The 20 Greatest Suspense Sequences in Alfred Hitchcock Films

14. The marketplace death of Louis Bernard in The Man Who Knew too Much (1956)

The marketplace death of Louis Bernard in The Man Who Knew too Much

Ben and Jo McKenna (James Stewart and Doris Day) are an American couple on vacation in Morocco with their son, Hank. They befriend Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin), a Frenchman, who stands them up for dinner. The next day they go to the market with their new friends, the Draytons, when a scuffle breaks out.

A man in a robe and hood is being chased by the pollce; eventually he is stabbed in the back by another man in a robe. The man stumbles into the marketplace with the knife in his back and staggers towards Ben. The man is Louis Bernard in disguise, and as he dies in Ben’s arm he whispers a secret to him about an assassination attempt of a foreign diplomat that is being planned in London.

The death of Bernard in the 1956 version contrasts substantially with the scene in the 1934 British original, in which Bernard is shot by a sniper from a distance during an evening dance. This sequence is much more suspenseful and menacing, with Bernard suffering the agony of a knife in his back before he dies. The Americans abroad are threatened by virtually everyone, including the police, the authorities, the Arabs and the seemingly friendly English couple, the Draytons.

This sequence is a classic example of a brightly lit, public place in Hitchcock turning into an ominous and threatening locale, particularly after the McKenna’s son is kidnapped by the assassins and they are thrown into a world of foreign intrigue that they couldn’t imagine at the film’s beginning.


13. Lila’s exploration of the Bates house in Psycho (1960)

Lila’s exploration of the Bates house in Psycho

While Sam Loomis (John Gavin) distracts Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), Lila Crane (Vera Miles) walks towards the gloomy, gothic home behind the motel in order to speak with Mrs. Bates. Lila investigates the home room by room as things get creepier and creepier. Mrs. Bates room is filled with ornate Victorian memorabilia, including a mirror that shocks Lila (and the audience) when she sees her own reflection.

Norman’s tiny room seems to reveal a man-boy in a sad state of perpetual childhood. Finally, Norman and Sam struggle, and after Norman conks Sam on the head, he runs towards the house. Lila sees him coming, which sends her down in the fruit cellar to hide.

There she confronts what appears to be the elderly Mrs. Bates sitting peacefully in a chair, who turns out to be nothing more than a dried up skeleton wearing a dress and a wig. Norman bursts in, dressed as his mother, and attempts to knife Lila before Sam arrives just in time to stop him.

This sequence is the penultimate sequence in Psycho, Hitchcock’s greatest film. The editing and camera work are brilliant, as Hitchcock’s uses the device of the shot/reverse shot that he frequently employed to allow audiences to identify with a character in trouble. But the technique that makes this sequence truly great is the sensation that the audience has of finally being allowed into the secret world of the Bates home that has been withheld from them all along.

Our curiosity has gotten the best of us and, like Lila, we have to know what is going on in that house. In this sequence we are finally allowed to get a glimpse into the mad world of Norman Bates, and our expectations are turned on us and against us. It is a masterpiece of low budget horror filmmaking by the best.


12. Uncle Charlie’s death in Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Uncle Charlie’s death in Shadow of a Doubt

Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotton) is getting ready to leave Santa Rosa, much to the relief of his niece and namesake, Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright). But at the Santa Rosa train station, Charlie and the younger kids go on the train to see Charles off. After the kids get off the train, Charles prevents his niece from leaving on the pretext that he wants to speak with her.

In reality, he wants to kill her since she is the only one who can prove that he is the ‘Merry Widow Murderer’, a serial killer who has been murdering wealthy widows. Charles grabs Charlie and holds her, telling her that he wants to wait until the train gets a little faster before pushing her off. But at the last moment, the young girl gets her balance and turns the table on her uncle, who falls into the path of an oncoming train to his grim demise.

Does Uncle Charles really want to kill young Charlie, or does he, in fact, want her to kill him instead? Some have interpreted this complex sequence to suggest that Charles is completing his ‘education’ of his young niece. While he holds her and waits for the train to speed up, there is a quick shot from Charlie’s POV of the rushing tracks that seems to indicate the nothingness of Uncle Charles’ nihilistic world view point.

It seems unlikely that the young Charlie could overcome the iron grip of her stronger uncle and push him off the train, so one might look at this sequence as suggesting that Charles in fact commits ‘suicide’ in a way, with Charlie’s help, and thus completes her ‘education’ in making her able to kill the thing that she loves most, her beloved uncle.

At the end of the film, she stands outside the church during his funeral, looking off into the distance; a young woman who, very much like America during the war, has lost her innocence.


11. The bomb explosion on the bus in Sabotage (1936)

The bomb explosion on the bus in Sabotage

Mr. Verloc (Oscar Homolka) is a saboteur living in London who runs a movie theater. He sends his wife’s younger brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester) on an errand to deliver a film canister, which actually contains a time bomb set to go off at 1:45 PM. But the boy becomes distracted watching a parade and takes longer than expected, eventually getting on a crowded London bus that contains a cute dog that Stevie plays with.

The audience watches in agony as the time gets closer and closer, until finally 1:45 arrives and the bus is blown to bits, killing everyone and everything aboard.

This was an example of the classic suspense sequence that Hitchcock had envisioned, and he shot and edited the sequence to perfection. But in this case it worked against him, as audiences were so outraged that the bus had actually blown up, killing the young boy and the dog and many other people, that the film failed commercially.

This despite the fact that Mrs. Verloc (Sylvia Sydney) gets some revenge later when she knifes her husband to death after she finds out what he has done in another highly suspenseful sequence. Still, Hitchcock learned a lesson about audience manipulation; you can give them suspense, but when you get right down to it, you are better letting them off the hook. Unless it’s the bad guy, that is, in which case you can go ahead and blow him up!


10. Miriam’s murder in Strangers on a Train (1951)

Miriam’s murder in Strangers on a Train

Guy Haines has met Bruno Antony on a train, and now Bruno sets out to murder Guy’s unfaithful wife, Miriam (Kasey Rogers) as a part of the bargain he has proposed. Bruno stalks Miriam, following her and her two dates to an amusement park while Miriam flirts begins to flirt with him when she realizes she is being followed.

They go eventually on the “Tunnel of Love” boat ride where Bruno finds Miriam isolated and away from her dates on a small island. He lights up her face with Guy’s lighter, verifying that she is Miriam, and strangles her to death quickly and brutally before picking up Miriam’s broken glasses and Guy’s lighter and escaping.

This sequence contains the usual great Hitchcock pacing and editing, plus dark, extended shadows that heighten the suspense. But the culmination of the sequence is Miriam’s murder, which Hitchcock shows us in one of his greatest trick shots, reflected distortedly in Miriam’s eyeglasses that have fallen to the ground during Bruno’s attack.

Hitchcock pulled off the shot by using a large, concave reflector in the studio with Roger’s image reflected in it, as well as a double printed image of Bruno attacking Miriam that he had shot earlier. The shot worked perfectly and became one of Hitchcock’s best known images of the horror of murder.


9. The attempted murder of Margot in Dial ‘M’ for Murder (1954)

Dial M for Murder

Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) plots the murder of his attractive but unfaithful wife, Margot (Grace Kelly) by blackmailing a small time criminal, C.A. Swann (Anthony Dawson) into trying to murder her. Wendice is to call his apartment while he is out at a stag party with Margot’s lover, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), at exactly 11 PM.

Swann, meanwhile, who has entered the apartment at the specified time, attacks Margot from behind with the intent of strangling her after she answers the phone. Margot, however, reaches out during the struggle desperately and retrieves a pair of sewing scissors that are on the desk and uses them to stab Swann in the back. He falls to the floor and the scissors go all the way in, killing him.

Coming at the halfway point of this 3-D filmed version of a stage play that is otherwise rather talky and dialogue bound, the attempted murder of Margot is undoubtedly the film’s high point. Hitchcock heightens the suspense when Tony’s watch stops at the stag party and he realizes that it is now several minutes after 11 PM, so he must rush to try and make the phone call as quickly as he can to make sure Swann is still in the apartment.

Hitchcock built a huge model of the phone dial so he could include a large close up of Tony’s finger dialing “M” to initiate the murder. After Swann attacks Margot and she is reaching for the scissors, the effect is heightened by the 3-D technology of the film, as Margot seems to be reaching into the audience to get the scissors. Highly suspenseful and dramatic, this sequence remains one of the best remembered moments of Hitchcock’s career.


8. The potato truck sequence in Frenzy (1972)

The potato truck sequence in Frenzy

Bob Rusk has brutally murdered barmaid Babs (Anna Massey) in his apartment and dumped her body in a truck carrying a load of potatoes. But as he relaxes on his couch, he notices that his monogrammed tie pin is gone, and realizes that it must be stuck in the hands of the dead woman. He rushes to to the truck to try to find the body and retrieve the incriminating evidence, but before he can do so the driver jumps in the truck and takes off.

The audience watches with a mixture of horror and humor as Rusk pulls the body out and finally wrenches the pin from the fingers of Babs, which have stiffened up in the first stages of rigor mortis. When the driver stops at a truck stop, Rusk escapes, but a loose pin causes the rear hatch of the truck to open, spilling potatoes on the road.

When a passing police car tries to stop the truck to let him know he is spilling his load, he slams the brakes on suddenly and Babs’ dead, naked body falls out much to the surprise of everyone.

A sequence that is shocking and at times disgusting, the potato truck sequence also reveals Hitchcock reveling in his unique brand of dark, comic black humor. There is the typical suspense as we cut between the slightly bored, unaware driver and the frustrated, enraged Rusk, who is trapped in the back of the truck and is being taken on an unwanted ride.

Hitchcock again manipulates the audience’s emotions here, as we enjoy seeing the evil Rusk struggle with trying to free the tie pin from Babs’ hand as the barmaid seems to be getting some revenge on her attacker from beyond. But we also are forced to, in a sense, root for Rusk to get the pin back, as we want him not to be caught at this point so that the story can go on to its more logical conclusion.

The potato truck sequence from Frenzy was Hitchcock’s final truly great suspense sequence, and in making it the director must have thoroughly enjoyed himself this one last time.