Alfred Hitchcock is unquestionably the greatest director of suspense films in cinema history. His best films are marked by sequences of suspense that are memorable, exciting, engaging and cinematically magnificent.
Hitchcock described the difference between suspense and surprise by giving the illustration of two men sitting at a table with a time bomb set to go off underneath. If you just want to go for surprise, you don’t show the bomb, you just show the men talking and then eventually the whole thing blows up…SURPRISE!
But if, as Hitchcock preferred, you would like to milk the scene for suspense, you cutaway from the two men to shots of the bomb as it ticks down to zero and goes off…then you have added a considerable amount of suspense to the mixture.
Here then, are the 20 greatest suspense sequences in Hitchcock’s films in order from least to best. Some of these are more famous than others, but they all contain the ‘Hitchcock touch’ and are sure to thrill you.
It was tough to narrow it down to 20, so we must include some honorable mentions such as the “Knife!” sequence in Blackmail, the milk scene in Suspicion, the carousel breakdown at the end of Strangers on a Train, the police stalking sequence in Psycho, the bird attack on Bodega Bay in The Birds and the bus escape sequence in Torn Curtain.
20. The Music Hall sequence in The 39 Steps (1935)
Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) enters a music hall in London where a man named “Mr. Memory” is performing. Claiming to have a photographic memory and to memorize “50 new facts a day”, Memory asks the audience for questions and then gives them the answer to their amazement.
But the rough hewn, drinking crowd grows rowdier and rowdier and eventually a fight breaks out. In the midst of the uproar, a hand appears firing two shots from a pistol. The music hall clears out and Hannay ends up with a beautiful, mysterious woman, who ends up coming with him back to his flat.
While Hitchcock gives up a certain amount of suspense in this sequence for surprise (the first time we see the gun is when it goes off, had he been wanting to create suspense we would have seen the gun earlier), he builds tension admirably by withholding Hannay from our view at first, making him a man of mystery to the audience.
As the crowd in the Music Hall grows more and more excited, eventually into a fever pitch, the scene builds with explosive violence. The Music Hall sequence begins The 39 Steps with a bang, and the film bookends the sequence with the finale at the London Palladium, when Mr. Memory again appears and reveals the ‘MacGuffin’ that the entire film has revolved around.
19. The robbery of Rutland’s safe in Marnie (1964)
Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren) is a frigid, kleptomaniac who has been hired by Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) as a payroll clerk. One Friday Marnie stays late at work in order to rob the office safe at Rutland’s. As Marnie robs the safe, a cleaning lady arrives and starts to mop the floor; in order to show both actions, Hitchcock cuts to a long shot showing Marnie on the right side of the screen and the cleaning lady on the left.
As Marnie tries to leave she sees the cleaning lady and, in order not to be heard, she puts her high heeled shoes in her coat pocket. However, as she leaves, we see one of her shoes slowly coming out of her pocket. The shoe crashes to the floor but the cleaning lady does not react. It turns out she is hard of hearing and hasn’t heard a thing, and Marnie scurries out of the building with the payroll cash in tow.
Hitchcock turns this simple scene into a masterwork of suspense filmmaking. Firstly, he avoids the cliche of cutting between the cleaning lady mopping and Marnie robbing the safe by showing both actions in one static long shot. As has been pointed out by others, this shot combines both elements of mis en scene and montage in one unique shot, and also serves as an homage to the avant grade European filmmakers of the time who were utilizing techniques such as this one in their films.
Secondly, Hitchcock upends our expectations when Marnie’s shoe (literally) drops to the floor and the cleaning woman does not react. As often happens in Hitchcock, we are manipulated into rooting for someone to get away with something bad and in this case Marnie escapes cleanly when the woman ‘miraculously’ doesn’t hear her. Although this is not one of Hitchcock’s best known suspense scenes, close analysis of it reveals a director working at the top of his game.
18. The wine cellar scene in Notorious (1946)
Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) and Devlin (Cary Grant) go to investigate Alex Sebastian’s wine cellar during a party at the Sebastian home. As Devlin looks at the bottles, one slips off the shelf and breaks, revealing some ‘vintage sand’ with which the Nazis are using to try to make an atomic bomb. Devlin scopes up some of the sand then tries to put things back as best he can.
Meanwhile, upstairs at the party, Hitchcock shows the rapidly diminishing supply of champagne, until the butler informs Sebastian that they need more and they go down to the wine cellar. When Sebastian sees Alicia and Devlin together, Devlin improvises, grabbing Alicia and kissing her to divert attention away from the real reason they are down in the basement during the party. During the kiss, Alicia realizes her feelings of love for Devlin are real.
The wine cellar scene in Notorious shows Hitchcock utilizing his skills at suspense to reveal the tension between the characters that primarily informs the film. The revelation of the uranium ore in the wine bottles confirms the Nazi’s nefarious activities, while tying in with the motifs of intoxication and poisoning that make up the film’s major themes.
When Devlin must kiss Alicia in order to deflect Sebastian’s suspicions about what they are doing, the romance of the moment reveals the true feelings underlying the deception and deceit of the main characters. Unfortunately, the ruse does not work and Sebastian figures out the Alicia is an American agent, leading to his eventual attempted poisoning of her.
17. The cigarette lighter sequence in Strangers on a Train (1951)
As Guy Haines (Farley Granger) plays a tennis match, Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) goes to Metcalf to place a cigarette lighter at the scene of the murder of Guy’s estranged wife, Miriam, in the hopes that it will incriminate Guy. But Bruno drops the lighter when a passerby bumps into him and the lighter falls down into a sewer drain.
Hitchcock then cuts between Bruno’s efforts to squeeze his arm down into the drain to retrieve the lighter and Guy’s hurried efforts to finish his tennis match so he can get to Metcalf in time to stop Bruno. Finally Bruno retrieves the lighter and Guy wins his match, and the two of them head off for their final showdown.
A classic suspense sequence, Hitchcock repeatedly manipulates the audience’s emotions in this scene from his mid period comeback film. Bruno’s efforts to retrieve the lighter from the dark drain are contrasted with the brightly lit shots of Guy playing a tennis match.
Although the audience should be rooting for Guy, the ostensible ‘good guy’ of the film, we can’t help but also root for Bruno to retrieve the lighter, since it sets off the events that lead to the film’s climactic conclusion. This sense of having one’s emotions manipulated in a pleasurable way is common in Hitchcock’s films, and has helped to lead to the director’s enduring and long lasting popularity.
16. The run away car sequence in Family Plot (1976)
Blanche (Barbara Harris) and Lumley (Bruce Dern) are on the trail of Arthur Adamson (William Devane). Adamson and his sidekick, Maloney (Ed Lauter) want them dead, so Maloney lures them to a remote mountain tavern for a meeting. Maloney is a no show, and while Lumley puts on a nice beer buzz, Maloney fixes the brakes and accelerator on their car not to work.
As Lumley and Blanche drive down a stretch of winding mountain road, their car careens wildly out of control, threatening the life of the pair as well as a number of other drivers on the road. Lumley eventually has to crash the car into the side of an embankment to get it to stop, ending their harrowing ride.
Although this sequence is a bit more of a typical action film suspense sequence, lacking Hitchcock’s usual nuance and subtlety, it remains nonetheless a tour de force of editing and camera work. Marred only slightly by some awkward looking rear projections shots, the sequence features great footage of an out of control car driving wildly down a mountain road. The sequence was also a hit with audiences, tapping as it did into all of our primal fears of being in a scary situation that goes totally out of control.
15. The rape/murder of Brenda in Frenzy (1972)
Bob Rusk (Barry Foster) enters the offices of a matrimonial agency, The Blaney Bureau, at lunchtime. He has been after Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) to find him woman who will submit to his masochistic desires and now, when Brenda tells him they cannot help him, he flies into a rage.
First, he brutally rapes her and then, when he is finished, he begins to loosen his tie. Brenda realizes to her horror that he is the necktie murder that has been terrorizing London, and that the rape is only a prelude to her strangling murder, which takes place next. After the murder, Rusk casually picks up Brenda’s apple and eats it, suggesting that by killing her he has consumed her, just as a normal person might eat their lunch.
This sequence upset many, who were used to Hitchcock handling his death scenes with more artistry and style. But Hitchcock was only making use of the newly relaxed censorship rules to show how brutal and awful the acts of his killer were, so that the audience could really understand the true horror of his crimes.
Later in the film, when Rusk enters his apartment with Babs with the intent of killing her, Hitchcock showed restraint by pulling the camera back so as to not show the terrible act that was about to happen, forcing the audience to use their imagination about the demise of Babs.