d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 101 mins.
Note: An earlier version of this review was previously published at the blog Deadpan as part of a retrospective on the career of Alfred Hitchcock.
Notorious is Alfred Hitchcock's mid-career masterpiece. He made great movies before it (The 39 Steps, Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt), but Notorious is a stand-out addition, and turning point, in his canon. From 1946 onward, Hitchcock's great movie to average movie ratio would begin to tick upward: Rear Window, Psycho, North by Northwest, Strangers on a Train, Vertigo. This particular film is not only the best he made in the 1940s, it's one of his greatest overall.
In many ways, too, it might very well be considered his crowning achievement in terms of sheer synthesis. It ostensibly combines the thriller with the love story, then the love story with film noir, and filtered both through the standard glossy Hollywood look and Hitchcock's overtly stylized visuals. It twists and complicates its conflict into an ultimate statement on how far duty and love can drive two people apart (then together) and how much is at stake when it seems like all might be lost. There is not a single moment in Notorious where you might mistake it for any of the multitude of films made in the post-war boom of the late 1940s; without a question, Hitchcock is in control of every single frame.
The story takes place shortly after the end of World War II in the waning months where the Nazis still invoked fear. A German spy ring has fled to Brazil, and the U.S. government wants to infiltrate their organization with a spy. T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant), an espionage agent, drafts Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), a patriotic America whose father was nevertheless recently found guilty of being a Nazi sympathizer. Just as Devlin feels himself becoming attracted to Alicia, he receives orders to have her begin socializing with a friend of her father's, Alex Sebastian (the great Claude Rains). Devlin and Alicia part ways – until, of course, Sebastian becomes wise to Alicia, and ...
Well, it wouldn't do justice to this movie if I told you what comes next.
Notorious is not often credited with being among Hitchcock's most insidious explorations of his own internal issues – instead we cite Rear Window, for its voyeurism; Vertigo, for its obsessive makeover; Psycho, for its unrelenting mother issues; and lesser famous films like I Confess, for its religious tension, and The Wrong Man, for his fear of the authorities. But Notorious is surprisingly complex in its own internal turmoil. "The story of Notorious is the old conflict between love and duty," Alfred Hitchcock told François Truffaut in their book-length interview, characteristically simplifying himself and his art. It is an old conflict, but the astute Truffaut saw through the minimalization and nonetheless stood firm by his words that Notorious is the single film that best encapsulates Hitchcock as an artist.
The film was Hitchcock's second collaboration with Grant (previously in Suspicion) and Bergman (previously in Spellbound). Both were gigantic stars by 1946 – Grant for his comedies like Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, and Bergman for Casablanca above all else – and both perform in a way that is nearly independent of the film. As Hitchcock learned from his work with Grant in Suspicion, if your stars are working well you can devote your time, mind, and resources to other effects. Both had their images manipulated by the director who was interested in burrowing into the darker elements of the human psyche. Devlin, played by former screwball actor Grant, is cold and calculating in his manipulation of Alicia. Hitchcock and the elegantly romantic Bergman bring Alicia to life initially as a promiscuous lush, then allow her to become self-destructively submissive and sacrificial, putting her in Sebastian's arms and bed, and she obliges, all for the sake of earning Devlin's love. They are phenomenally deep as lead characters: Alicia ignores her physical reality for the emotional lure of Devlin, and he ignores his emotional reality for the professional lure of what Alicia can access inside Sebastian's cadre of Nazis. The potential attraction is always immediately below the surface for Devlin, although the woman he pushes Alicia to become is not the sort of woman he thinks he could ever love. (Not to mention the film contains one of Hitchcock's earliest incidents of running afoul with the Production Code. At the time, the Code limited kisses to three seconds, so Hitchcock has Grant and Bergman keep with the merit of the Code by kissing for three seconds, then breaking, then kissing three seconds, then breaking, etc. The entire hint-hint-nudge-nudge sequence runs 180 seconds.)
The great screenwriter Ben Hecht was behind the richly layered script, which took an elementary scenario from a short story called "The Song of the Dragon" and transformed it into something original. His screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, one of the two nominations the film earned. (The other was Rains for supporting actor; neither won.) It is suspenseful and taut, particularly in its final twenty minutes. It is dense, but never confusing, and sly without being ostentatious. Production started only months after the nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan, and the use of uranium as the trafficked-element-of-choice for Sebastian and his German cadre is one of Hitchcock's all-time great "MacGuffins" (the item everyone is concerned with but that really doesn't matter in terms of anything but the gear that keeps the film rolling). As it places Alicia in harm's way, it makes a credible case that she is in a magnificent amount of danger. (Certainly Sebastian's mother, one of the great evil women in all of Hitchcock's films, has not qualms about slipping her a little something and attempting to solve the problem.)
And, oh, the look of this film: I could devote thousands of words to its elegant and evocative style. Anyone interested in the power of cinematography should settle into Notorious with one hand on the pause button and another devoted to a pen and a steno pad. Although Hitchcock experimented with the constraints of the camera through his entire career (shots with limited range, like in Lifeboat and Rear Window; long takes, like in Rope and Under Capricorn; obtuse angels, like in North by Northwest), his most effective camerawork might just be in Notorious, working alongside cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff. The famous ones are so famous it's as if no one has dared try to imitate them. There is the high-mounted wide shot of the gigantic foyer at Sebastian's mansion, which leads to an continuous zoom that ends outrageously close to a key in Alicia's hand. There is a party scene where a silhouetted head looms along the bottom of the frame, and although we cannot see the face of the man whose head we see, it is as if Hitchcock knows we will be able to identify it as Grant's. There is a shot where Alicia, just waking, sees Devlin in her doorway, and he walks toward her and she repositions herself, the shot in her point of view rotates in a perfect arc. There is an exhilerating shot near the end where Devlin carefully escorts Alicia to a car, and once inside, the camera zips and captures him as he smoothly locks the door and essentially gives another character a death sentence. No part of these miraculous technical achievements is done for pure flair; like the film itself, they are surprising, but slyly informative, and they build suspense while pushing the mechanics of the narrative along. Notorious is Hitchcock in absolute control of all the gears, and with an unbeatable team of Grant and Bergman, no lover of movies can afford not to see it.
19 October 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 101 mins.