My upbringing affects my perspective on Hitchcock’s films. He was likely the only film director my parents would name in a conversation about cinema. When they talked about films, they recounted plot more than anything else, and sometimes an actor could be named; but that would be the extent of crediting cast and crew. Michael Curtiz was not mentioned in talk about Casablanca. I don’t recall ever hearing the name of Alan Parker, even though Midnight Express is my father’s go-to reference about the risks of drug smuggling.
It makes sense that Hitchcock, of all directors, was mentioned in my parents’ conversations about film. Hitchcock is one of Western culture’s most famous film directors. But as much as the recognition of Hitchcock makes sense — he made a lot of good films, some of his films like Psycho became references in popular culture, and he himself was recognizable to many — I learned he was a famous director years before I ever saw one of his films. In fact, my visit to Universal Studios, Florida as a teenager made me strongly believe, without seeing any of his films, that he was a great director. On this visit to Universal Studios there was an attraction called “Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies“. I no longer remember much of the attraction (there are clips on YouTube, and it does not look fun), but I do remember the aura that was created by Universal Studios, a big theme park, telling me that Hitchcock was important enough to have his own attraction. If Hitchcock wasn’t a good director, why did Universal Studios make this in his name?
It would seem that my teenage preconception of Hitchcock would be favorable to my eventual viewing of his films, but for many years the opposite was true. My preconception of his greatness would turn me into a cynical viewer. When I first saw Psycho or North by Northwest, I could not help but feel underwhelmed. Subconsciously, I was likely looking for proof that his films were not what my parents and Universal Studios told me they would be.
This juvenile struggle with Hitchcock is part of my personal journey in cinema appreciation. As I am now watching many more films than I was when I was younger, and as I now think films like Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window and Vertigo are excellent, this journey taught me that it is impossible to assess a Hitchcock film in isolation from the myth of Hitchcock-the-great-director.
What effect did this journey have on my evaluation of Notorious? My first viewing of this film happened after the ups-and-downs of watching Hitchcock cynically, but my younger experiences with Hitchcock produced some identifiable after-effects in my exploration of Hitchcock’s catalogue. Notorious is an example of Hitchcock’s egotism driving smoothly along a road filled with potential obstacles. Many of his choices — from indulging in the beauties of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, to a frequent use of the Bergman’s subjective viewpoint — should not pay off in the ways they do. Something on the road should cause Hitchcock to crash, which is what the cynical viewer wants to see.
Admittedly, this is a funny way to look at the things that make Notorious a good film. Yet a great image in Notorious is mixed with Hitchcock’s decisions to make Cary Grant, the screwball comedian, have a dark side; to flout PCA rules on length of kissing on screen; to tell a story about Nazi spies only a short while after the actual dropping of the Atomic Bomb and the end of the Second World War; and to make, with Ben Hecht’s script, the inability of Grant to say “I love you” the crux of the matter, which actually pays of for the US government because the delay of this saying allowed Bergman to get all of the key information on the Nazi plan to rebuild their power in Brazil. This type of mixture makes you aware of Hitchcock’s hand behind the camera, putting exclamation points on things. For instance, there are lengthy shots of the back of Grant’s head, which is a not-so-subtle way to show the inability for Grant to emote his feelings for Bergman, just as there are complicated camera movements to show who is holding the cellar key. These points do not undermine the film because Hitchcock is attentive and able to avoid filmmaking obstacles — much like an athlete making few mistakes in her prime — but you also see how quickly Notorious would become a much worse film if Hitchcock was sloppier in his driving.