Preamble: Spoilers for The Sixth Sense, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Psycho, and Vertigo within.
In 1999, The Sixth Sense sent shock waves through American pop culture. It pulled in over 650 million dollars, made M. Night Shyamalan a household name, and popularized the twist ending. Suddenly, movies everywhere were trying desperately to pull the rug out from under viewers’ feet. Some succeeded and just as many fell on their face. Nowadays, it’s rare to see a horror movie or thriller that doesn’t have a twist. But the twist ending didn’t begin with Shyamalan: it began with Robert Weine.
The year was 1920 and cinema was still a relatively new medium when Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was released. This groundbreaking film, coming out of the German Expressionist movement, was hugely influential in its time and continues to this day. The film begins with the protagonist sharing his memories of a recent event with another man. His dialogue becomes the narration of a flashback in which the bulk of the story takes place. His story involves his friend and the woman he loves getting tangled in a macabre series of events involving the evil Dr. Caligari and a hypnotically controlled somnambulist. In the end, it is revealed that the protagonist’s story is a delusion and our hero is actually being held in an asylum populated by the people from his fantasy.
So the twist ending has been a well-established trope practically since the beginning of cinema. Many famous (and infamous) directors have utilized the twist ending, including that frequent candidate for the title of “greatest auteur”: Alfred Hitchcock. His 1960 horror film, Psycho, is notorious for both it’s shocking shower murder and for the twist that “Mother” is a mummy and the killer was Norman Bates in drag. Generally, the purpose of these twists are to give the audience a final jolt of surprise or perhaps to cause the audience to reconsider what they’ve been watching. Hitchcock used this to great effect in Psycho but two years earlier, he had another opportunity to give his audience that “holy crap” twist at the end but didn’t. Why not?
In Vertigo, James Stewart plays Scottie, a retired detective who is still trying to recover from a recent traumatic event. A friend enlists Scottie’s help to shadow his mysterious and suicidal wife, Madeline. Scottie ends up falling in love with the icy blonde and a romance between the two blooms. But it’s not long before tragedy strikes and Madeline throws herself from a bell tower. Scottie is emotionally and mentally destroyed by her death and is utterly despondent until he meets the brunette Judy. He sees a resemblance to his dearly departed and begins to court her. Here is where Hitchcock shows his hand early.
After Scottie meets Judy for the first time, we stay with her, rather than following Scottie. She looks into the camera, at us, and we see a flashback from her perspective; one that reveals Scottie’s friend was setting him up so he could murder his wife and make it look like a suicide. Judy had been playing Madeline the whole time as part of the ploy. We then come back to present and Judy briefly debates telling Scottie but decides against it because, contrary to the plan, she really did fall in love with him. We now know more than the protagonist and Hitchcock does this with nearly 30 minutes of run time left. It’s not until after an increasingly obsessive Scottie has transformed Judy into Madeline again that she accidentally and unknowingly reveals herself to Scottie. This kicks off the final scenes of the movie where Scottie drags her to the top of the same tower where Madeline was killed. Surely the film would have been much more impactful had Hitch kept his cards close to his chest and not revealed the twist until Scottie finds out, right?
In his exhaustive and incredible series of interviews with French filmmaker Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock, more than once, extolled suspense over surprise. Here is the example he gives:
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.
In the case of Vertigo, Hitch shows you the bomb under the table and we know there’s more going on with Judy while Scottie is still in the dark. At this point, we have to wonder what he will do when he finds out. Will he be relieved to discover his love didn’t die, or will he snap completely and go mad? In a way, Scottie becomes the bomb and we are waiting to see when he will explode. After the reveal to the audience, our whole point of view shifts. Hitch takes Scottie away from us and substitutes Judy. We worry for Judy as Scottie grows increasingly obsessive and controlling. Where before we sympathized with Scottie, now, as he becomes more and more manic, we are scared of him. We fear for Judy despite her part in fooling Scottie as he becomes more and more insane. Finally, Scottie finds out and for a while, we still don’t know what he’s going to do but his menace grows until he is terrorizing Judy in the tower and once again, tragedy strikes. The final image haunting because of what’s come before.
Let us imagine that Hitchcock had decided not to show us the bomb and held off on the reveal so that we and Scottie find out at the same instance when everything blows up. Likely, our reaction would be to punish Judy for what she’s done because we’re still emotionally with Scottie at this point. His manic obsessiveness is more sympathetic. Scottie’s terrifying menace becomes merely justifiable anger and the final image, vindictive victory. As a matter of fact, the novel that Hitch based the film on, D’entre les morts, does not let us in on Judy’s secret until Scottie finds out. Hitchcock knew that this would have made for a lesser picture and would have completely ruined the themes that Hitch had been building up to that point. Hitchcock, more than once, has forced us to shift our allegiances. In Psycho, we find ourselves sympathizing with and worried for a man who (as far as we know at that point) is discarding of evidence that his mother has murdered a woman. He takes it a step further in Frenzy when Hitch manages to wring suspense over whether or not a serial killer will find an incriminating piece of evidence in time so as not to be caught.
So in the end, Vertigo would not have been nearly as compelling had Hitch kept us in the dark. Yes, a well done surprise twist can be incredibly effective but let us not forget that sometimes it’s better to lift up the table cloth and reveal the bomb underneath. Hitchcock, the master filmmaker, knew the art of suspense better than anybody. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Hitch never really kept that fact under the table.