THE MASTERPIECE COLLECTION
Notorious, 1946 (dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious is known as a seminal piece of the spy genre, the melodrama of all melodramas that cued the arrival of the first James Bond movie in 1962 – Terence Young’s Dr. No. For my money, espionage is not the preemptive element of Notorious, for Hitchcock never waded through just one genre. Those who deem him a horror filmmaker are grossly misinformed, because here lies a romance between two people whose amour is compromised by their duties for their country and, more importantly, their misunderstandings of each other.
The studios didn’t really understand this. Hitchcock was emphatic: “Notorious is simply the story of a man in love with a girl who, in the course of her official duties, had to go to bed with another man [Sebastian] and even had to marry him.” Producer David O. Selznick, nevertheless, remained distracted by the film’s subsidiary components – the wine bottles, the hero’s blandness, and the heroine’s general lack of appeal. These three share something in common: they are narrative mirages, elements that seem valid at a glance but in the case of Hitchcock, when you look closer, they are forces that lead to nowhere.
The “hero” is American government agent T.R. Devlin, played by icon Cary Grant who turns this blandness into loneliness, a classic trait for a Hitchcock protagonist. The “heroine”, Alicia Huberman, is played by Ingrid Bergman (her second Hitchcock film after Spellbound in 1945), who, like Selznick, complained to Hitchcock that Alicia was a bore. In any case, Bergman – a woman of nobility and sensuality – opts incredibly for Hitchcock’s blonde ice queen, only this time thawed out by a deep vulnerability and a quasi-tragic desire for a man’s heart.
Your eyebrow may have raised when I wrote “narrative mirages”. I reference this term in exchange for another, which is best used towards the wine bottles. This word I, of course, imply is the MacGuffin (the pointless impetus for Hitchcock’s films). The wine bottles, suspected of containing uranium, are a plot device never accounted for in Notorious. Those unfamiliar with Hitchcock might call this a loose end, but the bottles (and the constant use of keys) act as markers to the central love story. By the end, nothing else matters in the world except that Devlin and Alicia are together. Well…almost nothing. I’m getting there.
The uranium-contained wine bottles drove Selznick crazy. The MacGuffin was part of the reason he sold Notorious to RKO for 800,000 dollars and fifty per cent of the film’s profits. This was a blessing for RKO since they had acquired Ben Hecht’s script, ascending star Bergman, and acclaimed filmmaker Hitchcock. On that note, Hecht’s screenplay deserves credit. It contributes largely to the poetic simplicity of Notorious with the terse dialogue, tacit descriptions, and its above all knack for minimalism. Notorious was a profound contrast from Hitchcock’s other films like Psycho and Frenzy, unsavory thrillers with a taste for excess.
Earlier on, I mentioned Notorious as a story of misunderstandings. Critic Roger Ebert writes accordingly: “[Devlin’s] misunderstanding is at the centre of the plot in which all of the pieces come together with perfect precision.” I would further that Notorious heightens its experience with an underlying feeling of secrecy. The difference is the latter is chaotically pressed upon the characters, instead of the former which springs from their insecurities. Secrecy disseminates Notorious in how some characters conspire against others in some under-the-table mischief. This happens in three loopy ways: 1) Alicia’s infiltration into the spy ring household, 2) Devlin and Alicia’s love affair not privy to the government agency (an agency, encouraged by J. Edgar Hoover, not to be named), and 3) villain Sebastian (Claude Rains) and his mother’s (Leopoldine Konstantin) quiet effort to poison Alicia, when they discover she is a spy.
These aspects bestow Notorious, as great movies should have, with underlying currents that course through its narrative veins. In so doing, the film is enlivened with feeling, allowing every scene to come together in a bitter-sweet yet sublime confection. All this said, I must add that Notorious is a leading model of Hitchcock’s intricate visual style, which can transcend beauty in isolated long shots and extremely intimate closeups. The latter paves way to one of the greatest kisses in cinema – a three-minute one that, due to the Production Code, had to be broken up into a string of short ones and brief pauses of heavy-breathing and romantic whispers.
All this while a spy story is loose. But how farce is a sex comedy without the sex, Notorious is a spy thriller without the espionage (but it definitely still has the thrills!). Author Donald Spoto notes, “The espionage activities are really Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, his ubiquitous pretext for more serious, abstract issues [...] of common humanity – the possibility of love and trust redeeming two lives from fear, guilt and meaninglessness.” In the process, Hitchcock evades cliché and dives into the skin-deep turmoils of said themes, without ever the slightest nerve to go over the top.
Well, almost. My criticism for Notorious falls at the beginning, when certain shots – albeit flashy and creative – represent the master in a bout of ‘trying too hard’. Take the first shot from behind Grant, as he watches Alicia become inebriated. Or later, when Alicia rouses from a daze and, from her POV, the camera does a three-sixty as Devlin enters the room. Canadian critic Robin Wood makes a good point about the former shot: we see Devlin as “another spectator sitting a few rows ahead in the movie theater.” While spectatorship is classic Hitch, this is not the time or place. The second shot is equally distracting, a Vertigo-esque way of tapping into Alicia’s disorientation, but these shots don’t add linkage to the Devlin-Alicia bond, suspense, or the ambivalence and secrecy that permeate the film.
I particularly love the second and third act of Notorious, where Hitchcock buckles down and uses his style to serve the simplicity of the story – as Truffaut said: “in Notorious you have at once a maximum of stylization and a maximum of simplicity.” This alchemy is best achieved in later moments, such as the genius crane shot from the stairwell that slowly glides towards Alicia’s hand only to reveal a KEY!
Some of these sequences are elegantly accompanied by RKO’s main composer Roy Webb, whose score weaves a unique spell, maintaining a low-key and rarely spilling over into crescendo (that’s more Bernard Hermann’s style!). But Hitchcock knew when to save the music and use silence to gather tension. Take the scene in the wine cellar, which generates more suspense than what I’ve ever seen in a Bond film (no offense, James).
My, I have gone through this review scarcely mentioning the plot. Seeing Notorious for the third time (my third view at the TIFF Light Box in conversation with Guillermo Del Toro!), I started to notice how velvet-smooth the narrative is. It may in fact be Hitchcock’s most lucid, despite all the bric-a-brac plotty elements.
What I will add is that the film takes place in Rio, where Alicia is assigned to spy on Sebastian, a family friend and former Nazi. Action films today use Rio for rooftop chase sequences, but Notorious eschews those superfluities. The film is remarkably introverted and the climax particularly subtle. The drama is inward. While there are no car chases, the film ends on the locking of a car door, which – you will see – is an incredibly violent gesture. The last shot too is a beauty. I won’t disclose it, but Hitchcock focuses it on the villain, perhaps the character he truly sympathized with.
This explains why Rains played Sebastian the antagonist. Selznick wanted him for star power, but I suspect Hitchcock loved his smallness and elegance. Meanwhile, Hitch’s mother had died 4 years prior; always bound by his mother, Hitch gave Sebastian similar restraints, which acted as the first Oedipal theme in Hitchcock’s movies. The mother owned Sebastian; she controlled his keys (phallic symbol?) and, when Sebastian realizes he was deceived by Alicia (he feels almost emasculated), the mother stands over Sebastian domineeringly and declares: “we are protected by the enormity of your stupidity!”.
Complexities mount. I could elaborate, but I will wrap things up. And so, Notorious is a love story in the purest sense, but it is backed by cavernous conflicts that act as profound peripherals to the film’s underlying drama. The film, really, could also be about the customs of upper class life (the wine!), impotent love (no one has sex in this movie!), and patriotism (the primary obstacle towards Devlin and Alicia’s romance).
So yes, the Bond films would take from this structure and craft some intense and immersive adventures. Subsequent films would homage the Bond flicks. And while endless pictures could match Notorious’s words, rarely did they know the music.