Does Alfred Hitchcock’s Theory of Suspense & Tension Actually Work?


In this wee post I look at what Alfred Hitchcock says about the principle of suspense and tension and how he applied it to the film Rope.

Hitchcock is generally acknowledged as a master of suspense. But it seems he has a rather counter-intuitive – perhaps even controversial – principle behind his techniques for achieving it.

Let’s hear it from the man himself…

So how does Hitch actually apply this to a film? A great example is Rope because he actually made a major change to the play in order to make it more suspenseful according to is theories.

Hitchcock edited the script of Rope so that the audience knows right from the beginning that there is a corpse concealed in the room. We see the protagonists put it in a chest at the centre of the room, from the top of which they plan to serve canapés to their friends. And the victim’s parents.

In the original screenplay, we don’t know until one of the characters figures out the puzzle if there is really a dead body in there.

The screenwriter Arthur Laurents seems to have been somewhat annoyed about the change. He comments in the making-of documentary on my Rope DVD:

I tried to make a character for this dead boy who you supposedly never saw. Of course, Hitch crossed me up because he had a failure of nerve. I thought the suspense would be “Is there, or is there not, a body in that chest?” Well here he eliminated that. Once you see it, you know they’re murderers, and they’re gonna get caught. And I think it took a lot of the tension out of the picture. It least it did for me.

Hitchcock was in charge, however, and the principle of “giving the audience full information before you start”* was at work. It’s even at work during in the trailer:

* This quote comes from an interview with Pia Lyndstrom.**
** You may have noticed I’ve segued back into using footnotes even though I promised not to. You can blame Tom Moyser for that.

I love the idea of Arthur Laurents seeing this trailer for the first time and spluttering helplessly as his big reveal is pumped out into the cinema, maybe even weeks before the audience has seen the film proper.

So there’s no doubt that old Hitchey was committed to his theory of suspense. But as the New York Times so wonderfully wrote back in 1948:

The novelty of the picture is not in the drama itself, it being a plainly deliberate and rather thin exercise in suspense, but merely in the method which Mr. Hitchcock has used to stretch the intended tension for the length of the little stunt. And, with due regard for his daring (and for that of Transatlantic Films), one must bluntly observe that the method is neither effective nor does it appear that it could be. 

It’s possible the “method” referred to here is actually the use of continuous camera shots, but the quote nonetheless begs the question: does Hitchcock’s suspense principle hold water? Would Rope have been better off as a mystery film?

Well Rope as a suspense story worked for me. In fact, it’s one of my favourite films. But I can never experience what it would be like to watch the film without the knowledge that the main characters are murderers.

And now, I suppose, neither can you.


3 thoughts on “Does Alfred Hitchcock’s Theory of Suspense & Tension Actually Work?

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