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When Hitchcock Went Down the Drain

Alfred Hitchcock, known as the “Master of Suspense,” has made an impact on the horror genre of movies. Hitchcock manipulates his audience like cattle using suspense because it’s “The most powerful means of holding the viewer’s attention” (Hitchcock Truffaut interview). The lighter scene from Strangers on a Train is one example to showcase the many techniques Hitchcock employs to create suspense.

In the interview, Hitchcock mentions that for suspense to be effective, the public must be informed and participating in the scene. The audience is aware that Bruno has reached the carnival before Guy but is caught up in a dilemma of his own. When Bruno calls bystanders over asking for help with his dropped cigarette lighter, they don’t think much of it as the lighter can easily be replaced. Another element of suspense according to A Visual Touch reading, is that “Things are never quite what they normally seem to be” (A Visual Touch). Although the bystanders don’t think that the dropped lighter is a big deal, to Bruno it is a life and death situation. Because the audience knows that Bruno has been delayed, it keeps the audience in suspense during Guy’s tennis match because he still has a chance to make it to Metcalfe on time. The question becomes, who will succeed on time? The cross-cutting between Guy, Bruno, and occasionally the clock, emphasizes that Guy is not only trying to win against his opponent, but is also in a race against time.

Another way Hitchcock creates suspense is through psychological components. In one instance, Bruno has the lighter at his fingertips, but drops it further down into the storm drain. It doesn’t look like Bruno’s going to reach the lighter, but the cross-cuts between him and Guy’s tennis match show that he is getting closer all the while Guy is just a few points away from winning. This “forces the audience to make moral judgements” because the audience is in conflict over who they want to see succeed (A Visual Touch). The audience ends up siding with Guy because once Bruno plants the lighter his reputation and life will be ruined, but at the same time the viewer roots for Bruno. The audience is persuaded to feel this way because of the close-up shots of the emotion and sweat on Bruno’s face in his desperate attempt to retrieve the lighter as he strains to use every inch of his outstretched hand. The lighting contrast between Guy’s white tennis outfit dashing across the screen and the darkness of Bruno’s scene in the drainage grate contribute to the psychological components. The white tennis uniform symbolizes Guy as being innocent and the hero of the movie whereas the dark colors symbolizes Bruno as the villain. In addition to moral judgements and symbolism, emotion is another aspect Hitchcock involves, making the lighter scene suspenseful.

Hitchcock says in the interview that, “Emotion is an essential ingredient of suspense” (Hitchcock Truffaut interview). As previously mentioned, the close-up shots of Bruno’s face straining to grasp the lighter evokes an emotional response from the audience. Another instance is when Bruno first arrives at the carnival and a man bumps into him causing the predicament in the first place. This close-up shot reveals the stress on Bruno’s face allowing the audience to also feel his anxiety. Non-diegetic music at a slower tempo with a heavy feeling begins at this point. This implies the Bruno’s immoral reasoning for retrieving the lighter. In contrast the non-diegetic music played during Guy’s tennis match energizes the scene with string instruments played at a faster tempo. The diegetic sound of the tennis racquet making contact with the ball forms a steady pulse almost like a clock ticking back and forth which symbolizes Guy’s race against time. As Bruno retrieves the lighter and clutches it in his hand, guy wins the tennis match. The lighter scene is suspenseful because of the emotion evoked from close-up shots, diegetic, and non-diegetic sound.

Hitchcock uses a variety of technical and psychological aspects to construct suspense in the lighter scene from Strangers on a Train. Because of audience awareness, moral judgements, and emotional connections, Hitchcock is able to engage the brain of the audience to construct a “nightmarish” reality. Many directors that have been influenced by Hitchcock, but none of them have been as successful at keeping their audience rooted to their seat.

(Title Credit to Scott Prost)

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