Suspense, Surprise And Mystery In The Bourne Identity

It seems that the Gilroys can’t do much wrong in Hollywood. Both Dan and Tony have a riveting and diverse list of credits to their name. They’ve also written enough box office green to keep them going for quite a little while. Tony wrote The Devil’s Advocate, Armageddon, and Michael Clayton, which he also directed. Dan stayed somewhat in the shadow, with Freejack and Two For The Money. He sprang to attention with Real Steel and The Bourne Legacy, which he co-wrote with his brother, who also directed. Tony’s genius must have rubbed off, as I thought Nightcrawler was the best script of 2014. Did you know Dan also penned the script for the cult design fest The Fall? By 2012, Tony had amassed enough clout to make it into the director’s chair for the fourth.

The Gilroys can’t do much wrong in Hollywood.Another Suspense Master: Writer/Director Tony Gilroy on the set of The Bourne Legacy

But the saga started with The Bourne Identity (2002) (well, if we forget about the Robert Ludlum’s novels for a second. That source material was quite different anyway). The first Bourne movie brought a bunch of talent together, directed by Doug Liman, who had been doing hip, smallish character driven movies up to that point. In Identity the cast we see next to Matt Damon among others Franka Potente (the sexy redhead from Lola Rennt), as well as superb character actors Brian Cox and Chris Cooper. It all gave the movie a powerful ‘cachet’. The strategy worked: the film was received very well, both by audience and critics.


“I don’t know who I am. Do you know who I am? Do you have any idea who I am?” These are among the first few words ever spoken by Jason Bourne in the successful movie franchise. At this point in the screenplay, Jason is only referred to only as THE MAN. For a long time into the story, Jason keeps wondering. The irony is that the audience works it out quickly. This guy has a gun, money and fake passports, one of which has a name with the initials J.B.? I’d say he’s a spy. Not that we have to work to figure that out. The next thing we’re in Langley, at the CIA HQ. Within the first half hour we learn that something has gone very wrong, and Jason was not supposed to be alive still. The stakes are set, early on. The challenge now is to keep the tension.

“I don’t know who I am.
Do you know who I am?
Do you have any idea who I am?”
-Jason BourneMystery and Identity Quest in Lawrence of Arabia

From a metaphorical perspective, we clearly have a young man on a Hero Quest. The search for identity has been the stuff of many great movie characters. Often the audience is trying to figure out these characters too, e.g. look at Lawrence Of Arabia and Citizen Kane. In the first Bourne movie, the quest is presented as a mystery. A pure mystery would have almost certainly failed on the screen. Remember the movie adaptation of The Da Vince Code? No? Good. You’ve blocked it out.

We clearly have a young man on a Hero Quest.


Remember how Hitchcock taught us that mystery is not something you should bring to the big screen. Instead, the master focused on suspense and surprise. In The Bourne Identity, we have all three – in spades, and a moment early in act two bundles all three, in one scene. The scene also demonstrates that surprise works really well if it is anticipated by suspense in the first place. (HBO fans know that surprise and suspense make mystery palatable, as was demonstrated in True Detective.)Suspense in North By Northwest with Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill

The end of the first act of The Bourne Identity is in some way reminiscent of the same point in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, starring another hero who is profoundly confused about his identity. Like a boy growing up to become a man, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) has to escape from under his mother’s wings. In addition to the identity confusion, the audience learns that the baddies are coming after Thornhill, and it suits the CIA fine. This is revealed in a dramatic irony scene, where we learn the agency is not going to protect him.

The Bourne Identity goes one step further. At the end of Act One, in a similar dramatic ironic moment at the CIA offices, Bourne’s fate is sealed and he won’t be safe for another second. We witness how Chris Cooper’s character Conklin task his agents to bring Bourne in – in a body bag. The suspense is on.


Suspense with Matt Damon in The Bourne IdentityThis scene is not for the faint-hearted. It shows the first confrontation between Jason and the agents that are after him. The setting is the Paris flat, which Jason doesn’t even remember ever having lived at. He learns from a phone call to a hotel where he recently stayed that one of his aliases – John Michael Kane – was killed two weeks ago. He knows he has got to be vigilant now, and he grabs a kitchen knife, which he soon drops again to prevent Marie from panicking. Note that in an earlier draft of the screenplay, she does see the knife and it freaks her out. For the shooting draft, Gilroy preferred the dramatic irony take.

If the tension was palpable when the two entered the flat, after the phone call the suspense is sheer unbearable. The perfect foundation for the surprise that is to follow. Of the more than 5 minutes in the excerpt – the Paris flat scene lasts for much longer in the movie – only about 100 seconds are action (‘surprise’ if you wish). The rest is all suspense.

You tell which is more effective.

-Karel Segers

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