Who is the real master of suspense?

 

For years, we have been lead to believe that Alfred Hitchcock is the master  of suspense and he very well might be. Certainly, he is the father of the suspense thriller but is he the master? Who are the challengers?

 

Brian De Palma

Films

  • Obsession
  • Carrie
  • The Fury
  • Dressed to Kill
  • Sisters

Brian De Palma has often been criticized for imitating Alfred Hitchcock and probably for good reason. He is less subtle in his homages than others. Cinematically, he can be his own man. His slow moving panoramas of tension that erupt in cold violence are unique but they do not let him out of the imitation doghouse. Nor does the fact, that De Palma has never really mastered the art of handling actors.

In all his films, the actors never seem comfortable (Except Al Pacino in Scarface of course). Awkward moments infect his thrillers and prevent them from truly being masterpieces. Dressed to Kill is rife with them. The shower scene with Angie Dickinson, no matter you say, just does not work.

It is evident in other films as well, Scarface is rife with them. Al Pacino just manages to paper over  them.

Verdict – Brian de Palma is always a director I’ve struggled with. Again, I return to the awkward moments that lace his films. Watching them, you feel embarrassed, asking yourself, “Where the hell was the editor?”

Henri-Georges Clouzot

Films

  • L’assassin habite…au 21
  • Le corbeau
  • Les diaboliques
  • Le salaire de la peur
  • L’enfer

After starting out a journalist, Clouzot worked as a supervisor for a film  company in Berlin in the 1920s, at a time when the Expressionists like  Fritz Lang, FW Murnau and others were sitting the world on fire with their innovations and abstract vision of film. Clouzot turned to screenwriting shortly thereafter and would make his feature debut with the thriller L’assassin habite…au 21. It would set the tone for his later masterpieces.

Stylistically, though Clouzot was playing in the sandbox Alfred Hitchcock built, he was never an imitator. On the contrary, as Clouzot progressed, Hitchcock became jealous of him. It was noted that characters of his own creation where usually corrupt and spineless and were capable of both good and evil in the same token. Clearly, Clouzot’s past constantly nipped at his heel. Reportedly, a Nazi sympathizer, it would take several years before he was allowed to work in France.

Clouzot had a darkness inside his soul that Alfred Hitchcock could not match.

Verdict – Clouzot provides a compelling argument that few can match.

Claude Chabrol

Films

  • Les biches’
  • La femme infidel
  • Le boucher
  • La ceremonie

Dubbed the French Hitchcock, Chabrol’s thrillers were a little more complex. Social and background character studies where brutality could erupt in the most banal of everyday settings. Political hues colored the outskirts of his films but were never the dominant theme. In films such as Les  biches and La femme infidele, he would explore disruptions an d deviations within bourgeois life. While not creating the master works of Clouzot, Chabrol amassed a solid, if not unspectacular body of work.

Verdict – While I love Chabrol, Clouzot’s master works, Le salaire de la peur and Les diaboliques cannot be touched.

Alfred Hitchcock

Films

  • Strangers on a Train
  • Psycho
  • Vertigo
  • The Wrong Man
  • Rear Window

Is Alfred Hitchcock the master of suspense? It is very difficult to argue the contrary but it can be done. Hitchcock saw what Clouzot was doing and knew that he was in danger of becoming archaic. He wanted to film Diabolique but Clouzot beat him to the rights. Hitchcock knew he had to come up big and Psycho was the answer to his prayers. However, The Wages of Fear and the aforementioned Diabolique still make Psycho look rather tame.

Verdict –  While Clouzot made the two standard bearers for the genre, Hitchcock stayed in the game much longer.