What Is Suspense?
A.H. [Alfred Hitchcock] In the usual form of suspense it indispensable that the public be made perfectly aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise there is no suspense. (Truffaut: Hitchcock (1983), p. 72, emphasis mine)
Back when I was an undergrad at the University of Maryland at College Park, I took a film class that focused on British director Alfred Hitchcock. Our main text, based largely on interviews that you can listen to at the Internet Archive, was Francois Truffaut’s book, which I still highly recommended for any film buff.
The difference between suspense and surprise
Hitchcock, of course, had a keen interest in suspense, as distinguished from surprise.
A.H. There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it is seen as an absolutely ordinary scene. Now let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen an anarchist place it there.
The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.
The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!” (Truffaut, p. 73, reformatting and bold emphasis mine)
Audience complicity in the story
Similarly, readers of Mark’s gospel are participants in the evangelist’s narrative. We know from the start that Jesus is the Son of God. And even though he continually demonstrates through his miracles, exorcisms, and teaching who he is, the disciples never seem to get it. When they ask themselves “Who is this?” we want to shout, “Haven’t you figured it out yet?!”
[A.H., continued] In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of the surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story. (Truffaut, p. 73, bold emphasis mine)
Recently, I thought of Hitchcock’s insightful comments about suspense while re-reading Nils Alstrup Dahl‘s “The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel,” the first article in C.M. Tuckett’s The Messianic Secret. The privilege of primacy in such collections usually indicates respect for the author and the importance of the paper, if only for setting the tone for the entire volume.
The messianic secret in Mark — no suspense?
And yet here’s how Dahl starts his essay:
The so-called messianic secret (better: Christ-mystery) is not a literary device intended to maintain suspense by keeping something hidden from the reader until he learns the solution of the enigma. The Christ-mystery is a secret only for those persons who appear in the book. (The Messianic Secret, 1983, p. 29)
In these two early sentences, Dahl not only renames the messianic secret to fit his own peculiar understanding of it, but also displays a fundamental misunderstanding of narrative suspense. Yes, the true nature of Jesus is known to us, but unknown to most characters in the gospel of Mark (although, as we know from Wrede, the knowledge of his identity alternates from hidden to public throughout the book).
However, that is the essence of suspense. The reader “must be informed,” otherwise we’re dealing with a mystery that has a surprise ending. The suspense lies in the fact that we do not know when the final denouement will come or how the secret will be revealed.
Just one more thing . . .
When I was young, I used to be a little disappointed that while watching Columbo we always knew from the beginning who the murderer was, and how he or she did it. The only thing we didn’t know was how the murderer had slipped up and when Peter Falk would figure it all out. But that doesn’t mean Columbo was devoid of suspense — quite the opposite, in fact. We watched with amusement as the detective matched wits with highly intelligent (often egotistical) villains who underestimated the odd little man in a trench coat.
True, it came as no surprise when Lt. Columbo dropped the hammer with a well-timed “there’s something that bothered me” or the well-loved “just one more thing.” But up until that point, we were kept in suspense.
A little hitch
One of Hitchcock’s best films, Vertigo, deftly combines surprise, mystery, and suspense. For a good part of the movie, we’re as lost as Jimmy Stewart, until . . . well, I won’t spoil it for you, in case you haven’t seen it. Frenzy takes audience complicity to a whole new level, as the camera dollies back from the murder scene, out the door, across the street. Why aren’t we helping her? Why aren’t we calling the police?
In the final analysis, of course, Mark’s gospel can only be seen as suspenseful and, for that matter, narratively coherent, if we ignore the text as it is and imagine that it says something else. We could call the imaginary reading of Mark, in which the Messiahship of Jesus is slowly, progressively revealed until his trial before the Sanhedrin, a tale of suspense.
I confess I have a suspicion that this notorious essay by Dahl is for the birds. You could argue that these are small details, not worth quibbling about. But for me it’s just another example of NT scholars’ often superficial understanding of literary concepts, which goes hand in hand with their shallow appreciation of historiography and sociology.
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