Notorious (1946)


In light of my most recent posts listing the best actors and acting performances in film, alongside a two-part page series on the analysis of acting, it is only timely to kill two birds with one stone.  Bird number one: write my next review–which is supposed to be on a Hitchcock film as the framework for my blog requires.  Bird number two: write a supplementary article on a superb acting performance within the context of a single film.  Stone number one and only: Notorious.

Among Hitchcock’s most critically acclaimed films stands Notorious, released in 1946 by David A. Selznick’s Vanguard Pictures.  It is the favorite of many great film reviewers, including Roger Ebert, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Leslie Halliwell, and Hitchcock’s own daughter, Patricia O’Connell, whose role in Strangers on a Train remains her most famous contribution to her father’s legacy.   While Vertigo may have stood the best test of time in the critical circles, and Psycho may still be his most popular overall, and The Birds his most recognizable, Notorious remains unfortunately forgotten and deservedly lauded.  Among the 52 movies Hitchcock made over his 51-year career from The Pleasure Garden through to Family Plot, the most intellectual of Hitchcock viewers state that, irregardless of the opinion held by the general public, he had two real masterpieces: Notorious and Vertigo.  I would say that, by their own criteria, he had to have had three; I’d throw in 1940’s Rebecca.  My own personal tastes include Psycho and Rear Window, but the most virtuoso of his films are indeed Notorious, Rebecca, and Vertigo.  This because they are the deepest of his films, the most precise and the most elegant, as well as the most telling of his own self.

Auteurs make the best directors: hence, the greatness of Citizen Kane.  When a director puts himself in the middle of a picture, every frame, every color, and every expression comes to define the world as he sees it, and the more he allows us into his world, the more our own perceptions start to change and the more we start eating a slice of cake as it was meant to be eaten.  Orson Welles did that in Citizen Kane, Yasujirō Ozu did it in Tokyo Story, and Federico Fellini did it in La Dolce Vita.  Alfred Hitchcock did it in Notorious.  See, Alfred Hitchcock was called the “Master” by his peers, and I would add the word “manipulator” to his moniker.  He was the master operator, a master-controller.  The typical Hitchcock girl was blonde, simple and radiant.  He made her that way.  Somewhere in his own storytelling craftsmanship came the corresponding brutality not just of his affinity for violence but of his simple dominion of epicine femininity.  This obsessive authority guided his directorial hand, and this obsession was paralleled and criticized in Vertigo.  That film put his own self under a microscope through which the entire world’s eye stared.

Not unlike Hitchcock himself, or Scottie (James Stewart) in Vertigo, Cary Grant’s character, Devlin, in Notorious plays the role of master-manipulator of his own feminine project: Alicia Huberman, as played by Ingrid Bergman.  He must formulate the image and the persona of an American traitor with Huberman’s socialite fame, sexuality, and reputation as his raw materials.  She, in turn, plays the part perfectly, until the good guys finally win out in the end.  And in just the same way that men throughout the generations have gawked at beautiful Grace Kelly in Dial “M” for Murder, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) gawks and stares at Huberman.  He, in his own turn, obsesses over her.  But somewhere underneath all this shallowness lies the depth.  Like Kim Novak in Vertigo, Ingrid Bergman lets herself be molded.

The difference between movies like North by Northwest, Anatomy of a Murder, The Birds, and Psycho in comparison with Vertigo, Rebecca, and especially Notorious is that these Hitchcockian Pygmalions and “Fair Ladies” put themselves as central, and not peripheral elements of the story.  Their own character development, despite its conformity, is the most important part of the story, hence, objectification becomes the plot: shallowness is miraculously transformed into depth.

Unlike Vertigo, however, where the performance of the transformed woman, for all its greatness, was overshadowed by the tour de force of her male counterpart, in Notorious, the woman comes out the finest.  And, in the light of my latest acting tangent, it is a great time to examine Ingrid Bergman’s superb performance.

First off, her performance is multi-dimensional: at first, promiscuous, and then, head-over-heels.  Such explicit princess-like fondness is often avoided in film, maybe for fear of the overabundance of cliche that arises from such opaque girlishness.  Yet, Bergman plays the part of obsessive crush-holder with some class, much befitting a character like Huberman, upon whom so much adult-level responsibility rests.  Her role of party-girl–while brief–was perfect in that it accomplished exactly the purpose it had to in order to further the rest of the movie.  But, her role is far more involved than a bad-girl-gone-good after meeting the debonair gentleman at the party who gives her life a purpose.  The role reaches its zenith when she must find other emotions than mere lust and love.  She must also fake lust and love, while stifling fear, confusion, and disgust.  All actors fake; actors who have to fake faking, however, deserve special recognition.  Bergman, however, amid all her fake faking, must at the same time fake not faking in order to avoid the pains that she must inevitably cause herself and Devlin.  Like Vertigo, the many facets and motives present can get kind of confusing when seen in writing, but in watching the movie, they are so tastefully laid out that they go practically unnoticed.

If all this isn’t making much sense, a simple understanding of the plot may prove helpful.  Huberman is the daughter of a convicted Nazi, a traitor to the United States to which he enjoys citizenship.  Huberman’s own patriotism is later used as leverage against her by Devlin, an American spy who hopes that her acquaintance with some of her father’s old German compatriots may prove useful for national defense.  Reluctant to leave her life of lavishness, licentiousness, and liquor, she goes with Devlin to Rio de Janiero to infiltrate her father’s old circle.  In a matter of days, she falls for Devlin, and gives up her substance abuse to prove to him that she is a changed girl.  Perhaps, by quitting all of that, he would also see her as giving up her promiscuous origins, and trust her enough to love her back.  She wants very badly to prove to him her new self, transformed by love.  She goes so far as to prepare for him a chicken dinner while he goes off to work during their hotel stay in Rio.  Such domesticity for a public socialite?  Bergman’s character helps us to see her own self-sacrifice.

The sacrifice, however, is tested to an extreme, as the government agents for whom Devlin works discovers an infatuation one of the Nazis had for Alicia.  The Nazi was Alex Sebastian, played by Claude Rains.  His history with Alicia is taken advantage of, and Devlin asks Alicia to seduce him in order to enter his inner circle and discover what they are planning.  There is no need to unveil the rest of the plot, only in pieces, so as to not spoil the ending.  (Though, if you have read “My Take On…Suspense”, the ending is already blown.)

What the plot offers is a film seeped with questions of morality, love, and truth: Is love, as some would believe, a trap, a trick of emotion wherein one can take advantage of another?  What is the limit that you take a lover, before all certainties of moral uprightness are gone?  How far, in turn, should one go for the sake of true love?  Is anything short of that limit worthy of the same claim?  What is the true relationship between love and sex?  Like Bergman in The Seventh Seal and Kurosawa in Rashomon, Hitchcock’s auteur picture puts the crisis in the questioning, and the suspense in the moral misfortune.  Answers need not be provided.

The reality is Notorious is very disturbing when really considered.  I have recently watched and analyzed this film with my wife, and she at times looked at me with an expression of shock.  It is not easy to watch.  Huberman must seduce a man much older than her for patriotism’s sake…at least that’s what she wants everyone to think.  In reality, she must seduce a man much older than her, who at any moment may discover her and have her killed, because she loves another man, and will do anything to please him.  Meanwhile, that other man refuses to reciprocate her love because he is so turned off by the very deed he requires of her, particularly in light of her checkered past.  All of this may sound like Mission Impossible II.  It should, MI2 was based on it, minus the indulgent tawdriness, stale dialogue, and hysterical slo-mo boredom.

The main premise of the film is a search to determine the secret plot of a group of Nazi scientists.  I’ll blow it now: it turns out to be a uranium bomb, which they determine after finding uranium sand in wine bottles.  Knowing this changes nothing about the viewing experience, it is what Hitchcock calls a MacGuffin, a plot element that everyone wants to know that does not actually matter.  It is the stolen money in Psycho, the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings, the Holy Grail in countless adventure flicks.  What really matters in Psycho is the terror.  What really matters in The Lord of the Rings is the epic adventure; what really matters in Da Vinci Code, Indiana Jones, and Monty Python is the search, the mystery, and the laughs.  In Notorious, it is the elegance, the imagery, and the manipulation.   The uranium MacGuffin pushes the plot forward, but the love triangle is the most important facet, it is the beginning and it is the end of the whole deal.

The uranium isn’t the only plot element that contributes to the success of the love drama.  Hitchcock’s precision and cinematic sculpting is at its peak in the shots contained in Notorious.  His use of motif is most profound.  Bookending Huberman’s character transformation is a few glasses full of poison.  At the beginning, is the poison of alcohol in those glasses, which almost gets her arrested for drunk driving.  At the end, is the poison of arsenic distilled in glasses of tea.  In the first case, she is laid into bed in an attempt to help her recover by Devlin.  In the final one, she is pulled from bed in an attempt to save her by the same Devlin.  Again, in the first case, is a famous shot of her behind a gigantic foreground shot of a cup full of Alka-Seltzer to help her hangover.  Later, in association with the latter case, she sits at a parlor chair behind a gigantic foreground shot of a teacup full of the last dose of poison she shall receive before being laid down for good.  These foreground shots of glasses are not unlike the famous Hitchcockian shot in The Lady Vanishes, which also dealt with a poisoned glass.  In an effort to put focus on the MacGuffin at hand, he had to make the glasses twice as big and place them twice as close to the camera in order to make them appear huge while still maintaining deep focus on the person in the background.

Other famous shots involve the Sebastian mansion.  The most famous of these is a long pan shot of the vast hall which then circles the upper railing and runs inside the banister in a descent from the vaulted ceiling to a surprisingly close shot of Ingrid Bergman’s twiddling fingers, holding cautiously yet fearfully the mysterious key to the mysterious wine cellar full of mysterious wine bottles.  All the while, the camera never loses focus.  While this shot is perhaps the most famous in the movie, other shots that involve circling that elegant hall dominate the film.  One, zooming out, involves Bergman unconscious after being poisoned.  Its ascent into the ceiling is the exact opposite of the aforementioned close zoom with the key, as if showing cause and affect.  Elsewhere, Hitchcock plays with lighting in much the same way Welles did in Kane, though not quite as extreme.  An instance at the beginning of the film involves a scene where Devlin plays a recording of Huberman’s patriotic speech to her father to show her loyalty to her country.  At the beginning of the recording, she is in shadow, reluctant.  As the recording continues she becomes brighter, in rays of light, until at the end of the recording, she is in complete light, willing.

Hitchcock’s means of introducing a scene are also very interesting, and contribute to the pacing of the film.  He combines long-shots, medium-shots, and close-ups as most directors do to show setting, characters, and emotions, respectively.  In most cases, these shots require no transition, but in Notorious, Hitchcock’s long-medium-close system is quickened and enhanced by cross-fade transitions.  Each shot fades into the other, which makes the shots seem shorter, but still allowing them to be seen enough to fulfill their purpose.  No need to focus on the setting, because the setting itself is a MacGuffin.

In many of these respects, the film was avant-garde.  It was even controversial in that it contained what Paul Duncan called “perhaps [Hitchcock’s] most intimate and erotic kiss.”  At the time, censorship rules kept kisses to 3-seconds and lower in length.  As a way around it all, Hitchcock had Grant and Bergman kiss a series of kisses over and over from the back patio of the hotel room all the way to the phone by the entry and through the entire phone call.  For the sake of tangent, this kiss is among the greatest kisses ever filmed in the history of Hollywood, other in the list include Lady and the Tramp, Spiderman, From Here to Eternity, An Officer and a Gentleman, The Godfather Part II, and Gone With the Wind.  When one stops to consider the sensual nature of this scene in the context of the thematic content of the film as a whole, it becomes rather amazing that this kiss is the most adult scene in the movie.

Consider this fact in conjunction with my explanation of the film’s suspense that can be read in my “Suspense” page in the blog.  Both in the case of the suspense and violence potential, as well as the potential for sensual content, Hitchcock leaves it all to the imagination.  It is not shown, nor does it have to be.  Both of these instances (suspense and intimacy) demonstrate that showing the act is not a necessary part of the viewing experience.  Suspense and arousal are made more poignant through delicate consideration rather than opaque explicitism.  In this tasteful manner, a very adult film becomes a classic that a lot of kids can watch.

In conclusion, Hitchcock manipulates not just his female characters, but also his male ones, his audience, and the conventions of film as a whole to create a practically unparalleled cinematographic experience.  It is character-driven, exactly the type of film that provides stand-out acting performances such as those given by Cary Grant, Claude Rains and especially Ingrid Bergman.  The depth of these characters is, in the end, anything but mere MacGuffins.  It is a tasteful and solemn examination of love, suspense and patriotism, and entirely deserving of its critical acclaim.


9 thoughts on “Notorious (1946)

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