The Puppeteer of Suspense

by David Charpentier

16 Jun 2010


The camera reveals. It manifests; it creates. Since its inception, the motion picture camera has been criticized and revered for its ability to capture instances of life. Whether the everyday activities of Britain’s populace, the purported truths of documentaries, or the skewed realities of feature films, the camera allows for the revelation of its subjects’ actions and ideologies. Films such as Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Psycho, and—to a greater extent—Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, directly identify the audience’s viewing behavior as voyeuristic. In these movies the obsessive gaze of the characters is attributable to that of the audience; the characters of L.B. Jeffries, Norman Bates, and Mark Lewis are just slightly twisted onscreen substitutes for the activity the audience has chosen to participate in. The camera and projector simply serve as tools by which we view the world.

While the viewer makes the conscious choice to participate in this type of activity, he or she is not in control of what is seen. The choice of images lies in the hand of the director. The director controls what the audience sees and, more importantly, how they see it. The director does not merely let a situation unfold; rather he manipulates the mechanics of the scenario in order to produce a desired affectual response in the audience. As Laura Mulvey noted in her essay “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” “[C]inematic codes [of time and space] create a gaze, a world and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire.”  Through the use of subjective POV shots, continuity editing, and synchronized sound and images, traditional narrative cinema seeks to eliminate the distance between audience and camera, so that the audience, the viewer, the voyeur, becomes fully absorbed in the events unfolding. Events that are the manifestations of one man’s desire: the director.

That brings us to Hollywood god, Alfred Hitchcock: master of suspense, direction and viewer manipulation. Wait a second. In hindsight, that last part doesn’t sound too pleasant; indeed it sounds a bit foul. I mean, let’s be honest, no one likes being toyed with but, in order to achieve the level of suspense he’s renowned for, that’s exactly what is necessary. He even goes so far as to show the audience that he is controlling them. The introduction to I, Confess takes the spectator on a brief journey through the charming streets of Montreal. Multiple one-way signs point us in the right direction. They even say “DIRECION” on them. Hitchcock himself makes a cameo during one of these shots. The camera and the director are leading us to a particular point where they will tell a tale. And rest assured, it is not just a tale of murder, guilt and star-crossed lovers, but Hitchcock’s version of a tale of murder, guilt and star-crossed lovers. He tells us he is in control; he is directing us, influencing how we think and react to the situation at hand.

As the editors of Cahiers du Cinema and the French New Wave so rightly noted, the director is in fact the auteur, the author, of the work we are viewing. How many different iterations of the exploits of King Arthur and his Knights have been written? I’ve read a couple myself, and each one, while keeping the basic plot elements of the legend, has been filtered through a different muse. The results are slightly dissimilar representations of the characters, their motives and the situations that transpire.

There is no doubt then that Hitchcock, as an auteur the French greatly admired for his ability to make his films his own, is showing us his version of the tale. It is his imagination, his fantasies, his politics and personality that we are exposed to. Hitchcock may have not written the scripts, the novels, or the plays his films were based on, but he was firmly in control. Watch any featurette on a Hitchcock DVD and you are likely to hear tales of how he meticulously storyboarded every single shot and how he demanded actors and actresses stick to the script. The tale unfolded to a particular perfection in his imagination. By putting it up on the screen he was not only letting others in on it, but also governing the way they viewed and interpreted it.

Hitchcock’s mannered, controlled transference of his fantasies onto film therefore not only reveals his character’s lives and emotions but also his own general feelings on a situation and how the audience should perceive said events. His politics, his perversions are evident by the way he frames situations and allows the characters to play out their part. The way in which he creates sympathies for particular characters, making the audience feel a connection to these flawed individuals, demonstrates not only the power he wields as a director, but also how he himself is charmed by certain environments, personalities and situations.

Shadow of a Doubt

Shadow of a Doubt

The Girl and the Small Town

Hitchcock’s personal favorite of his films, Shadow of a Doubt, also happens to explore one of the director’s dearest subjects: the unsettling evil force that seeks to upset the tranquil life of small town America. Young Charlie Newton, played by Teresa Wright, embodies the inherent good of this urban archetype. Nicknamed for her favorite uncle, the audience is privy to her everyday activities, her genteel nature. We identify and take part in the action with Charlie as our surrogate. Through a continuous series of shots we are able to watch her every movement. She walks down a hallway, opens a door, peers into a room and rummages through some draws. She runs down the street, past some friends, through an intersection, into a diner. Shot by shot, cut by cut, what she sees, we see. Where she goes, we go. We are already wise to the fact that her uncle is the infamous “Merry Widow Murderer.”

With this prior knowledge, Hitchcock creates tension by documenting her everyday life, and the viewer, identifying with her, not only wants her to unearth this secret, but also worries for her. Seemingly casual conversations take on a malevolent undertone when our heroine stands side-by-side with a serial murderer. We worry that the forces of greed and selfishness will corrupt such a wholesome entity, an extended metaphor between the protagonist and this urban American archetype. In the end our heroine is safe, but the innocence and trust she once possessed are tainted. While the audience, through Hitchcock, can hope that such good will and community can triumph over whatever challenges they face, they are faced with the stark realization that unnatural forces seek to ruin their everyday lives.



Living with Villains

While Hitchcock was enamored by the charms of small town America, he also realized that evil had its own way of entrancing its audience. One of the more stellar examples of this manipulation by the master is when he makes us feel sympathy for the villains. A fastidious schemer himself, Hitchcock had a soft spot for the Machiavellian designs of his rogues. In both Marnie and Dial M for Murder there are moments when characters, involved in unspeakable acts, are close to having their plans foiled.

In Marnie the title character has deeply driven psycho-sexual issues that have turned her into a thief and embezzler. At one point in the movie we watch as she takes money from her supervisor’s office. The workday is done, everyone but the cleaning lady has gone home for the night. Marnie has hidden in the office and takes money from the safe with a stolen combination. She removes her shoes, places them with the money in her purse, and walks in silence out the door. She hears the cleaning lady; her back is to the protagonist. Marnie quietly moves across the office, closer and closer to escape. Cut to a shot of her purse; one of her shoes is slipping out. She walks a few more steps. Another shot of the shoe; it slips some more. A few more steps; the shoe falls out; it crashes to the floor. “Oh no! She’s caught!,” we think. Hitchcock has ramped up the suspension for this scenario, carefully showing the approaching danger of the other shoe literally dropping.

Yet, we have seen this woman as a manipulator, a thief, and a liar. Should we, as moralistic individuals, not want justice to be served and see her get her comeuppance?  Shouldn’t the suspenseful build make us joyous of her capture instead of anxious? No, it shouldn’t, because that’s not how Hitchcock views the blonde beauty, and that’s not how he wants us to view her either. Because she is the only character the audience has spent significant time with, she is the one we identify with the most. She may steal hundreds and thousands of dollars from her employers, but you know she doesn’t really seem all that bad and you don’t want her to get caught. And when we find out the cleaning lady is deaf, well, we can let out a big sigh of relief for our serial criminal’s narrow escape. Hitchcock has upset our preconceptions and—by painstakingly crafting how we regard her—has created a sympathetic scofflaw.

Dial M for Murder

Dial M for Murder

Dial M for Murder creates a similar situation. When the titular event is taking place, the audience has been introduced to several characters, none of whom are particularly moral. However, Ray Milland’s plan to murder his wife is by far the dastardliest. If he had a mustache, he could easily twirl it with the plan he concocts. And if this were another movie, he would. But this isn’t how Hitchcock sees such a rascal. Milland’s character is exceedingly charismatic; the viewer is drawn to him no matter what is going on. He’s a slimeball, but he’s a very charming slimeball. He is not so much a spectator surrogate, but rather an interesting character that is so captivating that we don’t wish to see him fail. With Hitchcock’s direction, the camera, our gaze following Milland around as he details his plan, we fall under his spell.

Thus, when his blackmailed accomplice is committing the crime we are torn. Suspense envelops as the would-be murderer moves into the apartment. Will Grace Kelly survive this fiendish plot? But then Hitchcock cuts to Milland, at a party, checking his watch for the appropriate time, waiting to call his wife on the phone, luring her out of the bedroom and into the arms of her murderer. He keeps checking his watch, but it has stopped. Now we say, “Oh no! He won’t be able to make the call to kill his wife in time!” Our connection to this character through viewing him, through his spellbinding manner, through voyeurism, has created a twisted sympathy that exists whenever he is on screen. During this scene, whenever the point of view switches back to the apartment the viewer is inclined to fear for the wife’s safety; when the film cuts back to Milland, we are hoping he makes the call that will bring about her death.

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