Nov 23, 2016

Silence in Alfred Hitchcock films as a device for suspense

"There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it."
              -Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock may be likened to Agatha Christie when their works in film and literature respectively are considered. The ‘Master of Suspense’ was as prolific as the ‘Queen of Crime Fiction’, and their similarity is not confined to the quantity of produced works alone, but both were equally successful in creating works of superior quality in a continuous manner for longer periods of time.

Our today’s topic of discussion is not the writings by Christie, but the films of Hitchcock. As everyone knows, suspense was the primary forte of the man of multiple cameos, and he was greatly successful in that genre. My true intention is to point out a technique that I noticed which Hitchcock employed to create a collective feeling of terror, anticipation, and excitement in his films; and the technique is – silence. A filmmaker who started his career in the silent era, who produced one of the first successful sound films in the form of Blackmail (1929) had every opportunity to be grown up as a moviemaker who knows how to use sound perfectly in his film.

Alfred Hitchcock 'Hitch'  (1899-1980)
While watching many of Hitchcock films I have noticed that he had the tenacity to add dead silence in places where it was least expected. It is striking to note that a film director, who was keen on generously filling many of the film portions, especially the beginning and end with flamboyant background music, chose to resort on total silence in some of the suspenseful key sequences. Critics many times mentioned the silence in the murder scene in ‘Blackmail’ movie in related discussions.

Another example of such voluntary silence is the gruesome murder scene in his later year success ‘Torn Curtain’. In a violent scene of this 1966 movie, Hitchcock stayed silent while a German guide was being murdered inside a seedy and solitary farmhouse.  The guide’s head was pushed by the slayers into a gas oven and what we can hear is just the controlled noise of the struggle.

But these two scenes have given us a horror or sad feeling rather than Hitchcock’s trademark suspense. I have noticed two scenes in two different films which were remarkable for the controlled use of sound where suspense was at its peak. The scenes featured no background score but very limited ambience. Since he believed in the anticipation of sound as a key of suspense rather than the sound itself, (as per the quote in the beginning of this article), we have every reason to believe that his intention was to create a multiplied mood of suspense in the spectators minds by simply keeping them wait for an unexpected sound. Have a look at the two scenes below:

The Theft Scene in Marnie (1964)

Marnie saw the last collaboration between Hitchcock and the beautiful Tippi Hedren, and also in this film we witnessed the latter pairing with the iconic James Bond actor, Sean Connery. Tippi was recently in the news when she repeated her former allegation against ‘Hitch’, how the master director sexually assaulted her during the shooting of this film. As a matter of fact, the blond Tippi was in the league of the perfect 'Hitchcockian' heroines in every manner. Let us leave these things aside. The psychological thriller Marnie featured Tippi Hedren in the avatar of a kleptomaniac in its title role. Hitchcock takes us to the peak of excitement with the careful use of sound in this film’s office theft scene. We are part of an office burglary 44 minutes into the film. When Marnie stealthily conducts the theft, even the clanking of the keys or a slight change in room tone is capable enough to scare us. See the scene below:




The Crop Duster Scene in North by NorthWest (1959)

This scene is famous for its intriguing visual presentation and a mysterious charm brought by suddenly shifting the area of action from an urban area to a totally rural dry farm land. Such a sudden jump catches our sense since it alienates us quickly from a locale which was familiar so far. Hitchcock’s most famous leading man Cary Grant (only after James Stewart in my viewpoint) is seen here waiting for a person where there is nobody. Only the occasional passing of vehicles and the chopper’s distant noise bring auditory relief to the spectators’ minds. Watch the scene below:



Tail-end: The Birds (1963) also has a sequence where the sound is greatly suppressed and silence is enhanced. But I find the above two sequences surpass the Birds scene in terms of the amount of anticipation.

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