections with the surreptitious hungry looks she casts towards her erstwhile murderer. The interplay between the sexual tension and the suspense of imminent violence creates a uniquely disturbing enterprise. Subtext aside, even the technical and overt narrative elements of this sequence are beyond reproach, as we follow the characters through the entire amusement grounds our suspense builds as to when Bruno will make his move. This is exploited most effectively in the German Expressionist fake-out of the looming shadows in the Tunnel of Love, where foreplay is briefly confused for murder (there’s that subtext, nosing its way in again).Then, the act of consummation, as it were, is rendered in stark simplicity through the reflection of the strangulation in the victim’s glasses, like the warped reflection of a funhouse mirror. This sequence would rank higher if not for the fact that we don’t much care about the fate of Miriam (it’s not that we want to see her killed, but she is at times portrayed as cartoonishly spiteful), and there is never much doubt that Bruno will be successful in his enterprise. This diminishes the ultimate question of suspense, and our emotional stake in it, but it never dilutes the richness of how the sequence has been constructed.
4. The Apartment
For much of its runtime, Rear Window (1954) is a compelling but safe thriller. The safety lies in the fact that its protagonists L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) and Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) are able to observe the unraveling murder mystery from the safety of Jeff’s apartment, leaving the subject of their scrutiny perfectly oblivious. However, circumstances eventually call for them to put their own lives on the line (or Lisa’s, in any case, as Jeff is relegated to watch duty in his apartment thanks to his broken leg) to retrieve a crucial piece of evidence from the murderer’s apartment: his late wife’s wedding ring. Jeff is forced to watch her helplessly from his vantage point, and his helplessness compounds our own. The same views that seemed to safe are suddenly rendered terrifying now that we realize we can do nothing but watch someone we care about put themselves in danger. The outside apartment view is a brilliant piece of staging as well, as we can only see through the windows as the murderer returns home and Lisa is forced to frantically find the ring and escape harm. The stinger on the sequence is that once is Lisa has been saved from immediate harm by the police, the murderous neighbor notices her gesturing with the ring to Jefferies across the apartment complex, and turns his gaze directly to us. The watchers become the watched, and this penetrating moment indicts the viewers as active participants in the voyeuristic game of cat and mouse, and reminds us that we are no longer safe.
3. The Playground
Much of Hitchcock’s power is derived through montage, or editing. The sequencing, pacing, and juxtaposition of individual shots can all heighten (or dampen) suspense. Perhaps no more clear an example of how montage can build suspense lies in The Birds (1963), as Tippi Hedren’s Melanie is smoking by a playground, the children in the nearby schoolhouse are singing, and crows begin to multiply on the play equipment in the background behind Melanie. Editing is so often a rhythmic exercise, and as the audio of the children singing is laid across the entire sequence, it sets a pace for the sequence to develop with structural precision (as well as serving to highlight the stakes, as the voices of the innocent children are laid over the sinister shots of the ever growing avian threat). The escalation of the threat, and thus the mounting suspense, is executed perfectly. The sequence begins with a solitary crow landing behind Melanie in frame as she rummages for a cigarette. At this point in the film we understand the birds to be dangerous, but one bird on its own is not a terribly pressing threat. But from here on the sequence establishes a set of rules, or a syntax, for how it builds suspense: the shots cut between a close-up of Melanie, oblivious and smoking, and a shot of the playground behind her, and every time it cuts back to the play equipment another crow or two joins the murder. But then, the syntax is altered: we hold on Melanie and the rhythm is disrupted. We are left to imagine, doing imaginary mental arithmetic to construct how many more crows might have plausibly flown behind her in that time. Five? Six? But cinema, nor birds for that matter, play by such predictable rules. Through a point of view shot of a lone crow flying through the air, Melanie is made aware of the threat she might be in. The POV shot leads her eyes, and ours, brilliantly back to the playground where we expect to see this new malicious Corvus join perhaps a dozen or two of his feathered friends. To our horror, and Melanie’s, we see perhaps a hundred crows assembled behind her. It is terrifying, a wonderful climax, that reminds us of an important lesson (fitting that the scene is at a schoolhouse): anything can happen in the space of a cut. The film may have altered its syntax, as you are lulled into the rhythm of the cutting and the children’s singing, but it never broke any rules; the suspense, and terror, the sequence earned are fair plunder.
2. The Highway
If most of Hitchcock’s suspense sequences are built around claustrophobia and the proximal threat of bodily harm, then the standout set-piece of 1959’s North by Northwest, which sees Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill waiting for a person — who may or may not show up — on the side of a very dusty road in the middle of nowhere, is more of a pastoral fear where the wide shots reveal a topographical nightmare devoid of hiding places. Hitchcock himself revealed as much in his interviews with Francois Truffaut, and it’s telling that of his entire oeuvre, so little of the fear he generates actually stems from geographic isolation. Indeed, Hitchcock often derives his suspense from crowds and the unnatural architecture of our metropolises. But in this instance he places Grant, and us, with his superb use of POV’s, as solitary figures in a waiting game that builds with mounting curiosity and unease. The protraction of the silent roadside waiting game only heightens the absurdity of its climax, and the iconic crop duster attack is rendered a necessary exclamation mark to the ever rising inaction. After all, after such a sadistic game of delayed satisfaction only a hard right turn into the absurd would live up to our expectations. Fortunately, Hitchcock was canny enough to foreshadow the biplane in the distance so that, though it is absurd, it never breaks the fragile suspension of disbelief. As famous as the crop duster is, it’s really the empty stretch of highway and each disparate passenger along it that does the leg work in this iconic sequence.
1. The Staircase
Perhaps Hitchcock’s greatest achievement in suspense is also his most subdued, coming at the climax of his icily restrained espionage masterpiece, Notorious (1946). On the surface level the scene is just several people slowly walking down a staircase, trying not to arouse the suspicion of the men at the bottom; hardly as memorable or attention grabbing as a crop-duster or hoard of murderous crows. But this scene builds upon a complex web of character tensions that have been simmering the whole movie, giving the film a subtextual flair that is hidden under the surface level mundanity. Cary Grant’s Devlin and Claude Rains’ Sebastian are locked in an overt struggle over a sinister espionage plot, but what really gives this finale its suspense is that the two men have also been vying for the affection, and control, of Ingrid Bergman’s reluctant double agent Alicia Huberman. Complicating matters further is Sebastian’s domineering mother who is whispering in Sebastian’s ear all the while. Rather than just a triangular dramatic relationship between Sebastian, Devlin, and Huberman caught between them (or rectangular, given the men at the bottom of the stairs), there’s the additional complication of Sebastian’s mother, giving the push/pull of tension another layer. Much of suspense is built around the protraction of time in order to maximize the amount of tension from an action that would ordinarily be over quite quickly, and in this instance Hitchcock artificially extends the length of the staircase through the use of insert shots in order to make the fateful, and ultimately fatal, trip as long as the suspense can bear. The framing of individuals versus wide shots to include the whole group going down the stairs sharply delineates the specific tensions, whether it be the threat to all of them from the heads of the Nazi enterprise at the bottom of the stairs, or the internal conflict going on in Sebastian or Devlin’s minds as they weigh the consequences of outing themselves in order to secure Alicia for themselves. The sequence may not be Hitchcock’s most iconic (nor is it even the most iconic of its own film–that would be the wine cellar scene, which would have also made this list had I not restricted myself from including multiple scenes from the same film), but the broiling narrative contextualization, and technical precision make it one unlike any other in his arsenal.
With a filmography as lengthy and celebrated as Hitchcock’s, there were bound to be some crucial omissions in this list. From the botched murder sequence in Dial M for Murder (1954) to the delivery of a maybe-poisoned glass of milk in Suspicion (1941), there’s something to get under anyone’s skin even looking past these ten of my favorites. So, dear reader, rather than hog all the fun of dissection for myself, now it’s your turn: which of Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense scenes gets under your skin the most?