There is something uniquely brilliant about a film that manages to get an entire audience on the edge of their seat, whether for its entire duration or for one spectacularly prolonged sequence of tension. There are directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, the so-called ‘Master of Suspense’, and his disciple Brian de Palma who made their entire careers out of the slow, careful exploitation of a viewer’s feelings and fears, but there are plenty of others who have managed to stage set-pieces of rare complexity and thrills. From a Hitchcock classic to one of the most memorable scenes from this year’s Oscar-winner for Best Picture, here are some of the most tense:
Rear Window – the killer returns
It is so hard to pick one individual scene from a Hitchcock film, but the climax of Rear Window represents Hitchcock at his absolute finest when it comes to edge-of-the-seat tension. The set-up is simple: photographer LB ‘Jeff’ Jeffries (James Stewart) is isolated at home with a broken leg and, aided by his glamorous girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), starts to take a voyeuristic interest in his neighbours’ lives, including travelling salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), who he gradually comes to suspect has murdered his wife. The key suspense moment comes when Lisa breaks into Thorwald’s apartment to investigate, as a helpless Jeffries watches as Thorwald returns home unexpectedly and confronts her. Like so much Hitchcock, often imitated, but seldom bettered.
Mission: Impossible – infiltrating the CIA
The Mission:Impossible series has often prized spectacle and action over pure suspense, with two major exceptions: the opera assassination set-piece in Rogue Nation and the break-in to Langley in the original. For sheer chutzpah, it is the latter that shows Brian de Palma at the peak of his considerable powers, as Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has to burgle a super-computer from mid-air while taking care not to touch the ground at any point. The scene is a triumph of editing and, as so often with de Palma, it’s the witty tiny touches that resonate, whether it’s Hunt’s duplicitous companion Jean Reno being overcome by the urge to sneeze, the unwelcome presence of a small rat or the movements of the CIA worker who should be using the computer.
Inglourious Basterds – La Louisianne
Most people who watched Quentin Tarantino’s Nazi fantasia Inglourious Basterds came out singing the praises of Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa. Yet the most engaging set-piece comes in a long, intense scene set in the French bar La Louisianne, featuring English agent Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) who is assisting the ‘Basterds’ while posing as a Gestapo agent, and his rendezvous with German film star and double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger). As often with Tarantino, there is a lot of talk that eventually explodes into bloody violence, but it’s the slow accumulation of detail that makes it so engrossing, whether it’s Hicox’s give-away method of ordering a drink, the tensest game of ‘who am I?’ that you can imagine or the gradual interest that the ‘real’ Gestapo take in this strangely matched group.
The Bourne Ultimatum – Bourne at Waterloo
The Bourne series of films is full of suspenseful set-pieces, but perhaps the greatest one of all comes at the beginning of The Bourne Ultimatum, when Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne attempts to save Paddy Considine’s hapless Guardian journalist from assassination by numerous clandestine agents at Waterloo station. The director Paul Greengrass’s background in documentaries and low-budget filmmaking came in handy as the scene, in which an resourceful Bourne battles CIA hit squads and assassins while giving the petrified journalist instructions, was largely filmed while the station remained open, meaning that most of the shots contain oblivious (or interested) passers-by observing the increasingly dramatic proceedings.
Parasite – the Kim family hide
This year’s surprise Oscar Best Picture winner (most, including me, had been expecting Sam Mendes’ 1917 to triumph) was a superbly orchestrated and bitingly funny satire from director Bong Joon-Ho, much of which is devoted to exploring how fine the line between comedy and suspense can really be. A pivotal scene about halfway through the film is testament to this, as the low-status Kim family, who have inveigled themselves into the lives of the wealthy Park family, set about enjoying their employers’ existences while they are on holiday. After their unexpected early return, and some encounters with disgruntled previous members of their staff, the whole narrative spirals off into darker territory altogether, but this expertly orchestrated and half-hilarious, half-terrifying scene shows Bong in full control of the medium.
The Silence of the Lambs – Clarice vs Buffalo Bill
There are many scenes from great horror films that could have been included here. The climax of Silence of the Lambs, however, is just one of the many ingenious and edge-of-seat scenes that make Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning masterpiece so memorable. As dauntless FBI agent Clarice Starling finally tracks down serial killer Jame ‘Buffalo Bill’ Gumb to his lair, her nemesis has an ingeniously horrible way of turning the tables on her: he turns off the power, leaving Clarice desperately fumbling around, but is wearing night vision goggles, which allows us to look at our protagonist from the killer’s point of view, to agonisingly suspenseful effect. The scenes between Starling and Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter are undeniably brilliant, but for sheer visceral tension, this is an unforgettable crescendo of nerve-shredding terror.