Say the word “cliffhanger” to anyone who lived through the action film renaissance of the 80s and 90s and chances are they’ll picture Sly Stallone. See him there, dangling from a crag or traverse cable, one hand anchored impossibly while the other digs in a chalk bag or reaches to save the girl.
The image, however absurd, of dangling rock-climbing Stallone gives literal representation to the experience of suspense. It also references the original silent-era “cliff-hangers” – adventure films like The Perils of Pauline that frequently left protagonists hanging until the story’s next instalment. The word first appeared in print in the 1930s to describe this type of serial melodrama.
The images of the film characters – white-knuckled, on the edge, suspended in anticipation – actually mirror the physical effects the drama has on the audience. But, as a particular species of suspense, the cliffhanger relates more closely, I’d argue, to sexual excitement, interrupted.
Aspects of the star system, such as trailers and movie posters, dictate how an audience will see a movie long before they’ve seen it. Any number of bad guys or sexy memento mori will fall off cliffs in Cliffhanger (1993); but not Stallone. Yet we’re on a seat’s edge any time he’s on a cliff-edge.
Watching Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winner Gravity (2013), is anyone surprised – look away now if you haven’t seen it yet – that Dr. Stone (Sandra Bullock) survives catastrophe and returns to Earth? No one. Yet we wriggle, short on breath as her suit runs down on oxygen.
The first rule of suspense is this: when it shouldn’t work, it does. In fact, it works better the more conditioned you are to the predictability of its outcomes. This, by the way, is nothing new.
The blood-filled tragedies of the English Renaissance worked through similar pre-set anticipations. Audiences knew who was going to get it; it was a matter of when. Today is anyone surprised when Osama is plugged at the end of Zero Dark Thirty? Not at all, but we writhe toward the finish.
A second contradiction built into suspense is that it can be triggered by nothing much at all. During a long, low-burning sequence of Wim Wender’s thriller The American Friend (1977), a man pursues another man through a subway, and the sheer absence of activity – no gunfire or explosions, no threats or surprises – drives the viewer crazy.
European cinema is particularly good at such understatement. The first few moments of Amour (2012), in which a theatre audience takes their seats, are somehow excruciating.
Understanding these two simple dynamics enables us to understand the cliffhanger.
Don’t look down
First, as in the case of Hollywood, thrill comes most intensely when action moves toward totally foregone conclusions. Second, as shown in the European examples, suspense works like a muscle, contracting and relaxing, and it’s just as active when nothing particularly active is going on.
Because of this second contradiction, the longer the delay between acts, the more pronounced the pinch. In the tradition of the sublime, which the philosopher statesman Edmund Burke described as a mixture of pleasure and pain, cliffhangers are minor devastations that we relish.
Such welcome frustrations become more intense the longer the thrill. The cliffhanger plays the same basic tease – alternating between the frustration and gratification of what we expect – but the cliffhanger suspends us over a giant gulf of time.
While it’s not unknown to film, it’s more legible in episodic formats of publishing, such as television and the serial fiction of 19th-century magazines. In movies, most of which have no sequels, the term “open-ended” is more accurate. The spinning top at the end Inception (2010) provides this kind of twist.
The golden age of TV cliffhanging was initiated by Dallas in the season finale “Who Shot JR?,” lovingly parodied by The Simpsons in “Who Shot Mr. Burns?”
But the age of “quality television”, ushered in by The Sopranos and continued by The Wire, might have spelt the death of the cliffhanger.
High concept television shows such as Mad Men and True Detective have sought to distance themselves from pot-boilers, cartoons and the below-the-brow stigma of network TV. As such, they’ve saved finales for more searching emotional closure.
A case in point comes with the purple soliloquies passed between Marty (Woody Harrelson) and Rust (Matthew McConaughey) in the final moments of True Detective. Give the audience bald emotion, and they might wander from their seat; give them action and they’ll supply the emotion.
But, like all suspense working within the norms of genre, the effect comes in manipulating the obstructions between the audience and what they know is coming.
The cliffhanger – what a tease, delaying the inevitable release of the pressure it creates.