Suspense in cinema has been around for as long as there have been movies, but some might say it is a little bit of a lost art these days. Indeed, if you look at modern horror movies, which all too often rely on jump scares and audio tricks, it’s a world away from the psychological suspense-building delivered by masters like Alfred Hitchcock.
However, plenty of directors – and actors – know how to build suspense in modern cinema, and they deliver scenes – and entire films – that keep us on the edge of our seats. Below we look at five such movies, picking out those scenes that we believe to be examples of perfect modern cinematic suspense:
Zodiac (2007) – The Basement Scene
Most movie fans are in agreement that David Fincher’s Zodiac is a modern masterpiece. And, at its heart, it is not a serial killer movie but one that looks at the idea of ever-growing obsession. Much of that comes from the film’s heroes, notably Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), and not the bad guy. Tension hangs in the air every time Robert is on screen, from his driving to each time the phone rings. However, when Robert descends into the basement of possible suspect, Charles Fleischer (Bob Vaughan), Fincher dials it up a notch. You are begging Robert not to go down, “Not many basements in California”, but his obsession drives him on. Like all of Zodiac, the tension is smart and subtle, with the director asking us to fill in the blanks of the scenario without resorting to cheap “jump scares”. It’s a scene worthy of the best of Hitchcock.
Casino Royale (2006) – Poker Scene
Casinos naturally lend themselves to tension-filled scenes. You only have to go online to play for real money at www.mansioncasino.com/uk/win-real-money/ to see that the pulse naturally raises when the chips are down. However, Martin Campbell’s direction of the poker scene, where James Bond (Daniel Craig) takes on Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) in a high stakes game, is perfect. Most notably, there is the fact that there is very little dialogue from the two leads across the five minutes of action, allowing Craig and Mikkelsen to indulge in a bit of eye-acting. It’s wonderful performance art from the pair, and it works as your heart is in your mouth for the final reveal of the cards. Many poker professionals have called out the scene for being unrealistic, but this Bond, after all, so who cares?
The Departed (2006) – “I gave you the wrong address”
Oh boy. There are so many tense scenes in The Departed that we found it difficult to choose a winner. But we plumped for the dialogue between a dying Delahunt (Mark Rolston) and Billy (Leonardo DiCaprio), which director Martin Scorsese has called “one of his favourites”. To set the scene: Delahunt has just been shot and reveals to undercover cop, Billy, that he provided him with the wrong address, and, thus, the only way Billy would know the right address was if he was the “rat”. That description doesn’t do the scene justice, and we would need a lot more column space to explain the multi-layered set-up. However, the reveal hits you like a punch, and there is the counter-reveal, all the while Billy is debating whether he should and could kill Delahunt. Masterful work from Scorsese and DiCaprio.
Sicario (2015) – Border Crossing Scene
Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario truly weaves suspense into every aspect of the plot, and that shines through most brightly with the brilliantly drawn-out border crossing scene. Basically, the US special forces are heading to Ciudad Juarez in Mexico to pick up a dangerous prisoner, but there are plenty of dramatic devices at play: We don’t know that they are going to Juarez, nor does protagonist Kate Macer (Emily Blunt); we don’t know why they are going there; we don’t know whether Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is a good guy or a bad guy. But there are subtle hints that danger lurks around every corner. This comes to a head at the traffic jam on the way back across the border to the US, where we have been warned several times an attack is most likely. Johann Johannasson’s score helps build it all up to a climax that leaves you on the edge of your seat.
The Descent (2005) “I’m Stuck”
We didn’t want to list any horror movies here as the tension too often relies on cheap tricks. There are many exceptions, though, and such horror flick is Neil Marhsall’s vastly underrated, The Descent. Indeed, the suspense does not come from the ghoulish creatures that terrorise the cave explorers, but the process of spelunking itself. Crawling through dark holes is not something that most of us would find pleasant, but Marshall and the cast really paint a picture of how the panic would set in. The best example is when Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) gets stuck in one of the narrow passages as the team begins its descent. The rising panic, claustrophobia and feeling of helplessness are all conveyed on screen, and, after several long minutes, you feel you are trapped in the tunnel with Sarah.