Watching my friend squirm and hold her breath was so satisfactory because I've seen the movie dozens of times and I still feel my stomach drop each time Claude Rains lays eyes on Ingrid Bergman.
Notorious is such a quintessential Hitchcock and I love using it to introduce classic film newbies to his style. People often times have the wrong idea when they think about Hitchcock. Horror movies have changed dramatically since the golden era. When people think of scary they automatically think of paranormal death threats, haunted ghost children or dismemberment by clowns... cheap tricks if you ask me. Hitchcock played on our fears in a more psychological way. When Ingrid Bergman is securing the key to the infamous wine cellar without her husband knowing, you can't help but cringe. You can see her husband's shadow as he's talking to her from the bathroom as she fiddles with his key chain... she gets it off just in time as he walks in and approaches her. He grabs her hands (all the while she is clutching the key) and opens her palm to kiss it. You can feel yourself tighten up, terrified that he's going to discover what his secret agent wife is really up to. That's how Hitchcock works: subtly. That singular scene is so short, so important and is a perfect example of how simple our fears really are.
Yes, the shower scene from Psycho is brutal. Nothing subtle about that. But that isn't my favorite Hitchcock. I prefer the artistry of his slow build and Notorious is the perfect display of his film artistry. There aren't any hippy-haired girls crawling out of TVs or chainsaw wielding rednecks but I dare you to watch Hitchcock and not feel fear growing in your belly.
I feel that suspense trumps gore everyday of the week especially when wielded by a master craftsman.
Side note: This is also a very sexy movie! There is an entire scene where Grant and Bergman are constantly kissing... they even deliver lines while kissing. Their arms and lips never leave the other. It creates such a deep warm intimacy, I almost feel like I'm encroaching on a private moment between two lovers. When Grant comes back with the mission in tow, the change is painfully evident. The covers are thrown back and a coldness creeps in. I always feel my heart break as the two characters push the other away. Hitchcock knew how to get around the production codes and he never fails to add sensuality into his films.