May 4, 2011

The fine art of suspense, botched — again

"As we report in a story in Tuesday's Times, the movie business is in a bind. Executives and filmmakers sense an opportunity -- the Bin Laden killing is one of the few post-9/11 military tales with a satisfying conclusion for American audiences. But it's also tough to make a story suspenseful when everyone on the planet knows how it ends." — LA Times
This is one of the great idées reçues, an all-time zombie misconception that simply refuses to die: the idea that suspense consists of not knowing the outcome of events. Au contraire, said Hitchcock. That is merely surprise. Suspense consists of letting an audience know precisely what is about to happen and then making them wait for it.

7 comments:

  1. "All the President's Men" is one of the most suspenseful pictures I've ever seen, and there's no surprise whodunit.

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  2. Lord, I hate this entertainment talking point. I know how "Hamlet" ends... so I guess I never need to see another production thereof? Idiocy, pure idiocy.

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  3. More similarly, The Day of the Jackal was all about an assassination attempt on DeGaulle. Very suspenseful.

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  4. A very well paced documentary was "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29". You are told at the very start how the game ends but the way that it plays out and how carefully the filmmakers show it make you sit on the edge of your sit, effectively infusing you with suspense.

    And yes, "Day of the Jackal" was perfect. I was so wrapped up in it that I cried out, "No!" when he gets shot at the end.

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  5. Great post ! Thanks for sharing with us..I read your post and seriously enjoyed fully from start to end. I agreed with craig that "All the President's Men" was the most suspenseful movie that I ever seen..

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  6. I'm afraid you got that difference between suspense and surprise slightly wrong. It is indeed a problem when the outcome is definitely known, at least for some people (as one can see eg from reviews of some of the films mentioned). The difference Hitch was referring to is suggesting potential outcome rather than a sudden event. Example: someone walking along a street, we see a pothole, he does not. That is suspense, whether he falls into it or not in the end. Surprise would be if he suddenly falls into a pothole.

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  7. PS Also note the promotional fuss Hitchcock made asking audiences not to give the end of his films away!

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