What Can We Learn About Directing from Hitchcock's 'Notorious' and Its Made-For-TV Remake?
Take a look at how different a movie becomes based on who directs it.
The artistry of a director is perhaps most apparent when there is a lack of it—when we see the seams, the overreaching, and the mistakes. Recognizing these kinds of cinematic missteps and understanding why certain things work and why others don't is a crucial part of being a student of film, and perhaps the best, or at least easiest way to do it is by seeing a side-by-side comparison of the same film made by two different filmmakers.
In this video essay from Writing with the Camera, we get to see Notorious two ways: the Alfred Hitchcock classic film noir and the Colin Bucksey made-for-TV movie. Though the story is the same, the differences are stark and the approach is divergent, but what do these dissimilarities teach us about "good" and "bad" directing?
I don't want to be that person who says what everybody is probably already thinking, but—Hitchcock's Notorious is far better than Bucksey's. You don't have to agree, but the stage needs to be set and I just set it. The 1992 version is—what it is. It's a made-for-TV movie that is a little cheesy and doesn't quite compare to the Hitchcockian original. (Don't discount the film's director, though. Bucksey went on to direct Breaking Bad and FX's Fargo.)
But why is Hitchcock's film better? Is it because Hitchcock himself is a better director? I mean, there isn't an answer to that, not only because there are countless factors that contribute to the success of a film but because it's just an opinion. Some people look at Rear Window and say watching a wheelchair-bound dude spy on his neighbors in his pajamas for two hours is boring as hell, but watching a cancer-ridden former high school chemistry teacher become a meth kingpin is all kinds of fun.
So again, why is Hitchcock's film better, or at the very least, this specific courtroom scene? In my opinion, it's because Hitchcock utilizes his masterfully economic visual storytelling techniques to tell his audience what to be interested in, while Bucksey opts to create an unwarranted amount of drama for a part of the film that doesn't necessitate it in an incredibly uneconomical way. Hitchcock's scene is pretty much just one single shot, while Bucksey's has tons of shots that have a lot going on—you've got a wide-angle lens, extreme low angles, camera movement, slow motion, and melodramatic music.
Hitchcock lets us wonder why we're watching this scene while still piquing our interest. Bucksey hits us over the head with a frying pan repeatedly, asking us over and over, "Do you get it!? Do you get it!?" and we're like, "Yes! Yes! We fucking get it! This scene is super dramatic! Please stop assaulting me!"
Now, there are no rules to filmmaking. If you want to make films like the 1992 Notorious, more power to you. Same goes for those who want to make something more like the 1946 version. The point here is not to honor one filmmaker by trashing another. The point is to show you different cinematic techniques, some of which work and some of which don't, in hopes of giving you as many options as possible when it comes time to shoot your own films.