in love. I just watched Notorious
And it's not Ingrid Bergman I'm speaking of (though
that's not hard to do based on her Casablanca
and Notorious performances).
I'm talking about falling in love with film. Too
many modern filmmakers have become lazy and sloppy
with the art.
1946 film brings to the forefront all the magic
of the cinema--how a camera can shape our perceptions
and how actors can bring a master filmmaker's concepts
to life. Hitchcock
has long been my favorite director, and my favorite
of his films has often varied between Vertigo,
by Northwest, and Psycho.
But now I'm fixed again on Notorious--never
has any film used the camera so perfectly, mixing
objective and subjective points of view flawlessly.
Film connoisseurs talk about the definitive boom
shot at the party with the camera gradually closing
in on Bergman's hand until the wine cellar key is
shown (more on that later). But other moments also
linger long afterwards--the camera placement behind
the mysterious "dark" stranger (Cary Grant) at the
Florida bungalow party; the blurry focus, Dutch
angles and rotating point of view shots through
which the hungover Bergman sees Grant; and the "longest
kiss in screen history," where a tight shot on Grant
and Bergman lasts three minutes on one take without
violating the three second limit on kissing imposed
by the Hollywood code. Hitchcock
gets around the violation by interrupting the kiss
every three seconds, as the couple moves from the
balcony to the phone to the door, all without breaking
Not once does Bergman remove her clothes, yet never
has a more sensuous moment ever appeared on celluloid.
is like a woman. The more left to the imagination,
the more the excitement . . . The perfect woman
of mystery is one who is blonde, subtle, and Nordic.
A woman of mystery is one who has a certain maturity
and whose actions speak louder than words."
By that definition, Ingrid Bergman
qualifies as decidedly sexy--the "perfect woman of
must have thought so since he used her in two other
Capricorn--and only admired actors
were ever used by Hitchcock
more than once.
Based on John Taintor Foote's two-part short story
"The Song of the Dragon" appearing in the 1921 Saturday
Evening Post, the tale is transformed into a
compelling post World War II saga of betrayal, resulting
from the conflict between love and duty. An opening
subtitle starts the film from Miami, Florida, Three-Twenty
P.M., April the Twenty-Fourth, Nineteen Hundred and
Forty-Six, but this is incidental. Nazis are the chosen
enemy, but that's only due to the timing of the film--a
year later the foreign spies would be Russian communists
or set in 2002 would be Arab terrorists.
Not that Hitchcock
was always behind the times--cinematically he is a
true pioneer and with Notorious,
he actually scores a real coup by using uranium as
the MacGuffin (an inconsequential item around which
the plot revolves), considering that the script was
composed in 1944, a year before Hiroshima. Had the
film been released in early 1945, no doubt the government
would have been investigating
According to Hitch,
A writer friend of mine had told me that scientists were working on a secret project some place in New Mexico. It was so secret that once they went into the plant, they never emerged again. I was also aware that the Germans were conducting experiments with heavy water in Norway. So these clues brought me to the uranium MacGuffin.
attaching importance to the MacGuffin is ludicrous.
Notorious is a simple story
about a man in love with a woman, who must go to bed
with another man and even marry him, all in the line
of duty. Irony abounds, as the director explains to
"The story of Notorious is the old conflict between love and duty. Cary Grant's job--and it's a rather ironic situation--is to push Ingrid Bergman into Claude Rains' bed. One can hardly blame him for seeming bitter throughout the story. . ."
Further irony results when Claude
Rains' character becomes more sympathetic than Cary
Grant's. His Nazi spy activities are never shown
on screen, and his love for Bergman reveals itself
plainly. The poor fellow suffers from a controlling
mother (shades of other Hitchcockian mothers to
appear in North
by Northwest, Psycho,
Birds), and Rains is clearly distraught
when he discovers Bergman's treachery. The body
language is often far more eloquent than the word--observe
Grant's rigidity, Bergman's longing for acceptance
and love, and Rains' natural openness when first
meeting Bergman. This all works together to complicate
the paradigm--Hitch doesn't paint characters in
pure black and white, but uses varying shades of
gray so that the hero never remains untainted and
the villains never remain stereotypically evil.
But the real star remains the camera, and this has
never been as evident in any other Hitchcock film.
Nothing is wasted--each camera movement has its
For instance, early on, Bergman is in a haze, recovering
from a wicked hangover. Sitting prominently next
to her is a glass of Alka Seltzer, brought to our
attention with a close-up that centers the glass
near Bergman's head. Liquids will play a very important
part in this drama--later come significant scenes
with champagne and coffee. Hitch's camera focuses
on each, tracking their placement and movement wordlessly,
yet firmly establishing their significance.
Watch the scene where Bergman's character reveals
that Rains wants to marry her. The only two people
in the frame are Grant and Bergman because the entire
situation depends on their responses--Hitchcock
avoids making the scene a sentimental one. This
involves the cold, calculating side of the spy game
business. Yet, had Grant just once told Bergman
that he loved her, the dynamics all would have been
different. She looks for that sentiment, but Grant
cannot let loose of his professional duties.
Not a lot seems to happen. This is no modern day
film of espionage where buildings are blown up,
and some heroic stud comes to save the free world.
Hitchcock works far more subtly and artistically.
The suspense builds continually, operating on multi-layers--there's
the objective plot involving the spy ring, but there's
the emotional subtext going on as well between the
main characters. Highlighting the film is an incredible
sequence built up behind the MacGuffin. It has to
lie within the wine cellar, but only Rains has the
key. Can Bergman find a way to get hold of the key
without being detected? What if the champagne runs
out for the party? That's where '
camera and editing skills go to work overtime, beginning
with some great cuts in the bedroom with the key
in Bergman's hand to the classic party boom shot
with camera closing in on the crucial key, to the
editing cuts between the vanishing champagne and
the wine cellar. You don't have to be an atomic
bomb scientist to understand what goes on--Hitch's
camera reveals all you need to know.
Too many films spoil excellent work with an unsatisfactory
ending, and there were some real lulus proposed
for Notorious--many involving
gun play with Rains and/or his mother getting shot,
and others with Grant and/or Bergman getting killed.
Hitch finds the perfect solution, leaving the ambiguous
ending unambiguous but completely satisfying. That
doesn't happen very often anymore. If that's too
vague for you, I really don't want to reveal much
more--get over any prejudice you may harbor towards
glorious black and white movies. You may just find
yourself falling in love with cinema again by giving
Notorious a go.
If you have a DVD player, be sure to get the Criterion
Collection version. It's a true treasure with
a crystal clear transfer and a number of source
materials--including excerpts from "The Song of
the Dragon," newsreel footage of Bergman and
and excerpts of alternate endings. The two commentaries
are both well done--film scholar Marian Keane
comments cogently on Hitchcock's camera technique
and the acting, and film historian Rudy Behlmer
quotes from Hitchcock
and gives a great deal of background information,
including David O. Selznick's part in the production
and how Hitchcock had to cut out early references
to Bergman's "loose" morals and cut down on the
Unfortunately Hitchcock and Truffaut aren't around
to record one of their famous interviews/discussions,
but these commentaries will suffice. They are
illuminating for people who want more information
without having to resort to print research.