After reading Rejali, I started thinking about how the history of film has influenced what people think about torture. It was at that point that I wondered what was the first movie to include the familiar cliché of the ticking time bomb. The earliest example I could find was from David Bordwell's book, The Classical Hollywood Cinema. According to Bordwell,
In The Dynamiters, a drunken man joins an anarchist group and is given a time bomb to plant, set to go off at noon. When he sobers up, he races around trying to get rid of the bomb, finally leaving it in the anarchists' own hideout. Inter-titles punctuate the action, informing us that it is "20 minutes to 12," "10 minutes to 12," "5 minutes to 12," and "12 o'clock."Evidently, the "ticking time bomb" cliché is so old that it existed during the silent film era when movies couldn't even include the sound of a ticking clock!
In fact, the use of a ticking time bomb in films is so familiar to us that screenwriting manuals often encourage writers to include a metaphorical "ticking clock" in their film. In metaphorical terms, a "ticking clock" refers to any implicit deadline that the main characters of a film must adhere to. When the protagonists in the Hangover have to find the missing groom before the wedding happens, that's a "ticking clock." More subtle variations of the "ticking clock" can even be found in classic foreign films, such as when the protagonist in Bicycle Thief has to find a replacement for his stolen bicycle before starting his job on Monday.
One of the best directors at using "ticking clocks" was Alfred Hitchcock, who once used a scene with a time bomb in the movie Sabotage to illustrate the important distinction between surprise and suspense. Surprise occurs when nobody knows what will happen. It's the equivalent of yelling "Boo!" at somebody from behind the door. Hitchcock, to his credit, generally viewed surprise as a cheaper stunt to pull off than suspense (although we must grant that Psycho includes one of the best moments of surprise ever captured on film). Suspense, on the other hand, occurs when the viewer has more knowledge about what's going to happen than the characters onscreen do. (See the YouTube clip below for more info about the distinction between suspense vs. surprise in Hitchcock's Sabotage.)
What does this have to do with the debate on torture? The answer is that the ticking time bomb cliché is so politically powerful precisely because it manipulates how we experience suspense and surprise. Would-be political philosophers who try to justify torture with the ticking time bomb scenario are just like hack screenwriters who are looking for a cheap stunt to generate fear, when they haven't really earned those emotions from the audience.