That is the one thing that disturbs me a little. You see modern novels, psychological novels, with frank characterizations and very good psychology, but there has been a tendency, with the novel and with a lot of stage plays, to abandon story. They don't tell enough story or plot. For a motion picture, we do need quite an amount of story.

The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934
Now the reason we need a lot of story is this: a film takes an hour and twenty minutes to play, and an audience can stand about an hour. After an hour, it starts to get tired, so it needs the injection of some dope. One might also say there should be a slogan, "Keep them awake at the movies!" (Laughter)

That dope, as one might call it, is action, movement, and excitement; but more than that, keeping the audience occupied mentally. People think, for example, that pace is fast action, quick cutting, people running around, or whatever you will, and it is not really that at all. I think that pace in a film is made entirely by keeping the mind of the spectator occupied. You don't need to have quick cutting, you don't need to have quick playing, but you do need a very full story and the changing of one situation to another. You need the changing of one incident to another, so that all the time the audience's mind is occupied.

Now so long as you can sustain that and not let up, then you have pace. That is why suspense is such a valuable thing, because it keeps the mind of the audience going. Later on I will tell you how I think the audience should participate in those things.

In trying to design a melodrama with these elements of character, action, and movement, of course it does present a pretty big problem, and one has to adopt various methods. One method I have used in the past--I did it with The Man Who Knew Too Much--was to select some backgrounds or events that would lend themselves to a colorful, melodramatic motion picture. Of course, this is quite the wrong thing to do, but here is an idea: select the background first, then the action. It might be a race or it might be anything at all. Sometimes I select a dozen different events, and shape them into a plot. Finally--and this is just the opposite to what is usually done--select your character to motivate the whole of the above.

Under the present circumstance, people figure out a character or group of characters, and they allow them to motivate the story, the background, and everything else. Now you see, you are liable, unless you get a very colorful character, like an engine driver, a ship's captain or a diver, to be led into very dull backgrounds.

For example, if you take a society woman, she will obviously lead you into a drawing room, into a lot of talk, you see, and there you are! (Laughter) You might choose many characters of that nature, and it is inevitable, if you follow the regular method. I am not advocating that this should be everybody's method, it is only a feeling I have, myself, because I want to get certain things, you see.

Sometimes you cannot get the characters you want to take you into these places, so you say, "All right, I will have the society woman." The next thing is, of course, what to do with her. You might say, "I would like to have her in a ship's stokehole." Your job becomes very hard, indeed! You have to be really inventive to get a society woman into a ship's stokehole, to get a situation that will lead that way, and a character who, by reason of the situation, would find herself in a ship's stokehole.

Of course, I'd bet a lot of you would say, "It is too much trouble. Let's put her in a yacht's stokehole. A society woman is bound to go there." That, of course, is radical and you must not do it, because the moment you do, you are weakening and not being inventive.

If you can summon up enough courage to select your background and your incidents, you will find you really have something to work out. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, I said, "I would like to do a film that starts in the winter sporting season. I would like to come to the East End of London. I would like to go to a chapel and to a symphony concert at the Albert Hall in London."

That is a very interesting thing, you know. You create this terrific problem, and then say, "How the devil am I going to get all those things into it?" So you start off, and eventually you may have to abandon one or two events, as it might be impossible to get some of the characters into a symphony concert, or whatever it is. You say, "Well, can't Stokowski have his hair cut?" or something like that, and you try and blend the characters in the best way you can--appear to be quite natural that all the events have taken place in those settings because it was necessary for them to do so.

Now in the shape of this thing, it is inevitable that you must design your incidents and your story shape to mount up. I always think the film shape is very much like the short story. Once it starts, you haven't time to let up. You must go right through, and your film must end on its highest note. It must never go over the curve. Once you have reached your high spot, then the film is stopped.

Now one of the things that is going to help you hold all these things together and provide you with that shape is the suspense. Suspense, I feel, is a very important factor in nearly all motion pictures. It can be arrived at in so many different ways. To me, there is no argument that a surprise lasting about ten seconds, however painful, is not half as good as suspense for about six or seven reels.

I think that nearly all stories can do with suspense. Even a love story can have it. We used to feel that suspense was saving someone from the scaffold, or something like that, but there is also the suspense of whether the man will get the girl. I really feel that suspense has to do largely with the audience's own desires or wishes.

There, though, we have another subject--audience identification, and it is so great that I don't think I have time to deal with it here. I might say that it is a very, very important point. For example, you probably get more suspense out of an audience worrying about a known figure than some unknown person. It is quite possible that an audience will have convulsions at the thought of Clark Gable being shot or killed, but if it is some unknown actor, they will say, "Who the hell is he, anyway?" That is one important aspect of suspense.

Then there is the other thing, and that is where suspense is in a title. Take a film like Mutiny on the Bounty. Suppose it had not had the word "mutiny" in the title, but that it was called The Good Ship Bounty. You would have told the audience nothing. With its real title, however, the audience in the cinema is waiting from the moment the picture starts, wondering when the mutiny is going to start.

That applies again and again with titles. A lot of people are very unconscious of that fact. They do not realize how much suspense the audience is enjoying through a thing like that.


©1999 The Museum of Modern Art, New York