Update: Why stop at this post? Better yet, why start here? Two other posts came before it, discussing this business of Hitchcock's emotional honesty as revealed in Notorious. Get the whole picture by going here:
Part 1 - Notorious and Hitchcock's Lovability
Part 2 - What Notorious Reveals about Hitchcock
I’ve come to feel a certain affection for Alfred Hitchcock. His emotional honesty, revealed through the thin veil of his films endears me to him.* Notorious is a prime example. Dan Auiler commented on my November 30 post, saying, “Your reading of Notorious makes this already near perfect film more touching – I've always found this film to be on an equal footing [with] Vertigo when it comes to stirring deep emotions. I cannot watch either film without being overwhelmed emotionally.”
Numerous moments in Notorious were evidently drawn from Hitchcock’s own life. Take, for example, the imperiousness with which his mother, Emma Hitchcock, is said to have treated him. Hitchcock said that he was expected to report to his mother at the foot of her bed each night and tell her about his day’s activities. Similarly, in the film, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) visits his mother (played by Leopoldine Konstantin) in her bedroom to report, first, about his upcoming marriage to Alicia – a faltering attempt to assert some measure of adult autonomy – and later, humiliatingly, to admit that he has fallen in love with and married a spy. The otherwise effusive, debonair Alexander is, in these scenes, callow and palpably shameful around his mother. And she, on the other hand, is a classic narcissist – devaluing, manipulative and condescending toward her son.
A lot has been written about the numerous domineering mothers that show up in Hitchcock films, but it’s in Notorious that we see the timid little boy that Hitchcock might once have been – and the with feelings that may have persisted in his adult years. No wonder both he and his fictional alter egos had such a hard time with women!
Devlin (Cary Grant) is a very interesting character. From the very first scene when he punches Alicia in the jaw, we suspect that Grant won’t be reprising one of his comedic roles. He plays a cad. Devlin behaves like an ass and the only honest thing he can do is to admit as much at film’s end, saying, "I couldn't see straight or think straight. I was a fatheaded guy, full of pain."
As I pointed out in my November 30 post, Devlin -- along with, to a perhaps lesser extent -- Alexander, is the character that Hitchcock seemed to identified most with. Hitch had a reputation for putting actresses through a grueling ordeal in order to achieve his desired dramatic effects. I'll leave it to others to determine whether what he did was morally right or wrong. But it was all in service of one master: the art of the cinema. Hitch was uncompromisingly faithful to that muse, even if it meant hurting the one he loved. For such behavior, Hitchcock never asked for pity. He was aware of the emotional costs involved -- and Notorious is one of the great expressions of that tension. For Hitch to create such a movie required enormous self-knowledge, honesty and courage – not to mention humility. This isn't the behavior of a typical misogynist.
Yet, celebrity biographer Donald Spoto and others have trotted all sorts of examples from Hitch’s life and films to try to prove that the director was a misogynist or worse. Such charges don't ring true for me. Sexists and other haters are usually defensive of their behavior; they don't recognize it as necessarily wrong -- and rarely are they repentant.
Instead, in Notorious, almost all audience sympathy is reserved for Alicia. Used as a shill for the U.S. government, sexually exploited and nearly dying from slow poisoning, she endured more abuse than almost any screen heroine ever has. Interestingly, Hitchcock carefully constructed the story so that audiences would be moved with pity for her -- at Devlin’s expense. Such treatment suggests that Hitchcock was intensely self-aware -- and unflinchingly honest about the costs such actions might have had on his character. He walked the razor's edge and knew it.
This could only have been the work of a compassionate man who knew well what it is like to put the thing he loves in harm's way. From this well of deeply felt emotions he told one of the most poignant tales in film history. Such sympathies draw me to Hitch as a very human, even humane, person.
*From a philosophical perspective, the fact that film is itself a thin veil that prevents theater-goers from sitting in the dark is an irony that I doubt was lost on Hitch. Print this post