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Variations on an Always Tense Theme

Four releases show that suspense is juicier than surprise, as Alfred Hitchcock knew well.

May 13, 2001|STEPHEN FARBER | Stephen Farber is a critic for Movieline magazine and a regular contributor to Calendar

Everyone who works in the thriller genre inevitably spends part of the time looking over his or her shoulder at Alfred Hitchcock, who articulated many of his theories and techniques for jolting an audience in his published conversations with the late French director Francois Truffaut.

In one of the most incisive sections of that interview, he discussed the difference between suspense and surprise, and declared his preference for suspense. Hitchcock clarified the distinction by discussing a hypothetical scene in which two people are having a conversation at a table with a bomb planted underneath. Some filmmakers might choose to conceal the presence of the bomb until it actually explodes, while others would reveal it to the audience but not to the characters.

"In the first case we have given the public 15 seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion," Hitchcock said. "In the second we have provided them with 15 minutes of suspense."

Hitchcock's logic is impeccable, although I think he may have underestimated the need for surprise in a genre that has become increasingly formulaic in recent decades. And despite his protestations, Hitchcock did include some neat surprises in many of his movies--in "Spellbound," "Vertigo," "North by Northwest" and, of course, "Psycho."

Directors who aim to emulate the master need to honor his tried-and-true methods of enhancing tension while staying a step ahead of savvy audiences. Four new entries illustrate some of the variations possible within the genre:

The recently opened "With a Friend Like Harry" is a disturbing psychological mind-twister from France; the cult hit "Memento," a Sundance prize-winner, is an intriguing experiment in nonlinear storytelling; the current hit "Along Came a Spider" is a cat-and-mouse game in which Morgan Freeman reprises his role as police psychologist Alex Cross; and the recent "15 Minutes" is a big, splashy, chase movie that also means to satirize our culture's obsession with celebrity. Despite their differences, these films remind us of some crucial ingredients that distinguish a memorable melodrama from a misfire.

It might be ideal to have a movie that offers both a suspenseful narrative and a clever surprise kick, but that combination is elusive, and if you have to make a choice, the wise approach is to honor Hitchcock's dictum and go for suspense over surprise. That's why "With a Friend Like Harry," which opened in Los Angeles April 27, is the most rewarding of this new round of thrillers.

It's the simplest of the four movies in terms of story. In the opening scene, a married man on vacation with his family runs into an old classmate. Michel (Laurent Lucas) barely remembers Harry (Sergi Lopez), but it's clear that Harry was obsessed with his former school pal, and he quickly insinuates himself into Michel's life. Next he sets out to eliminate any impediments to Michel's happiness--by whatever means necessary.

In a sense, "With a Friend Like Harry" is director Dominik Moll's variation on Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train," in which a psychopathic stranger intruded into a normal man's life, murdered his troublesome wife, and then expected gratitude and reciprocation. Both movies have a touch of perversity in that the innocent hero benefits from the crimes committed by his dark alter ego. Moll also makes good use of Hitchcock's techniques for tightening the vise. He shows us Harry's violent outbursts before Michel learns about them, and this serves to heighten the anxiety we feel.

When we're caught up in a queasy, compelling story, we don't miss the surprise twists that recent Hollywood pictures seem to find obligatory. "With a Friend Like Harry" is a model of taut-suspense filmmaking. American directors eager to reanimate the thriller genre could take a few lessons from this nifty French noir.

At first the novelty of writer-director Christopher Nolan's storytelling in "Memento" tantalizes. The hero, played by Guy Pearce, is a former insurance investigator who's lost his short-term memory as a result of the traumatic murder of his wife. He's living in a seedy motel room with nothing but a few Polaroids and some tattoos on his body to remind him of crucial information that he needs to track down his wife's killer.

The film unfolds in jittery flashbacks meant to approximate the way the mind might work in trying to reconstruct lost memories. A subtle but effective sense of dread grows as we keep pushing backward toward the crime that the hero has repressed. Then the film pulls an abrupt about-face, questioning the reliability of the narrator in the manner of an earlier suspense hit, "The Usual Suspects." But that movie, convoluted as it was, had a payoff that made logical sense. "Memento" builds toward a surprise twist that first of all isn't all that surprising and secondly doesn't lead to an intelligible resolution--I defy anyone to explain how all the pieces fit together.

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