Fear and Suspense In ‘Great Expectations`

Welcome to the new monthly section of The Film Watchers’ Journal in which we discuss a question asked to us by a reader. As it is nearly Halloween, our topic for this month will be, ‘What is the best way to create an atmosphere of fear and suspense in a film? ‘ To do this I will first discuss my personal views on this question and then we will take a deeper study of the classic suspenseful opening of the 1945 film ‘Great Expectations’, directed by the great David Lean and the Academy Award Winner of Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction in 1946.

To start with, let’s consider what makes a film scary and suspenseful. Some may say that it is outright scares and jumps, though I believe that it is more than that. Something within us needs to feel the fear of the characters and there are many techniques a director can use to achieve that. One of the main causes of fear is the music. Large periods of silence can really get you feeling scared as you wait for something to happen, but equally I also would say that it is chilling when you hear the odd sound such as creaking or the wind to give a sense of realism and pulls at our basic fears of these sorts of noises.

Another way that many films are made to be scary is by their use of lighting. Again the basic fear of the dark is used, but also making certain aspects of the scene light or dark can foreshadow future events and subconsciously make the viewer feel worried about what is going to happen. There are also of course many other ways of making a scene fearful and suspenseful such as camera movement, the relative size of what is in the frame, speed of editing and lots of other things besides but we will get to this as I analyse the opening scenes of ‘Great Expectations’ as it has many good examples which can be noted.

To start with it would be wrong not to look at how the opening shot of the scene in which the book is read. At first glance it may not seem to have any fear or suspense as it is a very everyday object, but I think that there is relevance to this in the overall build up of apprehension. As it is read, the calmness of the melody in the background is slowly overtaken by the sound of the wind as the story begins, and the way this is makes you wonder what is going to happen and starts building up some tension, especially as the pages of the book flick in some supernatural way.

It immediately focuses you on it as the book is lit up, framed by the darkness of an unknown place which may be playing on our fear of the unknown. It then fades into the next scene, which I believe gives it a sense of smooth carrying on, and the suspense really starts to kick in. One of the key ways in which David Lean creates fear is by the imagery of death all around, a common technique used by directors. One of the chief examples of this is when Pip runs past the gallows in the wide open marshes. With the use of perspective he really looks the same size as the first, almost as if it is made for him.

Subconsciously I think that this must make the scene more worrying for the audience as they have the picture of him and death together in their minds. This is strongly reinforced by the second gibbet which towers over him as he runs underneath it which again shows that death is over him all the time. I find that this is a very effective way of creating fear as it is not too obvious so it works at our subconscious which is more subtle and can create more lasting and deeper fears as we slowly piece them together in the backs of our minds.

Another example of death imagery is obviously the graveyard which almost always has the gravestones looking bigger than Pip and looming over him, possibly to create a sense of foreboding. I think that the constant reminder of death being always there is definitely a big reason that this is the classic suspense scene always remembered. Of course imagery is also used elsewhere; one of the foremost cases of this is when the second tree is shown looming over Pip you can quite clearly see what seems to be a face in the gnarled bark.

This reflects the childish fears of Pip and therefore makes us immediately empathise with him and feel his fear as well due to our compassion for frightened children that is within most people, especially seeing as that sort of thing can live in with us until we are much older. Of course the imagery is not the only way of creating fear and suspense. Another obvious technique used in this film is the way objects or people, specifically Pip, are placed in the frame to give them certain relevance. This is shown to start with by the world seeming very big and Pip seeming very small by using very distant establishing shots.

You may think that this would make him seem quite irrelevant but as he is kept quite central in the mise en scine and the camera moves with him we can see that his size on the screen must serve a different purpose and I believe that this is to show us just how scary and big this world is, especially to a child, and straight away lead us to empathise with him and therefore feel his fear. Again this use of size is echoed later in the scene when Pip meets the convict, with the convict always towering over him in a way that makes him seem very weak and in peril.

At some points we cannot even see the convict’s head as it is looming so high above him that it does not fit in the frame. It could be said that this is just for practicality but I think it is important because in quite a lot of the time we can be more scared by what we cannot see that what we can see and the fact that his head is not in the shot makes it seem all the more frustrating as we do not feel that we can see the whole picture and therefore it scares us as the unknown is a massive factor in how we get scared. Another more subtle way that this film gets into our subconscious is through very clever lighting which can be seen as very symbolic. In the shot where the boy runs toward the camera we can quite clearly see that the foreground is darker than the light shining on the horizon so we can plainly see that the boy is running from the light into the dark and I would associate this with danger and fear. However, I think the use of light is most evident in the section with Pip and the convict as Pip clearly has the light shining on him while the convict is left in the dark.

This not only makes him more mysterious as we cannot see him as well as we would like to but it also makes him seem dark and scary which sparks most people’s inner fear of darkness and again that which is unknown. Use of the dark is therefore a very popularly used way to really get into people’s heads as it is a primal fear that everyone has and instantaneously makes us feel nervous when this man is introduced because he is so dark within the frame compared to Pip whom we have come to trust who is lit up. Although a lot of the lighting is not as strong as in some other films, I think that the way that it affects us is still quite noticeable and does serve a very useful purpose in that it grabs our attention and slowly builds up future unconscious foreshadowing of future events. Probably one of the more obvious things which David Lean uses to create tension is his use of sounds. Unlike many other suspenseful films he does not use suspenseful music or much silence, but in fact the chilling sounds of the howling wind, distant seabird call and the creaking of trees.

These may seem a little over the top to a modern audience used to being scared in much more elaborate ways, but they still can make you shiver if you are really getting into the film. A great deal of this is just repeated over and over, so you are lulled into a false sense of security so that when the scream comes as Pip is grabbed by the convict you are caught completely off guard. This use of a long period of similar sounds then a large, surprising one is often used to great effect in films and the shock of it is a very good tactic as it shakes the audience into focus and really makes them watch what’s happening. The scream itself is quite scary as, having to got to empathise with the boy, we immediately share his fear and want to know what is going on but can’t quite tell. I think that this is again going back to the fear of the unknown which has seemed to come up quite often in this review. Lastly, it is useful to look at some of the more technical techniques used to make this film suspenseful, namely camera movement and post production editing.

I don’t feel that the way the camera moves makes it quite as suspenseful as it could be as there is not all that much done with it other than panning across whenever Pip moves. It could possibly be improved had more been done with it such as zooming in slowly to build up tension or quick movement away from Pip to disassociate with him at some points. However, it could be said that the lack of movement in the shots makes them seem more sharply put together and could make movement more edgy and therefore in a way scarier.

The editing on the other hand I feel is quite well done to make it seem more suspenseful. As the scene opens there are long, slow moving shots which establish us into the scene and make us feel a sense of what it is like to be there and begin to draw us into it. The shots continue to be long and unhurried until the lengthy shot of Pip slowly looking round behind him as he begins to feel that something is wrong. The shots then speed up rapidly, cutting from him to the tree then back to him and even more quickly onto the tree with the gnarled face.

With this we can feel his fear building up and we begin to feel it ourselves too, and as he gets up and runs we are fully with him and are just as shocked as him when his is grabbed by the convict. The shots stay quite fast as he has his conversation with the convict which I feel reflects his own fear in the situation and again, because we have already built up some form of empathy for Pip’s character during the short time before, we begin to worry what will happen as well.

So there it is, I can answer the question that in this old classic the way that David Lean thinks that a film can be made suspenseful and fearful is mainly by slowly getting us to feel for a character and build up imagery of death and subconsciously keep feeding us fearful pictures and sounds so that when the climax of the fear comes we are equally as shocked as Pip is. Although modern audiences might scoff at this movie as it is not as scary by today’s standards, I think that it is a very clever piece of film in making you scared without being too obvious about it and that if you look carefully in more contemporary films you will see that even then the same techniques are generally used. That’s it for this month’s film question, but please write in with responses or suggestions for November, and keep an eye out for these techniques when you are next watching a scary film!

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