The 20 Greatest Suspense Sequences in Alfred Hitchcock Films

7. The mission tower “suicide” in Vertigo (1958)

The mission tower “suicide” in Vertigo

John “Scotty” Ferguson (James Stewart) has fallen in love with Madeleine (Kim Novak), the wife of Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), whom he has been following as a favor to his old schoolmate. Madeleine appears to be obsessed by a long lost dead relative, Carlotta Valdes, and Scotty has taken her to an old Spanish mission in order to excise a dream that she has had and rid her of her obsession.

But the plan backfires when Madeleine rushes from Scotty’s arms and into the mission church, then up the stairs into the church’s bell tower. Scotty desperately tries to follow her, but his fear of heights overcomes him, and he is unable to reach the top of the tower.

Madeleine disappears through a hatch onto the tower roof, then apparently throws herself from the top of the tower as Scotty watches in horror. He sees her body fall past the tower window then looks down at Madeleine’s dead body lying on the mission roof below.

Vertigo is now considered Hitchcock’s greatest accomplishment, and the story of obsession, love and loss reaches its mid-film climax with this scene, which contains Hitchcock’s best known trick shot. As Scotty attempts to climb the mission tower, he looks down the stairs; Hitchcock wanted a special shot to show the sense of vertigo that Scotty is experiencing. He created a miniature of the tower (which was itself a created set, as the real location, Mission San Juan Baptista, did not have an actual tower) and put a special effects camera on it with a lens that was capable of zooming in while the camera itself tracked back.

The effect worked perfectly, giving the viewer a sense of disorientation and dizziness while still keeping everything in the right perspective. This great effects shot, plus Bernard Hermmann’s dramatic score and the acting of Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart, make the tower sequence in Vertigo one of Hitchcock’s greatest moments.


6. The Mount Rushmore sequence in North by Northwest (1959)

The Mount Rushmore sequence in North by Northwest

Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) frees Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) from the clutches of Philip Vandamm (James Mason) and they try to flee to safety, pursued by Vandamm’s henchman and his secretary, Leonard (Martin Landau). But Roger and Eve find themselves trapped on top of the Mount Rushmore monument, fighting for their lives.

Roger and Eve try to climb down the monument to safety, but Leonard pushes Eve off and she is soon hanging on precariously for dear life. As Roger tries to pull her up, Leonard viscously steps on his fingers in order to make them both fall, but he is shot by the park rangers standing on the other side and Roger pulls Eve up to safety and into an upper berth on the train, which roars into a tunnel in one of film’s greatest phallic symbols of all time.

Hitchcock had attempted this type of sequence before at the conclusion of his 1942 film Saboteur, in which innocent Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is pursued across the country, falsely accused of killing his friend and committing sabotage.

In that sequence, the real villain, Frye (Norman Lloyd) is the one who hung on from a national monument (the Statue of Liberty) and while his fall to his death was dramatic, Hitchcock realized that it would be better for the good guys (in this case Eve and Roger) to be the ones hanging on for dear life. He first envisioned the story concluding with a chase across the face of Mount Rushmore, so much so that the working title of the film was “The Man in Lincoln’s Nose”.

Hitchcock couldn’t get the National Park Service to allow him to film on top of the monument, so he built a giant model of it at MGM studios. It all worked to perfection and became one of the director’s most memorable sequences.


5. The bird attack on Melanie in the attic in The Birds (1963)

The bird attack on Melanie in the attic in The Birds

Melanie Daniels has come to Bodega Bay for a seemingly carefree weekend with the Brenners, when a series of bird attacks puts their lives in jeopardy. After a final attack on the boarded up Brenner home, Melanie goes to the attic when she hears a noise, and she is set upon by dozens of vicious gulls, who peck at her with the apparent intent to kill her.

After fighting off the birds for a couple of minutes, Melanie is overcome and slumps down to the floor, helpless under the assault, when Mitch (Rod Taylor) and Lydia (Jessica Tandy) come to her aid. They finally push the door open and drag her out, but Melanie is seriously injured and the Brenners know they must brave another possible bird attack by getting Melanie to a hospital to have her injuries treated.

By 1962, when Hitchcock made The Birds, he had created so many great suspense sequences that he felt like he continually had to top himself or audiences would be disappointed. In order to shoot this scene, new star Tippi Hedren was subjected to a week of bird attacks that were so severe that she eventually had a serious cut near her eye and finally suffered a minor nervous breakdown.

This experience has been document in the recent film, The Girl (2012). For Hedren’s bravery and hard work, we have left one of Hitchcock’s greatest suspense sequences. The fast cutting is reminiscent of the shower scene in Psycho and the use of great sound effects and no music lends a unique and highly dramatic quality to the sequence.

Tippi Hedren is to be applauded for submitting to a week of torture in order to create these great moments on screen, and even agreed to work for Hitchcock again the next year in Marnie.


4. Thorwald’s attack in Jeffries in Rear Window (1954)

Thorwald’s attack in Jeffries in Rear Window

Photographer L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) sits in his New York apartment with a broken leg, watching his neighbors and concluding that one of them,, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), has killed his wife. After his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), is arrested for breaking into Thorwald’s apartment and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) has gone to bail her out, Jeffries is alone in his apartment. Since Thorwald now knows that Jeffries suspects him, he comes to his apartment with the intent of having it out.

Although Jeffries tries to slow Thorwald down by blinding him with flash bulbs, the vicious killer eventually attacks the wheelchair bound photographer. After a struggle, Thorwald succeeds in pushing Jeffries out of his apartment window, but the police arrive in time to grab the killer and Jeffries survives the fall, ending up with a second broken leg for his efforts.

Rear Window was one of Hitchcock’s most successful films, and this sequence has long been remembered as one of the director’s greatest exercises in film suspense. As Jeffries sits in his darkened apartment, waiting for Thorwald to arrive, the suspense becomes unbearable. Hitchcock again used no music to avoid the cliche, and also to emphasize the creepy sounds of Thorwald entering the apartment building and riding up in the elevator.

As he comes closer and closer the suspense builds, until finally he enters the dark apartment and confronts Jeffries. Thorwald is threatening, but also seems somewhat pathetic, as he pleads with Jeffries to tell him why he suspects him and what he is going to do about it.

As he approaches Jeffries, the photographer uses his flash bulbs to blind the man, another instance of Hitchcock using a visual device to great effect. In the end, the killer is caught and the audience has the satisfaction of knowing that Jeffries has, in some ways, been chastised with a second broken leg for his peeping and prying, and that girlfriend Lisa will have even more time to convince him to give up his traveling ways and settle down with her.


3. The crop duster sequence in North by Northwest (1959)

The crop duster sequence in North by Northwest

Ad man on the run Roger Thornhill is sent to a remote country location called “Prairie Stop” to meet with George Kaplan, the fictitious government agent for whom he feels he has been mistaken. But the situation is a setup and on an isolated highway, Thornhill sees a crop dusting plane in the distance, which suddenly turns and begins flying towards him. He falls to the ground as the plane flies overhead; now alerted, the next time the plane flies and shoots at him, he is able to dodge the bullets and they miss him.

The plane continues to pursue him and Thornhill runs into a cornfield to avoid the bullets from the crop dusting plane, but the plane crop dusts the area and Thornhill has to run out. He races towards the highway with the plane still in pursuit and attempts to stop a passing oil truck, which almost runs him down.

The plane crashes into the oil truck and bursts into a fireball, then everyone runs away in fear as the oil truck explodes. Thornhill jumps into a pickup truck that has been left by a passerby who has stopped, and he drives off safely.

One of Hitchcock’s best known sequences, the crop duster sequence is also one of the fullest realization of Hitchcock’s bird imagery, as the crop duster plane appears out of the air as if it is a winged avenger come to take its vengeance on humanity in the form of Roger Thornhill. Ad man Thornhill is totally out of his element in this isolated country setting, far from the sophisticated restaurants and theaters where he usually spends his time.

As the plane suddenly veers towards Thornhill and swoops down out of the sky, the world seems to have totally turned upside down for the New York ad man, who now must literally run for his life to avoid the plane’s bullets.

The sequence became a well known example of how Hitchcock’s best films take his characters far from their comfort zones, isolating them and putting them through a horrific ordeal, one from which they must use all of their wits and resources to be able to survive. The crop duster sequence in North by Northwest seemed to encapsulate this situation the best, and the images of Grant racing across the cornfield to avoid the plane became an iconic part of Hitchcock’s film canon.


2. The shower sequence in Psycho (1960)


Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 from her employer and flees Phoenix, AZ to be with her boyfriend, Sam Loomis. Along the way, she encounters a terrible rainstorm and stops at the out of the way Bates Motel. After having dinner and conversation with the odd proprietor of the motel, Norman Bates, who seems to be under the control of his invalid mother who lives in the house behind the motel, Marion decides to go back to Phoenix the next day and return the money.

But as she steps goes into her room to undress, Norman spies on her through a peephole in his parlor. Marion begins to take a shower, but the door to the bathroom slowly opens and a female figure enters the room, raising a large butcher knife.

The figure proceeds to hack Marion to death in the shower then flees, leaving her lifeless body in the tub. Norman discovers what has happened and races into the motel room to find Marion’s dead body, and he begins to clean up the mess that has apparently been made by his mother.

The shower sequence is Hitchcock’s best known sequences, suspense or otherwise. The bold, graphic violence, the quick editing and the brilliant shot composition forever changed the course of cinema. Coming as it did about 40 minutes into the movie and killing off the film’s star, Janet Leigh, and it’s main character, the sequence shocked and stunned filmgoers, many of whom couldn’t get over what they had seen or how the narrative of the film had been literally hacked to pieces.

Taking a week to film and including about 50 cuts, the shower scene utilized a naked ‘body double’ for Janet Leigh in certain shots. Hitchcock, however, was careful not to show any nude female genitalia or breasts on camera and despite the fact that many viewers felt that they had seen something the shouldn’t, the truth is that both the violence and the nudity was merely implied through the fast editing.

The shower scene has become textbook filmmaking and has been studied in film schools in the years since the film’s release. Psycho went on to become a massive hit, partly due to the risk that Hitchcock took in this sequence, and the film ending up insuring not only Hitchcock’s financial future, but also his status as one of the greatest and most experimental filmmakers of all time.


1. The Albert Hall sequence in The Man Who Knew too Much (1956)

The Albert Hall sequence in The Man Who Knew too Much

Some may dispute this selection as Hitchcock’s greatest suspense sequence, and a good argument could be made for either the shower scene or the crop duster sequence as number one. But for my money, the Albert Hall sequence from the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew too Much ranks as the best, and I’ll try to explain why I feel this way.

With their son kidnapped in Morocco to insure their silence, Ben and Jo McKenna go to London and speak with Inspector Buchanan (Ralph Truman) of the British Secret Service, who promises to help find their son. The McKennas eventually trace the kidnappers to a small church called Ambrose Chapel, and Jo goes to a concert performance at the Albert Hall to find Buchanan and let him know.

In the lobby she sees Buchanan escorting in a foreign dignitary, the Prime Minister of an unnamed country, and also speaks with a man that they have seen in Morocco, who warns her that her son’s safety depends on her silence. Realizing that he is the assassin who is planning to shoot the Prime Minister in his box while he watches the concert, Jo stands in the back of the concert hall watching in anguish as the “Storm Clouds Cantata’ is performed.

Ben, who has been held at the Ambrose Chapel, finally arrives and Jo tells him what is about to happen, and he goes up to the boxes to try to root out the shooter. As the concert continues, Jo realizes that it will be left to her to decide whether or not to stop the assassination attempt. The assassin rises and stands behind a curtain, and Jo can see his gun barrel pointed at the prime minister. Ben continues to search the boxes for the man.

At the climactic moment, just before the percussionist is about to crash his cymbals together, Jo lets out a scream and the assassin flinches as he shoots. The Prime Minister suffers only a flesh wound and Ben enters the box in time to grab the assassin and push him to the edge, where he falls to the floor of the concert hall dead.

A good reason that Hitchcock was able to perfect this sequence was the fact that he had done it once before, in his 1934 British version of the same film. In the earlier version the concert portion is somewhat shorter, and Jill Lawrence sits in the audience instead of standing in the back as Jo does.

The meaning of the scene is made deeper, furthermore, by the fact that Jo in the second version is a former concert singer who has performed in London and has given up her singing career to be a wife and mother, just as many American woman did in the 1950’s.

One one hand, Jo’s anguish reflects her understandable anxiety at having to put her child’s life at risk but, on a deeper lever, her anguish seems to also reflect her conflicted feelings about giving up her exciting life as a performer to be a doctor’s wife in Indiana. Jo’s scream at the moment of truth is at once the cry of a woman who wants to assert her motherhood, but also the cry of a woman who feels her life has become lost in the patriarchal world of America in the 1950’s.

By asserting her power and strength through her cry, Jo at once declares that she is both a wife, a mother and a woman; this looks forward to the final sequence of the film, when Jo’s powerful singing voice reaches out to her son as he is held in the embassy and helps him free himself.

The Albert Hall sequence is a tour de force of great filmmaking and reveals a director working at the height of his powers. The editing and the pacing of the sequence is brilliant. By casting his own musical conductor, Bernard Hermann, as the conductor of piece in the Albert Hall, Hitchcock connects his own work as a filmmaker with the work of a symphonic conductor, in total control of the all of the elements of his orchestra to create a brilliant work of art.

The Albert Hall sequence in The Man Who Knew too Much is a rare moment in film history; a director, working at his peak, accompanied by marvelous actors and technicians who help him to pull off a sequence of filmmaking that is at once great entertainment as well as cinematic artwork, worthy of study for years and years to come.

Author Bio: Jim Davidson is a 1980 graduate of Northwestern University’s Radio-TV-Film Dept. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been a video producer since 1987. Jim has written articles for Images Film journal and his book, When Harold Met Maude: Hal Ashby and the Making of Harold and Maude, will be published shortly by McFarland & Company.