Suspense in Film

Everyone loves a good suspense film. The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl are two of the best and most interesting mystery films of the last few years, grossing nearly $140 million between them. The casting of these two films—Emily Blunt, Justin Theroux, and Alison Janney in Train and Ben Affleck and Rosamunde Pike in Gone Girl—are so on point that they will no doubt be future classics. Theroux is particularly good, giving a chilling performance as Blunt’s ex-husband. It’s fun to see the summer box-office hits, particularly when they are this entertaining.

But as summer cranks up the heat, I’m most likely to be found indoors on a sweltering evening with a freshly popped bowl of popcorn and a classic suspense movie from the ’50s or ’60s. There’s a slower pace to these films that commands your attention. When you settle in to watch, you’re transported not only back in time but to a world that didn’t hum and buzz with constant distractions. Every detail is important. There’s tension in a kettle suddenly shrieking on a stove or the slap of a tennis ball on the pavement. The world was a gentler place, and murder was a shocking intrusion into people’s lives. 

Hitchcock, of course, made some of the greatest suspense films of all time. One of my personal favorites is Rear Window, made in 1954. 

There’s a lot to love about this movie. Grace Kelly was dressed by legendary Hollywood costumer Edith Head in a dazzling array of cocktail dresses and sexy, floor-length peignoirs. She plays a New York socialite improbably engaged to a crusty, down-at-heel Jimmy Stewart, whose character, Jeff, is a photographer who’s been laid up for seven weeks with a broken leg.

It’s a steamy ninety-plus degrees in New York that summer, and like all of Jeff's neighbors in the tenements across the street, he doesn’t have air conditioning. The windows are left open in every apartment on the block, and watching the drama unfold in the six apartments that back up to his becomes his only source of amusement. 

The heat is palpable in this movie, making you wonder if the murder Jeff begins to suspect has taken place in one of the upper apartments has really occurred or if it’s just the result of heatstroke and an overactive imagination. The supporting cast for this film is wonderful too, with Wendell Corey as Jeff’s detective friend, Raymond Burr as the mysterious neighbor, and the inimitable Thelma Ritter in one of her best roles as Stella, the nurse who comes once a day to look in on Jeff. She scolds him for spending too much time focused on the activity across the street.

“We’ve become a race of peeping Toms,” Stella tells him, frustrated that Jeff is so obsessed with what’s happening across the street that he won’t even look at her. “What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change. Yes, sir. How’s that for a bit of homespun philosophy?” 

Reader’s Digest, April 1939,” he quips.

“Well, I only quote from the best.”

The writing is excellent in this screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on the Cornell Woolrich short story, and it raises important questions about human nature. Are we all voyeurs? Do we invent dramas in the world around us, or are our instincts telling us the truth? Who wouldn’t be drawn to spy on real-life dramas when it’s so hot that you can’t even concentrate on the pages of a juicy book?

Another favorite classic summer movie is the 1962 psychological thriller Cape Fear, which stars Gregory Peck, Polly Bergen, and Robert Mitchum. 

I was disconcerted when I first saw this film, having known Mitchum as a charming character in Holiday Affair with Ginger Rogers. But in Cape Fear, he’s the newly released convict who comes back to town to stalk the lawyer who put him in jail along with the man’s unsuspecting wife and teenaged daughter.

Mitchum’s character, Max Cady, exudes evil from his very pores as he threatens Peck and his family. The police chief, played by Martin Balsam, has terrifying news to deliver when Peck seeks help from the law: we can’t protect you from a man who hasn’t yet committed a crime. 

And so, Max Cady stalks the family with a vengeance. He kills the family dog. He follows the young daughter in a scene so harrowing, you’re on the edge of your seat. Eventually, Peck realizes there is nowhere to hide from the psychopath who is stalking them, and he and his wife set a trap using their own daughter as bait. 

As a writer, I rarely find myself watching a blood-and-guts crime show on TV for inspiration. Instead, I’m consuming the classics. Key Largo with Bogey and Bacall. North by Northwest with Cary Grant, James Mason, and Eva Marie Saint. Strangers on a Train, based on the 1950 novel by one of America’s greatest mystery writers, Patricia Highsmith, which stars Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, and Robert Walker. There’s a world of suspense in these classic films that seems deadlier and more fraught with danger than you find in most modern movies.

So, grab your popcorn and check out the best in suspense films. Even if they were made more than fifty years ago. Perhaps, especially then.

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Julia Thomas is the author of The English Boys and Penhale Wood, available in July 2017. She is married to mystery novelist Will Thomas, who writes the Barker and Llewelyn crime series set in Victorian London.

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