I have noted many times that I think Alfred Hitchcock is overrated. His ability is undeniable, but he has become a very questionable model of what narrative film can (should?) be. His American films particularly are praised beyond their merits, and it is an article of faith that they are superior to his British work. (A double injustice when you consider that the early formal experimentation that enabled the director to become “Hitchcock” would never have been permitted in Hollywood.)
Notorious is my favorite American Hitchcock film, probably because it is atypical of his work in many ways, including its relatively serious subject-matter. That seriousness is then wrapped in the other-worldly beauty of Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, a lustrous, upper-class setting and a fantasized Rio de Janeiro that far exceeds whatever romance the reality might provide. The combination is more than enough to overcome my dislike of suspense.
There is nonetheless plenty of it. I remember that the first time I saw Notorious (on late night television), I could barely sit still in the concluding scenes, as Grant helps Bergman to a waiting car while the villains, immobilized by their own trap, are powerless to stop the couple’s escape. I itched for them to get to that car and get the hell out. It is the kind of bravura sequence that only Hitchcock could pull off, the more so because of our unresolved feelings about the fate of the villain, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains).
Sebastian is, in fact, central to the film’s affect. We know that he has been slowly poisoning Bergman. We also know he is a Nazi. If we have no illusions about his ruthlessness, we also know that he is lonely, dominated by his mother, trapped among his co-conspirators and still in love with Bergman. Thanks in no small part to Rains’s softly spoken appeal, Sebastian is tragically divided against himself, a broken, jagged mirror of conflicted feelings.
Such emotional complexity supports the assertion made by American cultural chauvinists that Hitchcock needed Hollywood to achieve his “vision” fully.* It is worth pointing out the double-edge of that proposition, however. Because if Hitchcock needed Hollywood to blossom, that means he was far from being a singular “genius” or visionary artist; he was only as good as the collaborators and resources that helped him to achieve his potential.
And at a price: all that brilliance had to be easy to digest. Notorious is an engrossing, sparkling fantasy, but also a slick product. That is why the excessive praise is troublesome. By all means acknowledge the accomplishment, enjoy the results, study the technique and marvel at what the studio system made possible. Just do not forget that like tailored clothes, Hollywood constricts as much as it makes people look their best.*For example: “…Hitchcock’s move to Hollywood seems in retrospect an inevitable step in his development. He had done as much in Britain as he could.” in A Hitchcock Reader, edited by Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague, p.135