Last week we looked at Hitchcock’s approach to film-making. Now he seems to be everywhere. Paul Merton has made a terrific documentary on his British career, while over in Berlin, there’s a new exhibition about his most formative period: his time at UFA in Babelsburg. UFA was the most advanced studio in the world, far more innovative than Hollywood, producing masterpieces like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the works of F.W.Murnau, from whom Hitchcock learned many of the Expressionist techniques that would characterise his work. Meanwhile, over at Shadowplay David Cairns is writing about one Hitchcock film every week. Here’s Hitchcock’s famous definition, in his conversations with Truffaut, of the difference between “suspense” and “surprise”:
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens. And then — BOOM! There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table, and the public knows it … the public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters! There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!”
What’s interesting about this is Hitchcock’s phrase “the public is participating in the scene”. These days when media executives talk about “participation” they generally mean “interaction”: red buttons, email and so on. What Hitchcock means is great drama: creating a story that’s carefully crafted to keep the audience in suspense, rather than relying on tricks and surprises. And what’s exciting about suspense is that, at best, it works even if you know the outcome: Valkyrie, for example, is an absolutely gripping thriller even though we all know from the start that the plot to kill Hitler won’t succeed., while Apollo 13, from the other perspective, is sweatily terrifying even though we know the men won’t die. Whether these films would be improved by the addition of a public vote, I leave to you to decide.