In his conversations with François Truffaut in regards to the build-up of suspense in cinema, Alfred Hitchcock gave him the example of a scene where a bomb hidden underneath a table suddenly explodes. The public’s surprise only lasts for a few seconds. On the other hand, if the audience is well aware that there is a bomb under the table about to explode in 15 minutes, it has been provided with fifteen minutes of suspense prior to the explosion. In other words, what creates suspense is anticipation and anticipation happens to rely mostly on the editing process.
The scene with the babysitter in Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls (1979) is the perfect illustration of editing as an essential tool to build up anticipation and fear. The 1979’s chiller, starring Carol Kane, involves a babysitter who is tormented by a series of ominous phone calls. While she is alone in the living room of a two-storey house (the two kids she is in charge of are sleeping on the second floor), the telephone keeps ringing with the same voice repeating: “Have you checked the children?” After a few of these calls, the audience has become aware of a serious threat and anticipates the next call. Director Fred Walton plays on our nerves by inserting close-ups of the phone, which remains silent, on a clock and different parts of the house in semi-darkness. All are steady shots which, taken out of context, would be ordinary and meaningless. When spliced together to the sound of the haunting score by Dana Kaproff and shown in connection to what we already know, they become terrifying. The phone rings each time we least expect it and, when it happens, the director cuts to reaction close-ups of the babysitter’s eyes. The scene moves along at a deliberate slow pace and its impact depends entirely on anticipation. It is devoid of graphic violence and its whole suspense transpires from the way it is cut together. We, audience members, are dying to tell this young woman to run out of the house.
Cinema pioneer Sergei Eisenstein is the first filmmaker to have come up with the shot-reverse shot technique so common and familiar in international cinematic language. Battleship Potemkin (1925), thanks to its renowned Odessa steps sequence, has firmly established the rules of film editing for generations of filmmakers to come. Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma are among the masters who have repeatedly and successfully capitalized on editing tricks to create suspense in the most efficient manner.