Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"If you had only once said that you loved me." HITCHCOCK MARATHON(GUEST AUTHOR)


Before getting to the review of Notorious I wanted to say a few words about the author. TS writes over at Screen Savour and does an excellent job over there. I have found his writing to be both insightful and entertaining. As one reader commented, he is like a professor and we are his students, ready and eager to learn some more. While I mainly have dealt with theory and theme throughout my marathon, TS will deal with both of those along with history, back story, production details, cast and crew details and much more. I hope you enjoy this glimpse of TS's writing and go check out his own Hitchock marathon throughout the month of October. He is going to be going through every Hitchcock film available for us to see. Anyways, without further ado...

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Notorius-1946-Alfred Hitchcock

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"The story of Notorious is the old conflict between love and duty." - Alfred Hitchcock to Fran├žois Truffaut

Notorious is Alfred Hitchcock's mid-career masterpiece. Yes, he had made great movies before it (The 39 Steps, Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt) and would on to make great movies after (Rear Window, Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo, etc.), but Notorious is a stand-out addition to his canon. It is not only the best film he made in the 1940s, it's one of his greatest films overall.

In many ways, too, it might very well be considered his crowning achievement in terms of sheer synthesis. It combines the ostensible thriller with the love story, then the love story with film noir, and then the standard glossy Hollywood look with Hitchcock's overtly stylized visuals. It twists and complicates that "old conflict," which Hitchcock defined for Truffaut, into an ultimate statement on how far duty and love can drive two people apart and how much is 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 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, Alex becomes wise to Alicia, and ...

Well, it wouldn't be a Hitchcock 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 film was Hitchcock's second collaboration with Grant (previously in Suspicion) and Bergman (previously in Spellbound). Both were stars by 1946, and 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. 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 exhilarating 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; they are surprising, but slyly informative, and they build suspense while pushing the mechanics of the narrative along.

I could go on. Notorious holds a special place in my heart. I saw it for a film class years ago on my birthday – and what a gift it was. Later (and again, for my birthday), my wife gave me Criterion's magnificent release of the film, which proved so popular it quickly found itself out of print. Used copies of that edition can cost you sometimes as much as $50 or more, but – thankfully! – that is all about to change. While the Criterion version is not experiencing a reprinting, MGM is delivering the next best thing: many of Hitchcock's harder to find films, such as Notorious, Spellbound, Rebecca, and The Lodger, are reappearing soon on DVD. It is long overdue that this masterpiece be made widely available again.

10 comments:

darkcitydame4e said...

Hi! Deadpan,
This is a very well written and very detailed review of the film
"Notorious" by your guest writer T.S., Speaking of, T.S.,
He said, his wife purchased this film for him...well
my mother purchased... (as a matter of fact, she purchased quite a few of his films for me when I was starting to collect his films)... this film for me in order for me to add this title to my "blossoming" collection of AH films at the time.(and it's just one of many favorite(s) of Hitchcock's films in my collection.)
Tks, dcd

Dead Pan said...

I wish some lovely lady would also purchase this film for me as both you and TS have had the great pleasure of having. =)

And I do agree, TS did an excellent job.

FilmDr said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FilmDr said...

You can analyze the subtleties of Notorious all day. Its use of Sebastian's jealous mother and the wine cellar foreshadows Psycho. The wine bottle image pattern takes on humorous phallic overtones when Devlin forgets the champagne after he learns of Alicia's assignment. While Psycho is mostly concerned with food, Notorious keeps emphasizing drink as it moves from alcohol to hangover remedies to poisoned coffee. I also like Cary Grant as a cold jealous bastard, as he says "a fatheaded guy full of pain."

Dead Pan said...

Thanks Filmdr, really interesting insight into things I hadn't thought about before. Unlucky for me I have yet to see Notorious as I couldn't find it. But the day it's rereleased on DVD it shall be owned by me.

darkcitydame4e said...

Hi! Deadpan,
You may want to checkout Amazon.com
or any store really. Because the film Notorious is now being sold "individually" from the soon to be released Hitchcock boxset.
I think October 14, 2008.
Unless this is the rereleased version that you are talking about!


dcd

Dead Pan said...

That is what I was referring to but wasn't positive on the date. Thanks for the update darkcity! =)

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