Devlin (Gary Grant): Don’t you need a coat?
Alicia (Ingrid Bergman): You’ll do.
“I don’t get all this talk about chicken.” –screenwriter
Ben Hecht to director Alfred Hitchcock
Two things make it difficult for me to write a review of Notorious (1946), my favourite Hitchcock film of them all. The first is that Alfred Hitchcock has been a lightning rod for film criticism in the same way that Shakespeare has been for drama. This means that almost anything I might say has probably been said better and more insightfully by someone else. The analysis of Notorious in Baseline’s Motion Picture Guide Review, for example, is so informative it makes me ill. Fortunately for me, however, Baseline is basically only available on CD-ROM, and you’re not likely to be able to make any comparisons.
The other problem is a much more pleasant one. I have a tough time taking my eyes off Ingrid Bergman long enough to jot down notes. One watches emotions play across her face as one admires the ceaselessly shifting play of light on the waters of Kootenay Lake. Ms. Bergman has never looked more beautiful than she does here. Or sexier. The love scenes between her and co-star Cary Grant are extraordinarily sensual. Watch this movie on Valentine’s Day with someone you love. There’s a three-minute plus kissing scene that’s more genuinely erotic than anything in a thousand X-rated films. Actually, virtually every encounter between the two stars has an intimacy rarely caught on the screen. It must have driven the Hollywood censors crazy.
Bergman and Grant are the main reasons I’ve come back to Notorious more than once since I first saw it. Of course, there’s also the usual masterful Hitchcockian suspense—generated by some superb camera work by cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff), dialogue, scene layout, scripting, and music (by Roy Webb). And what’s suspense without a villain? There’s a superb one here. Not, as one might suspect, the well-heeled but love-struck Nazi industrialist (Alexander Sebastian) played by Claude Rains. Nor one of the loathsome, suited-up, banally evil Nazi entrepreneurs collaborating with Sebastian on the development of a secret weapon. Not even one of the American intelligence agents in Rio who is willing to prostitute a vulnerable young woman for the sake of Country & the Higher Good.
No, the Big Nasty is this film is…Mom.
Sebastian’s mom, to be exact. She’s scarier than Norman Bates in Psycho. At least Norman Bates used a knife. Mrs. Sebastian (Mme Konstantin) just needlepoints while you waste away from slow-acting poison. If the prolonged kissing scene is one highlight of Notorious, another is where Alexander has to tell his mom that he’s married an American agent. Mom is in bed at the time. She is very happy to find out her son has been a sap because it proves that she was right about Bergman all along. Mother knows best. She is so happy that she sits up straighter in bed, sticks a cigarette in her nice, sweet, grandmotherly face, and offers consolation: “We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity.”
Notorious is in the best tradition of film noir. The whole movie is an exercise in chiaroscuro and hard-boiled dialogue. It’s a perfect illustration of why so many movie lovers were outraged when colourization of black & white films was introduced. Colourization would destroy this film. Every scene is a deliberate play in light and shadow. The first time the viewer sees Cary Grant, he’s sitting in darkness and he’s filmed from behind. The effect is reminiscent of Magritte’s famous surrealist work The Secret Life IV. Hitchcock plays such cinematic games throughout the film. There are at least two other scenes where we watch the play of expressions on Bergman’s face, while staring at the back of her co-star’s head. It’s the perfect metaphor for their relationship: both passionately in love, but Grant incapable, unwilling to let his guard down. There are other brilliant shots: looking down onto the chessboard- like floor of the ballroom in Sebastian’s mansion (another neat metaphor for the way espionage turns human lives into de-humanized pieces in The Game); the repeated close-ups on simple objects (a key, a bottle) which balance life and death; low-angle and distorted shots to reinforce menace or bewilderment. Where Orson Welles used deep focus to bring every detail of the background into a scene, Hitchcock docs the opposite: pulling background action out of focus to create an almost abstract scrim for his leading actors to play against. Check out the great zoom shots as Bergman first realizes she has been exposed, and the tracking shot which closes the film like a slow-motion guillotine.
The screenwriter for Notorious was Ben Hecht, one of the best Hollywood ever produced. This was the same man who gave us Scarface, The Front Page, His Girl Friday, and Spellbound. By the time he was 16, Hecht had been a promising concert violinist, circus acrobat, and Chicago reporter. Thanks to writers like Hecht, characters in Hollywood movies from the Thirties and Forties talk a lot. A lot of that talk is fast, clever, poignant, frank, or cruel. Lines are aimed straight at the heart, or below the belt. Here’s Grant trying to push Bergman to finish the mission, despite fact that he hates what he’s forcing her to do:
Devlin: You’ve got work on him and land him.
Alicia: Mata Hari. She makes love for the papers.
Devlin: There are no papers. You land him.
Alicia: Don’t get sore. I’m only fishing for a little bird call from my dream man.
Or this, from an earlier scene:
Alicia: This is a very strange love affair.
Alicia: Maybe the fact that you don’t love me.
Devlin: When I don’t love you, I’ll let you know.
One final historical note (which I owe to an anonymous editor at Baseline): when Hitchcock and Hecht were looking for a suitable “Macguffin” (Hitch’s term for a plot element that catch the viewer’s attention and focus suspense), they chose uranium as the linchpin for their Nazis’ secret research activities in Brazil. This was in 1944, when the Manhattan Project was still highly classified. Hecht and Hitchcock actually spent several hours interviewing a leading scientist at Cal Tech about the possibility of an atomic bomb. This scientist, Dr. Robert Andrew Millikan, denied that uranium had anything to do with such research. After that interview, Hitchcock claimed that the FBI kept him and Hecht under surveillance for months.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Still one of my favorite Hitchcock films, for two reasons.
The first is the flawless performances from Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. They’re perfect as lovers so trapped in their past histories of manipulation of others that they can’t quite grasp that they have a chance to live without an ulterior motive. Talk about hurting the one you love—Grant and Bergman cut one another with some of the cruellest barbs imaginable. There’s blood on that dialogue. Claude Rains and Leopoldine Konstantin are no slouches either.
The second is Hitchcock’s absolute mastery of his craft. It begins with his decision to make the audience’s first sight of Cary Grant just the black-silhouetted back of his head. Here’s a guy who literally plays from the shadows. And check out the way Hitchcock shoots Bergman’s hangover scene. More Cary Grant creepiness, and humor. Throughout the film there’s are razor-sharp choices in lighting, with maximal use of moonlight and shadows. Superb cinematography by Ted Tetzlaff, a veteran of over 100 films. From Chronicle of the Cinema: “…Hitchcock delivers another directing tour de force at one the film’s most suspenseful moments: with a little help from the cameraman Ted Tetzlaff, Hitchcock pulls off an extraordinary crane shot which begins at the top of a lengthy staircase and then swoops down to the floor below, where a party is in progress, finally to focus in close-up on a key clutched in the hand of Bergman. Evidently, Tetzlaff ribbed Hitchcock on the set with the playful remark, ‘Getting a bit technical, aren’t you, Pop?’” The final shot of Rains walking up the steps of his house to his certain doom is one of the best closing shots in the history of film noir.
Notorious is also a particularly disturbing film because it reminds us that we still live in a world where it’s a societal norm that men and women are trained to kill other human beings, and to risk their lives & souls by going undercover to engineer the downfall of targeted enemies. I’m not sure I’d like to see what Devlin’s and Alicia’s lives might look like a couple of years down the road. Then again, the ability of human beings to shake off the past is occasionally nothing short of miraculous.
A shout-out to master costume designer Edith Head, whose creations allow Ingrid Bergman to add perfection to perfection. In the course of a career that spanned six decades and 750 films, Ms. Head racked up 35 Academy Award nominations & 8 Oscars. She and Art Director Cedric Gibbons would have made Hollywood’s ultimate power couple.
Point of trivia: Notorious apparently had the longest kiss in cinema history, clocking in at two-and-a-half minutes. But censorship rules dictated that physical contact be broken every 30 seconds by at least a few spoken words. (In Shanghai, in the same year, Chinese audiences got to see the first screen kiss in the history of Chinese cinema, tastefully played out behind an open parasol.)