It is a reliable trait of Alfred Hitchcock’s films that he will do his best to inject as much emotion and drama into each frame as cinematically possible.* Any scene that other directors use to explain and further the plot, Hitchcock often considers dead, unnecessary, and therefore omits, or else he squeezes it within the drama of the situation, relegating plot behind scenes that build emotion.
His goal is to give the audience intense excitement – a real two-hour treat – and he does this in his own trademark suspenseful style. As Hitchcock once famously stated, “Some films are slices of life. Mine are slices of cake.”
Editing plays the main role in Hitchcock’s creation of suspense, each juxtaposition of shots upping the ante. This is apparent especially in the twelve-minute climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much. In this film, a vacationing couple played by Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart become caught in an international spy ring and discover a plot to assassinate a statesman at a concert.
The assassins have kidnapped their little boy to prevent them from going to the authorities, so it is basically up to the parents to find the assassins and get their little boy back. In the process of finding the assassins, Doris Day ends up following them to the concert hall where the assassination will take place, which takes us to the climax of the film in which Doris and Jimmy try to save the statesman.
The element that sets up this whole sequence occurs earlier in the film. The conspirator tells the assassin the exact point in the orchestral performance at which he must kill the statesman, namely when the cymbals crash towards the end in order to cover up the gunshot. By informing the audience when the killing will actually happen, it creates a suspenseful situation in which the audience wants to know whether the killing will be averted or not. This leaves the audience hanging, squirming in their seats from anticipation and anxiety, until the resolution that follows allows for a giant release.
Contrast this to a situation in which the audience does not know when the assassination will happen. In this case, the audience would have nothing to build up to – the emotion in the sequence would remain level, the audience not expecting anything such that when the murder occurs, it comes as a surprise, a momentary thrill that quickly dies away.
Having established the exact point in time in which the assassination will occur, the film then moves to its climactic scene when Doris follows the assassin to Albert Hall, where the assassination will take place. The very first thing that Hitchcock does is to establish the situation and indicate all who will be involved. This is done for story purposes, as well as to keep with his principle of constantly informing the audience, in an efficient 38-second sequence. Described below is the length and description of each shot in the sequence:
4 seconds: Medium frontal shot of Doris at theater entrance, looking out.
11 seconds: Reverse extreme long shot of orchestra playing.
1 second: Return to the first medium shot of Doris. She turns her head upwards and looks to her right.
3 seconds: Long shot of the balcony of a box seat on the upper floor.
4 seconds: Medium close-up of the assassin coolly watching the performance. His head slowly turns to his left.
3 seconds: Reverse shot across the room. We see another box seat, a long shot of the statesman watching the performance.
12 seconds: Return to the medium shot of Doris, looking up to her left, at the statesman. She turns around to look behind her, anxious. Then she quickly turns back to face the orchestra and the audience.
This sequence is key because it sets up the situation from the start, which gets that chore out of the way and allows Hitchcock to play with the audience from there on out. The story is quickly explained without any dialogue through the cutting: Doris comes into the theater and is looking for the assassin, who sits on the upper floor balcony, waiting for the orchestra to get to the key moment in the performance which will allow him to stealthily kill the statesman sitting across the room. Here, all the key players are introduced – Doris, the assassin, the statesman, and the orchestra, and we are shown how they are all tied together through Doris.
By showing Doris in the medium shot, and always returning to her, Hitchcock makes us identify with her. She is the helpless observer, unable to do anything but watch as the assassination unfolds. In this way, she suffers just as the audience watching the film does, worried, fearful for the life of the statesman.
The above sequence also sets up the basic shot pattern that will be repeated throughout the rest of the sequence, which helps the audience keep in mind who all is involved. However, Hitchcock makes slight changes to the shot sequence each time by varying or adding details that not only move the story along, but heighten the tension as well.
For example, in one subsequent repetition of the sequence, Hitchcock takes us closer to each party involved, which increases the impact of the emotions associated with each of them. In a cut to the assassin similar to the one described above, instead of a medium close-up, it would be a close-up. The turning of his head to view the statesmen would be even slower and more noticeable at that proximity, making it more sinister.
Moving the shots closer to the subject also increases the immediacy of the drama. When Hitchcock cuts to the orchestra in the sequences that follow, each one is closer, as he slowly hones in on the key player, the percussionist who will unknowingly signal the murderer by clashing the cymbals. This slow movement towards the percussionist signals that the time is close for him to play that instrument. These modifications allow Hitchcock to increase the intensity of the suspense. By decreasing the proximity to each subject in the shot, we get a sense that the murder will be coming soon. Here is one later repetition of the previous shot pattern, with some variations:
3 seconds: Same medium shot of Doris. She looks on, eyes and mouth wide open in fear.
2 seconds: Close-up of assassin staring out through binoculars, looking towards film audience.
3 seconds: First-person view through binoculars (peephole effect) of statesman, in medium long-shot.
2 seconds: Same shot of Doris, looking up and to her right, beginning to cry, with desperate look in her face.
12 seconds: Medium long-shot of orchestra, with focus on the solo vocalist.
One thing to notice above is that the average shot length seems to be shorter. This is another key factor in turning up the intensity. The average shot length gradually decreases from about 4 to 5 seconds at the beginning of the climax sequence, to 1 to 2 seconds towards the end. This gives the impression of more action – more things are happening at once, requiring constant going back and forth between the characters.
However, this is not main effect. It is true that there is more action later on with the introduction of Jimmy Stewart on the scene as he finds his wife and tries to stop the murder. Also, there is increased expression on Doris’ face.
But the various parties in the scene are still basically doing the same things as before – the orchestra is still only playing, Doris is still just looking on, and the assassin is still slowly preparing for the murder. Rather, the stronger effect of the shortening of shot length is that it conveys an increased urgency, as if time were running out. The clock seems to be running down, and the question of whether the statesmen will be murdered becomes increasingly urgent.
Connecting all the shots is the soundtrack, the beautiful music played by the orchestra, which was composed by Bernard Hermann (who also plays the conductor in this sequence). The music builds and wanes, in concordance with the editing, accentuating each cut. Dramatic by nature, the music only fuels the emotions of the scene.
Already unusual in the sense that the soundtrack for such a sequence is diagetic, it becomes even more essential when it steps out of the background and is used for the plot. Approaching the peak of this climactic scene, Hitchcock inserts close-up shots of the score into the general shot pattern mentioned before. In these shots, the camera pans along the lines of the score, following the notes as we hear the music, each note approaching closer to the cymbal clash marked at the end. Here we get a reminder of when the end is and that it is closely approaching, building the anticipation. Finally, the tension is released with the clash of cymbals, substituting for the gunshot.
Taken as a whole, the sequence is breathtaking and nerve-racking, even going so far as to make the subsequent scenes anti-climactic (the parents have not yet recovered their son). It shows Hitchcock’s strong understanding of the relation between space and time. He knows that decreasing the space between the camera and subject makes things seem immediate and taking things in long-shot gives the effect of time slowing. Similarly, increasing or decreasing shot length gives the effect of slowing down or speeding up time.
::(*) A point very well made in Francois Truffaut’s Hitchcock::