Surprise vs. Suspense
BY JAMES STILL, DIRECTOR
Thanks to the movie (based on the play) directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Dial “M” for Murder is a story we think we know. There I’ve said it … the two scariest words in the murder-mystery genre: Alfred Hitchcock. Who hasn’t pulled back a shower curtain hoping not to find something out of Psycho? “Hitch” (his well-known nickname) had plenty of witty things to say about murder. One of my favorites is: “I have a perfect cure for a sore throat: cut it.”
What you may not remember is that Dial “M” isn’t a typical mystery, because the audience is in on the murder plan from the beginning. I find that twist to be one of the many compelling things about the story. Playwright Frederick Knott makes the audience both witness and accomplice to the attempted murder of Margot. In that way, Mr. Knott reinvents the murder mystery and turns it on its head. The venerable question posed by a murder mystery is “Whodunit?” But Dial “M” asks a different question: “WillHeGetAwayWithIt?” By turning the genre inside out, Mr. Knott not only changes the question that drives the play, but also how the audience is drawn into the play. The character Tony has spent a year working out the details of his wife’s murder, and in theory, it’s fool-proof. But to quote the character Max: “…in stories things turn out as the author plans them to…. In real life they don’t—always.” In Dial “M,” when things don’t go exactly to plan, they get even more … interesting.
Mr. Knott had the great instinct to focus less on mystery and more on suspense. Hitchcock, of course, was known as the Master of Suspense. He said, “Mystery is an intellectual process ... but suspense is essentially an emotional process.” Hitchcock also made a distinction between “surprise” and “suspense.” Surprise is when two people are sitting at a table and a bomb goes off. Suspense is when two people are sitting at a table and the audience knows there is a bomb about to go off … so they are waiting for the surprise….
Hitchcock had something to say about audiences too: “Give them pleasure: the same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.”
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