Grade: A+Notorious (1948)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Stars: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains

Release Company: The Criterion Collection

MPAA Rating: NR

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Hitchcock: Notorious


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I'm in love. I just watched Notorious again.

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.

Hitchcock's 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, North 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 their embrace.

Not once does Bergman remove her clothes, yet never has a more sensuous moment ever appeared on celluloid. As Hitchcock once said,

"Suspense 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 mystery." Hitchcock must have thought so since he used her in two other films--Spellbound and Under 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 Hitchcock. 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.
But to Hitch, 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 François Truffaut:
"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, and The 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 effect.

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 ' Hitchcock's 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.

Note: 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 Hitchcock, 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 wild drinking.

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.

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