Tension or suspense is one of the greatest things about literature and film. It allows us to safely explore our innermost fears. We can experience these emotions and feel the tightening of our stomachs from the safety of a chair in the knowledge that it will end and we will be safe.
During a film, there are moments that make you inch forward a little in your chair. There are moments that make you grip the armrest, bite your nails, hold your breath or do any number of other things. If you feel anything for the characters on screen, you will share their distress in certain situations and you will feel nervous for them. This suspense can be achieved in a number of ways by the film makers: the skillful application of music, specific lighting arrangements, precise camera work and a great script.
Some moments combine all these things to create magical moments that make the viewer bristle with anxiety. Alfred Hitchcock explained the difference between surprise and suspense. Having exciting things like explosions in your film is one thing, and they can give the audience 15 seconds of surprise. If you do things right and show the audience the right things at the right time, you can give them fifteen minutes of suspense leading up to that explosion. These are some of the best examples of scenes that contain that tension.
30. The Last Ball – Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001)
Set in India under the rule of the British, Ashutosh Gowariker’s film is one of the most beloved Bollywood movies of all time. Aamir Khan stars as Bhuvan, a lowly villager who is tired of seeing his village suffer under the yolk of the British and their taxes. He challenges the local British to a game of cricket; a game which he and his friends have no idea how to play. Defeat will mean ruin for Bhuvan and his village.
Sure enough, after much training and some wonderful music, the match comes down to the final delivery. Bhuvan hits the ball, it sails over the field and straight into the hands of the jubilant British Captain (Paul Blackthorne). Tragedy, the audience thinks; this must mean the end. Then, a slow pan downwards reveals that the Captain is standing on the wrong side of the boundary rope, and the village is free.
29. 10:04pm – Back to the Future (1985)
Things go from bad to worse as Dr Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) tries to rig up his power line from the Hill Valley clock tower in time for the lightning strike that will carry Marty McFly back to 1985. From falling tree branches to caught plugs, there is a frantic edge added to proceedings as he tries to get everything together. Lloyd plays the mania of this scene brilliantly and it is real edge of your seat stuff as he dangles from the hands of the clock.
Director Robert Zemeckis mixed lightning, fire, a fast car and a dangling man to ratchet up the tension of the scene with very few visual effects shots. Most of it was done practically and, fair to say, expertly.
28. Stealing the idol – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
After navigating a host of deadly traps, Indiana Jones enters the room with the golden idol he is in search of. His companion, a young Alfred Molina, wants to hurry but Indy is rightly cautious.
John Williams is responsible for 90% of the tension in this scene through his wonderful score, but the final ingredient is Harrison Ford with his intent eyes, contemplative chin rub and the waggling of his fingers as he weighs up how much sand will be required to offset the weight of his prize. In truth, Williams gives a masterclass in this scene of how to build tension. We feel the relief, just as Indy does when the music cuts.
27. Come to buy your car – Dial M for Murder (1954)
Ray Milland plays the master manipulator Tony Windice in one of Hitchcock’s finest films. Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson) turns up on his doorstep thinking he’s come to sell his car. The whole situation has been carefully planned; the hapless Swann played like a fiddle throughout the scene, out of his depth against his old college friend. Windice appears to be laying out all his troubles on an old acquaintance when really he is preparing to blackmail the man into killing his unfaithful wife.
It’s a great scene, akin to watching a spider with a fly caught in its web. The outcome is assured but you can’t help but watch the insect struggle. Windice knows every dirty little secret that Swann has and it only takes incredibly polite conversation to utterly defeat the man and turn him into a potential murderer.
26. Do you expect me to talk? – Goldfinger (1964)
In one of the most iconic scenes of the Bond franchise, Sean Connery’s 007 is tied to a table beneath an industrial laser. His legs are spread and the beam of intense light is moved ever closer to his nether region.
Connery has to try to talk his way out of a situation that has been set up to kill him. His antagonist, Auric Goldfinger, seems to want nothing in the way of information. He simply wants to watch Bond die horribly, private parts first, presumably in vengeance for the humiliation visited upon him earlier in the film. Connery does well to put across the desperation of his situation as he looks for an out, and the male members of the audience become more uncomfortable with every inch the laser moves.
25. Alone at last – Night of the Hunter (1955)
The con-man preacher, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is searching for his deceased former cellmate’s hidden money. After marrying and killing the man’s wife, he finally has their children, little John and Pearl to himself. Now he can start to question them about the whereabouts of their father’s fortune. The scene is well-anticipated and you can see it coming for quite some time. That only heightens the fear you feel for the children.
Mitchum did superlative work as Powell and it is shown in this scene when he talks to them at the dinner table, evil oozing out of every pore. The children, especially Pearl who is so blind to his nature, make the audience feel so helpless as he pulls out his knife. His calm voice and mask of civility are swiftly removed every time that the little girl sides with her older brother.
24. Glass floor – The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
The sequel to Jurassic Park has been maligned in many quarters. It is true to say that it fails to live up to the standard set by its predecessor. The film does have some stand-out moments, however, as you would expect from a Spielberg film. Chief among these is the scene in which the protagonists are trapped in their mobile command post. This is shoved over the side of a cliff and they find themselves dangling with nothing but a sheet of glass between them and certain death. Julianne Moore’s character slips and lands on it.
This is wonderfully shot as she stares down through its transparency at certain death below. Every attempt to move makes fresh cracks that spread across the surface and all the while there is a heavy object inching ever closer to falling and putting an end to her efforts to escape. Her fear is palpable throughout and it’s a great credit to Moore that she makes us feel even more uncomfortable in an already tense scene.
23. Hang on – Cliffhanger (1993)
Renny Harlin’s popcorn action-adventure movie, a vehicle for Sylvester Stallone, is hardly the most original blockbuster ever made, despite John Lithgow and Craig Fairbrass making memorable villains. The opening scene, however, eclipses the rest of the film by some considerable margin. Stallone, playing mountain climber extraordinaire Gabe Walker, is out on the peaks with his friends. Things go horribly wrong when his friend’s girlfriend is left dangling from a rope above a ravine.
This is all primed to be the ‘save the cat’ moment that will set up Stallone as the hero we can trust in the movie to come. Things get worse, though, and the audience becomes increasingly concerned that this isn’t going to work out how we expect it to. This is, to be fair, pulse pounding entertainment and deserves to be taken on its merits. Everyone concerned does a good job acting-wise and the cinematography makes things feel very real indeed.
22. Say It – Wild At Heart (1990)
David Lynch knows as well as anyone that nothing makes tension like putting a rattlesnake in a room with a small child, which is exactly how this scene feels. Sailor and Lula (Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern) find themselves stuck in Big Tuna, Texas, a long way from their personal ‘yellow brick road’.
While Sailor is out, the vile creation that is Willem Defoe’s Bobby Peru finds his way into their hotel room. Lula’s already ill and vulnerable being newly pregnant, so the last thing she needs is Peru. He seems to have come to tease her a bit but things go dark very quickly and he exerts his power over her in increasingly demeaning and humiliating ways. His voice goes from a demented, spittle-filled shout in her face to the caress of a whisper in her ear, but the poison of everything he says is unchanged.
It’s a great testament to the skills of Lynch, Dern and Defoe that they make this such a tense, bruising scene as it contains very little actual violence. Peru doesn’t follow through with any of his innuendo; he’s just there to prove a point.
21. Docking – Interstellar (2014)
Hans Zimmer’s fantastic score builds to a wonderful crescendo which helps ram the tension home in this marvellous scene. Matthew McConaughey’s space pilot must match his craft’s rate of spin to the one with which he is trying to dock or it will be lost forever in its diminishing orbit.
This is a heart-in mouth sequence that leaves you feeling dizzy and disorientated by the end. The amazing visual effects in this scene were a mixture of practical and computer generated. This, when combined with the rich sound work that plays concurrently with Zimmer’s organ and synth accompaniment, the result is, for the audience, exactly the feeling of being inside the whirling ship that was intended.