August 8, 2018

Cliffhangers and Character — The Things That Keep Us Watching

How fearful/And dizzy ‘tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!

—Shakespeare, from King Lear

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s primal stuff, the fear of falling, the horror of being suspended in space, left hanging, the vicarious sensation of feeling the fall the way the Duke of Gloucester does as he falls without falling from the “dread summit … the crown ‘o the cliff” in Act 4, scene 6 of King Lear.

Edgar simulates the experience for his blind father, combining force of will with Shakespeare’s language the way a film director manipulates a submissive viewer, taking advantage of that age-old perceptual Open Sesame “the willing suspension of disbelief.”

Flash forward four and a half centuries and vast audiences are willingly giving themselves up to the cliffhanger dynamic of series television bequeathed by Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980), who crafted classic manifestations of that primal fear, most famously in Vertigo (1958), which opens with Princeton alum Jimmy Stewart ‘32 hanging from a San Francisco rooftop and ends as the mystery woman played by Kim Novak falls to her death from the San Juan Bautista bell tower.

Having moved from the U.K. to Hollywood in 1939, Hitchcock made cliffhanger props of American monuments in Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959). When fellow director François Truffaut refers the Master of Suspense to the scene on top of the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur showing the hero (Robert Cummings) gripping the hand of the dangling title character (“the villain suspended in mid-air … a life hangs by a mere thread … the public can’t help but be terrified”), Hitchcock wistfully observes, “If we’d had the hero instead of the villain hanging in mid-air, the audience’s anguish would have been much greater.” He gets his wish in North by Northwest, which offers a Mt. Rushmore sequel to the image of a man falling to his death from Liberty’s torch. The falling man in the later film is a Russian spy, seen only after the “anguished” audience has thrilled to the sight of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint hanging from a cliff by their fingerips surrounded by the gargantuan faces of American presidents.

Multiple Cliffhangers

Two shows that caught on in the terrorist-tormented aftermath of 9/11 were Fox’s 24 in the States and ITV’s Spooks (aka MI-5) in the U.K. My wife and I became addicted to 24, finally squirming free after six seasons, ears ringing and eyes glazed from the din of the thriller machine, with multiple cliffhangers descending upon the helpless viewer at the end of each hour in a pounding delirium that propelled you headlong into the next “action-packed” episode. We might have broken the cycle sooner if not for the presence of Jack Bauer, Kiefer Sutherland’s charismatic counter-terrorism agent, and CTU analyst Chloe O’Brien (Mary Lynn Rajskub), his most faithful, brilliantly capable, and refreshingly unglamorous ally.

Character had little to do with what kept us watching the first season of MI-5 with its outrageous plotlines, conspiracies and moles, plus cliffhangers of “there’s-no-way-out-of-this” enormity, and the knowledge that no one is safe (least of all the agents you’re identifying with); we soon learned that the unsafest place to be in this series was a designated safe house. Thankfully, Season 2 introduced a substantial, admirably sympathetic character, MI-5’s resident genius Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker), who, like Chloe in 24, gave the viewing experience a dimension beyond the whirl of terrorist events and ever-deepening subterfuge.

Looking back over the absurdly convoluted plot summaries for both shows, I wonder how my wife and I could spend so many hours and days of our lives in thrall to such stuff. Yet neither of us regrets it. After all, we’d been watching countless films, old and new, in theatres and on television, for decades, and here was something else we could share; it’s been a couple thing, a nightly bonding of sorts, year after year, curled up together on the couch, left hanging time and again from the same cliff, couch potato parodies of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.

Odd Couples

What keeps us watching in the second decade of the 21st century derives from the same compelling mixture: vicarious excitement, danger, death, and violence in locales like Berlin, London, and Paris. It’s no surprise that the shows we’re especially responsive to often center on a couple, usually a man and a woman working together to solve mysteries, save lives, save the world, or save each other.

Of course not all the embattled couples have to be male/female or even adults. In Stranger Things a group of boys teams up with a telekinetic 11-year-old girl. Then there’s the odd couple on the run in the Aussie series Wanted, a Thelma and Louise throwback in which two wonderfully incompatible women become best friends in a match made by chance. Although not in the same league, Mind Hunter brought together two equally incompatible males. In Grantchester a handsome jazz-loving Anglican priest (James Norton) helps his detective buddy solve crimes, a situation that’s all the more interesting if you’ve seen Norton as the ruthless psycho in Happy Valley. Another place-name U.K. series featuring a quirky couple is Broadchurch, where there are as many twists and turns in the relationship between the detectives played by Olivia Coleman and David Tennant as in the plots they struggle to unravel.

The German period series Babylon Berlin, one of the best shows we saw this year, featured a magnetic couple in inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) and the beautifully undaunted, morally immoral Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), along with stunning visuals, epic musical sequences in arena-sized cabarets, and cliffhangers to live and die for (car sinks underwater, heroine trapped inside, hero swimming to shore for help, no way to get her out, time passes, situation hopeless, she survives).


The first season of the French series Spiral was so bleak and so raw that we gave up, having tried it only because two of the main actors, Thierry Godard and Audrey Fleurot, had been in our favorite show at the time, A French Village. So we thought why not try the British police procedural, In the Line of Duty, but couldn’t make it through the first episode. After the gritty depths of Spiral, the adventures of a police anti-corruption unit with no compelling characters left us cold. So back we spiraled to the gritty, grafitti-drenched Paris of Spiral and fell under the spell of Caroline Proust’s police captain Laure Bertaud, a lovely, shabby, delightfully profane life force with a killer smile (you haven’t lived until you’ve heard what she does with the simple expletive merde). Though Bertaud had been at the center of the first episode, we didn’t bond with her until she clashed with Audrey Fleurot’s Josephine, a sexy, devious, totally unprincipled defense attorney with a genius for turning the law on its head. Spiral’s secret weapon is Philipe Duclos as the wily, besieged, unrelenting Judge Roban, with his underhanded smile and boyish shock of white hair, a character Balzac himself might have conceived. Spiral picked us up and swept us away. Watching two episodes a night, we were carried right through to the end of the sixth season.

At that point, encouraged by the series-besotted couple down the street, we went back to In the Line of Duty, which, like Spiral, took off like gangbusters after a flawed first season. While we were slow to warm to the anti-corruption team of Steve Arnott (Martin Compson) and Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure), we climbed on board the binge train for good as soon as Keeley Hawes (from MI-5 and The Durrells of Corfu) entered the picture as the tough, tortured, fascinatingly ambiguous and very human Detective Inspector Lindsay Denton. While we still wouldn’t rate In the Line of Duty as highly as Spiral, it has the distinction of ending the first episode of the fourth season with what may be the cliffhanger of the century, or at least the most outrageous ever visited on series television, including even Babylon Berlin. What happens (or almost seems to be happening) in the kitchen of a forensics detective is also evidence that a cliff is not necessary to produce the maximum suspended-between-life-and-death impact.

Back to the Source

If you start searching for references to the first cliffhanger, you’ll find that the source of the term itself is an early novel of Thomas Hardy’s with a distinctly unpromising title, A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873). Midway through the story, which was published in serial form in 1872-73, a geologist named Henry Knight and the novel’s heroine Elfride Swancourt find themselves hanging from a precipice Hardy calls “the Cliff without a Name.” Unlike the cliff near Dover where Shakespeare envisioned the fall without a fall in King Lear, this one is on the southwest coast. Looking down into “the dizzy depths beneath them,” Knight knows that “unless they performed their feat of getting up the slope with the precision of machines,” they would fall over the edge of “this terrible natural facade” and find themselves “whirling in mid-air.” While the girl is finally able to climb to level ground by standing on his shoulders, Knight is left hanging with nothing to grasp but a plant. He figures he can last for no more than ten minutes; for her to find help would take the better part of an hour. As she disappears from sight, the chapter ends with the curiously unsuspenseful line, “Knight felt himself in the presence of a personalized loneliness.”

As Knight hangs there he finds himself staring at an embedded fossil of “a creature with eyes … dead and turned to stone” that were “even now regarding him.” While the geologist holds on, “face to face with the beginning and all the intermediate centuries simultaneously,” Elfride is removing her elaborate undergarments and using them to fashion the rope she uses to save his life. The chapter is titled “A Woman’s Way.”

Apparently A Pair of Blue Eyes has never been filmed, perhaps because a believable depiction of the first cliffhanger would task even the most resourceful of directors. Someday someone will surely take it on.

Meanwhile, here we are, with America hanging from a cliff that looms larger every day.