The Paradox of Suspense IV – Noel Carroll’s Account of Suspense

In the previous sections I explained the paradox of suspense as well as several features any satisfactory account of suspense must be able to explain. In this section I will explore Carroll’s proposed account. Carroll starts by explaining that his account concentrates exclusively on suspense as ‘an emotional response to narrative fictions’.[1] Even though Carroll makes this move he asserts that “real-life” suspense is produced by uncertainty regarding future events we have a stake in.[2]  Carroll starts his account of suspense by claiming that suspense is a “prospect emotion”. By this Carroll means that suspense is an emotional reaction to unfolding action. Carroll explains ‘suspense takes as its object the moments leading up to the outcome about which we are uncertain… Once the outcome is fixed, however, the state is no longer suspense’.[3] A vivid example of this can be found in a scene in L’Avventura in which Sandro catches up with the woman he believes to be his missing (and presumed dead) girlfriend Anna and realizes it is just a similar looking stranger. When this scene or situation’s outcome is fixed we stop feeling suspense and start to experience a sense of frustration and disappointment. To Carroll then, we only experience suspense in response to an outcome we are uncertain over. Once we are certain of a scene or situation’s outcome suspense is replaced with other emotional responses (such as joy, relief or disappointment). However, suspense is not the only response we have when we are uncertain about how a narrative will unfold. Detective fiction is one such genre in which we experience uncertainty regarding how a particular narrative will unfold.

Carroll attempts to differentiate the uncertainty that engenders suspense from the uncertainty we experience in “mystery” fiction by highlighting a possible temporal difference between mystery and suspense. Carroll explains ‘in mysteries in the classical detection mode, we are characteristically uncertain about what has happened in the past, whereas with suspense fictions we are uncertain about what will happen’.[4] However, though it is true that our experience of mystery narratives is tied-up with uncertainty about important past plot details, there does seem to be instances of uncertainty over future or unfolding plot developments in mystery narratives. An example of this could be when, in Murder, She Wrote, Jessica Fletcher gathers the prime suspects together with the intention of revealing the who, why and how of the murder. We do not normally experience suspense in response to this scene even though we are uncertain about how the scene will unfold. That is, even though we are uncertain about the unfolding action, we experience something like curiosity, puzzlement and eager anticipation rather than suspense. So, it appears that Carroll is wrong that the difference between suspense and mystery narratives lies with its temporal nature. Carroll highlights another potential difference between suspense and mystery narratives. Carroll explains:

A mystery of the classical whodunit variety prompts us to ask a question about whose answer we are uncertain and about which we entertain as many possible answers as there are suspects. But suspense is different. With suspense, the question we are prompted to ask does not have an indefinite number of possible answers, but only two. Will the heroine be sawed in half or not?.[5]

To Carroll, whereas suspense has two possible outcomes (the heroine is killed or not) mystery narratives are characterised as having almost infinite possible outcomes. That is, the cause of uncertainty which engenders suspense differs from the cause of uncertainty which mystery narratives produce. To Carroll, suspense is created by having only two logically opposed outcomes (life/death capture/escape). In contrast to this limitation of possibility, the uncertainty engendered by the mystery narrative is brought about by the possibility of there being as many possible answers as there are suspects. Therefore, Carroll holds that suspense is created by a state of uncertainty over the outcome of an unfolding event which has two logically opposed outcomes.

In the next section I will continue to examine Noel Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense.

[1] Noel Carroll, ‘The Paradox of Suspense’, in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996),  pp. 71-91, p. 74.

[2] Ibid, p. 76.

[3] Ibid, p. 74.

[4] Ibid, p. 75.

[5] Ibid, p. 75.

Women in Film Noir VI – Containment of the Subversive Representation of the Domestic Sphere

Harvey’s position (explored here: V) regarding the subversive representation of the domestic sphere is flawed. Though Harvey is correct to note that the domestic sphere is often represented as poisoned or tense, as in Mildred Pierce when the unemployed Albert Pierce gets constantly undermined and nagged, the representation of the domestic sphere is far from subversive. In film noir the poisoned atmosphere is always qualified by some represented or implied transgressive act. In Double Indemnity the poisoned, stale domestic sphere is attributed to the evil of the destroyer Phyllis Dietrichson. The Dietrichson household is loveless primarily because they married, not for love, but money. Phyllis admits she married Mr. Dietrichson after his first wife died because she wanted a roof over her head. She also bitterly remarked that divorce was out of the question because all of his money is tied up in the business. Phyllis’s poisoning of the domestic sphere also extends to Mr. Dietrichson’s first marriage. Phyllis was a nurse for Mr. Dietrichson’s first wife who died of pneumonia. Lola Dietrichson (the daughter of Mr. Dietrichson) witnessed Phyllis attempt to murder the first wife by opening up all the windows and stealing all of the covers (thereby increasing the chance the first Mrs. Diestrichson would die from pneumonia). Therefore the domestic sphere’s poisonous atmosphere is attributed to the excessive lust and social ambition of Phyllis. Rather than communicate that it is the institution of marriage that is corrupt, Double Indemnity and film noir articulates that it is the individual who is responsible for the poisoned domestic sphere. The individualization of social problems is a recurring motif in Hollywood. As Theodore Adorno asserts:

Even a radical film director who wished to portray crucially important special developments like the merger of two industrial concerns could only do so by showing us the dominant figure in the office, at the conference table or in their mansions. Even if they were thereby revealed as monstrous characters, their monstrousness would still be sanctioned as a quality of individual human beings in a way that would tend to obscure the monstrousness of the system whose servile functionaries they are.[1]

That is, even if a director wishes to portray a social institution as corrupt that portrayal would locate the corruption in the heart of an individual. This individualization of institutional corruption or contradictions inherently obscures the system behind the corruption. Double Indemnity, like Adorno’s hypothetical film, represents the corrupt domestic sphere as being determined by the qualities of an individual human being (Phyllis) rather than the contradictions inherent in the institution of marriage.

            Harvey’s second assertion that film noir facilitates the consideration of alternative “non-repressive” social institutions is also incorrect. In Mildred Pierce an alternative to the traditional patriarchal marriage is shown but the viewers are left without doubt that it is not viable or desirable. Mildred Pierce’s marriage to Monte Beragon – motivated by a desire to climb the social ladder – is non-conventional because Mildred is the “bread winner”. This reversal of traditional gender roles is presented visually through Mildred’s structured hairstyle and masculine dress-suits. The consequence of Mildred assuming the masculine role is that Monte feels emasculated. Consequently Monte conspires to undermine Mildred and does so by bringing about the downfall of her business. Therefore the “alternative” system of marriage, in which the woman controls the relationship, is shown in Mildred Pierce as being corrupt and doomed to failure. Harvey could argue that this is not the alternative to marriage implied in her article however, even if we accept this, Mildred Pierce still presents an alternative to marriage as being worse than traditional marriage. Furthermore there seems to be no ground to assume that any further alteration or alternative to the institution of marriage is going to be argued for positively in Mildred Pierce. Mildred Pierce’s resolution reaffirms my reading that film noir supports the traditional institution of marriage over the increased independence of women in the domestic and work spheres. When Mildred leaves the police interrogation room she is met by her first husband Albert who takes her arm and leads her through a massive archway into the sunrise. The message being that, although traditional marriage has its negatives, it is by far the best system available to society for the production of well-rounded individuals. Rather than criticising the traditional institute of marriage, Mildred Pierce reaffirms its place as the most natural and beneficial framework of society. Therefore, Harvey’s assertion that film noir promotes alternative institutions for the reproduction of social life is wrong.

[1]               Theodore Adorno, ‘The Schema of Mass Culture’ in Theodore Adorno, The Culture Industry, (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 61-97, p. 66.

Basic Film Techniques: Wipe

The much maligned wipe – infamous for its inclusion in “tacky” wedding videos – has recently become a regularly implemented but rarely seen, or noticed, technique. The wipe is the technique where one shot is replaced by another by the movemnt of an edge, or line, which replaces the previous shot by “wiping” it. By revealing a new scene, environment or space the wipe offers a spatial or temporal transition to the director. The line-wipe, which just replaces shot A with shot B with a vertical line which moves across the screen, is the most basic wipe technique and is found in the earliest cinema. The line-wipe obtained a certain popularity in the 20’s and 30’s. The technique fell into disfavour due to its overt formal nature which foregrounds the construction of a film to an audience, an effect opposed to the philosophy of the continuity editing style.

One contemporary usage of the wipe technique is the reference to a by-gone era, a nostalgic replication of a previous era’s television or cinematic form. The television series The Nero Wolfe Mysteries utilizes the technique attempting to add to the verisimilitude and aura of authenticity established by the use of historical costume and dialogue. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) also uses the wipe technique, reputedly a reference to older science fiction films. In the early science fiction films and television serials, such as Flash Gordon, the wipe is intended to replicate the turning of a page or movement between boxes in a comic book. George Lucas allusion to these older serials, through the technique of the wipe, is meant to convey the personal enjoyment and impact early science fiction had on the Star War’s universe.


As I noted before, the wipe fell out of favour due to it foregrounding a film’s construction. The wipe however is a common technique due to the rise of the “invisible”wipe which implements the continuity editing system’s general guidelines. The invisible-wipe can be seen, however contradictory that sounds, in The Usual Suspects (1994). The invisible-wipe uses an object, or some other aspect of the screen, instead of an imposed line, to perform the wipe. In The Usual Suspects a police officer walks from right to left and as he does his back is used to signal the transition from shot A to B. The police officer’s back replaces the line in the traditional line-wipe technique. Due to the use of the the object within the digesis to facilitate the transition between shot A and shot B the invisible-wipe does not foreground the construction of the film; the invisible-wipe does not highlight the film’s editing. [In the video below this technique can be seen around 3:20 into the clip].


Basic Film Techniques: Extreme Long Shot

The extreme long shot is a shot wherein the object, in the western genre typically the “lonerider”, occupies a small ratio of the screen space in relation to the setting or their surroundings. In the extreme long shot the screen space is filled primarily with the surroundings: in the western genre this is a panoramic view of a desolate plain, mountain or valley.


A central reason a director may choose to use an extreme long shot is that it can foreground an environment a central character is borne from or finds themselves in. This may facilitate the reading that a certain protagonist is isolated and far from civilizations’ help. It could also illustrate the barren, harsh environment an antagonist is borne from; thereby explaining his psychological state. In The Searchers (1956) the extreme long shots are used to locate Ethan, the dark protagonist, as comfortable and at one with the harsh environment of the West. An extreme long shot may also be implemented to indicate how lost, insignificant or ignored one may be in a large city such as London or New York. In The Bourne Identity (2002), and in fact all of the “Bourne” films, the extreme long shot is used to represent the idea that Bourne is “lost” or at least indistinguishable from the “law abiding” masses; agents of the CIA and other security forces are as indistinguishable and ignored as everyone else. The Bourne Identity uses the extreme long shot at an angle to produce the feeling that we are viewing the action from CCTV cameras. The feeling we are viewing Bourne’s movement from surveillance cameras adds to the sense that the CIA and governmental forces’ are potentially watching everything and everyone. The extreme long shot is an important film technique because it foregrounds an object or characters’ surroundings.

Basic Film Techniques: The Dissolve

The dissolve is a common film technique which is often used as an indicator of a passage of time; therefore the dissolve often falls under the umbrella of the elliptical editing techniques. The dissolve technique is a transition between two shots where shot (q) gradually disappears while the succeeding shot (w) appears. The dissolve is a soft cut and is therefore an integral part of a film maker’s toolbox. The dissolve technique negates the harshness of cutting between two graphically unmatched images or the change to an awkward camera angle and is consequently often used in the continuity editing system. The dissolve is most commonly used to indicate a significant change of time. A shot of a setting sun may dissolve into the night sky to indicate several hours passing. The dissolve technique dissipates the dislocating nature of transition from one spatial or temporal environment to another. Because of this it is sparsely used in action films because these films require fast, energetic transitions to imitate and communicate the film’s dramatic and adrenaline-soaked nature.

Basic Film Techniques: The Jump Cut

The jump cut is an elliptical editing technique which foregrounds the form and constructed nature of cinema. A jump cut is where two successive shots contain an overt break in spatial or temporal continuity. Shot (1) is someone with a beer on a table, shot (2) is the same person lifting the beer and shot (3) the person drinking the beer. Traditionally in the continuity editing system we would see the order 1-2-3 in a simple representation of cause and effect. The jump cut removes shot (2) ensuring a jerky and overt instance of loss in aesthetic continuity. The jump cut is like a skip in the playing of a record or CD; an overt loss of continuity.

As A. R. Duckworth explains in an earlier article about A Bout de Souffle Godard’s use of the jump cut:

represents a significant divergence from the continuity editing system, The basic purpose of the continuity editing system is to establish a smooth continuous flow from shot to shot. (1.) The graphic, rhythmic, spatial and temporal relationship is edited so as to look smooth and uninterrupted. The movement from shot to shot is edited so that at all times an aspect of a shot, such as ’shapes, colours, tones of light or dark, or the direction or speed of movement’ is graphically matched to its corresponding shot, thereby ensuring a sense of aesthetic continuity. (2.) In A Bout de Souffle Godard uses the jump shot to create a sense of anxiety and dislocation. In a scene where Michel is explaining the physical aspects of Patricia he loves the camera jumps from shot to shot. The viewer becomes dislocated, unable to grasp the scene’s location: Godard is using the jump shot to replicate the character’s sense of isolation. Both Patricia and Michel are isolated from the culture they belong to, Michel is a criminal and Patricia is in a foreign county, and they attempt to find friendship in each others company. This attempt is futile because Godard refuses to use the shot-reverse-shot technique which would signify their connection; the jump shot ensures that both Michel and Patricia remain isolated individuals even when in each others company. The form of the jump shot ensures the characters in A Bout de Souffle remain isolated individuals without any hope of deep meaningful connection. This sense of isolation is repeated in the scene where Patricia and Michel making love, yet they still struggle to connect and ultimately remain isolated. Although they both constantly talk to each other they barely look at each other. Patricia looks past Michel as he talks to her, the scene then jumps to Michel alone looking into his reflection. This signifies the failure in communication that typifies Michel and Patricia’s relationship.

(1.) M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis. (ed), Film a Critical Introduction, p. 356.

(2.) David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, Third Edition, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990) p. 218.

Basic Film Techniques: The Extreme Close-Up

The extreme close-up is a shot that would only show an eye, mouth or portion of an actors’ face. This form of shot produces a sense of importance in the minute, the apparently insignificant and normally imperceivable. From a normal range we may not see any emotion on a face, however cutting to an extreme close-up a welling up of tears in the eye of the apparently emotional-less face could be shown. The extreme close-up allows a director to reveal something normally unseen; the extreme close-up imbues the image it shows with a sense of importance. In Blade Runner an extreme close-up of an eye in the introductory scenes leads one to wonder about the significance of perception and leads the audience to become reflexive about their own participation in watching film. In an action film a director may show an extreme close-up of a spring flicking to indicate the small mechanical processes which lead to the large subsequent explosion. The extreme close-up ensures, because it fills the scene with a minute aspect of a larger whole, a sense of importance and significance is evoked. The extreme close-up also becomes a revealing technique: a quiet whispered secret rather than a loudly proclaimed revelation.

Here’s a link to an article which explores Hollywood’s view of the close-up.