Notorious (1946)

*. A lot of people tout Notorious as their favourite Hitchcock film. Drew Casper, for example, at the end of his DVD commentary. But I don’t think as many people would call it his best.
*. What I think people like about it is that it’s a complex but passionate love story with two stars (Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant) at their peak of loveability. I like that part of it too, though I have some problems with the rest of it. Minor problems, because I do think it’s a great movie, but problems nonetheless.
*. In the first place there are its signature Hithcockian flourishes. I say flourishes because, despite Hitch’s insistence about how “technique that draws attention to itself is poor technique,” they’re hard not to notice. Indeed, I think our attention is drawn to them.
*. Chief among these is the dramatic descending crane shot to the key in Alicia’s hands. It’s justly celebrated and well conceived, but the technology really wasn’t developed enough to do it properly. If you watch John Bailey’s scene analysis done for Criterion he talks about how Bergman gets pushed to the side of the frame and how the focus is lost right at the end. Similarly, the scene at the racetrack with the process shot of the horses reflected in Alicia’s binoculars is a flashy idea, but it doesn’t work because both images end up being blurred.
*. Instead of shots like these, or all the close-ups of keys or tea cups, which I find a bit too obvious, what I really like are little things like the play of Alex Sebastian’s shadow on the door to his bedroom, where he’s getting dressed, while Alicia sneaks up to steal the key. It’s a lively shadow, and it’s impossible to judge from it where Alex is in the next room. He’s there, if only in shadow form, but he’s not. And is he about to appear in physical form? How far away from the door is he? There’s no way of knowing, which makes it all the more dangerous.

*. The other aspect of Notorious that I find exasperatingly Hitchcockian has to do with Ben Hecht’s script. Or really Ben Hecht’s and Hitchcock’s script, as there was a lot of collaboration. The script usually gets a lot of praise as a masterpiece, but I again draw back from the signature elements.
*. Most of all it’s the MacGuffin that disappoints me. Saying this, I assume most fans of the Master will roll their eyes. The MacGuffin isn’t supposed to be anything, and Hitchcock derided people who expected plausibility from his scenarios. Nevertheless, that’s the kind of guy I am. So why this gang would be storing pitchblende in wine bottles made no sense to me. Except that it introduces the ridiculous business about the party running out of booze, which drives the suspense. Similarly, what did poor Emil do that was so bad it required his elimination? Nothing much, except the plot demanded he be eliminated to show just how ruthless the Nazis were. I think that’s weak screenwriting.
*. Again it’s the subtleties and the little things in the script I enjoy the most. Like the line “A picnic? Outside?” And the whole understated reworking of the Bluebeard motif, with the new bride allowed the run of the house but for the one room she’s forbidden access to. But there’s also the complexity of the romance I mentioned earlier. That’s a function of the script too and it deserves praise.

*. The biggest curveball with the script is the character of Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains). Don’t we feel a little sorry for him? Roger Ebert: “By the time all of the pieces are in place, we actually feel more sympathy for Sebastian than for Devlin. He may be a spy but he loves Alicia sincerely, while Devlin may be an American agent but has used Alicia’s love to force her into the arms of another man.”
*. When you think of it, Alex really sticks his neck out for Alicia, even putting his life on the line and crossing his formidable mother (Hitchcock and his mothers!) to marry her. And how does she treat him? Getting squired away by Cary Grant at the end? She’s still Sebastian’s wife, damn it! Sure he’d been trying to kill her in a particularly insidious sort of way, but that’s only after he finds out she’d turned on him first. One gets a tingle of Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo here, waking up to the fact that he’s been played for a sucker.
*. And there’s the matter of casting. Even when playing a villain (the Invisible Man, Hal the computer) Rains has lots of charm. Unlike Clifton Webb, who Hitch had initially suggested for the part. I wonder if at this point Webb was tired of that role. He’d just been Lydecker in Laura and Cathcart in The Dark Corner.
*. But then you have to look at it from another angle. Ben Hecht was certainly not someone inclined to go easy on Nazis and in his drawing of Alexander I think he’s actually doing something even more acidic than just the usual villainous Nazi. Alex isn’t an Aryan superman. Claude Rains was even three inches shorter than Bergman, which could have been concealed but isn’t (though Rains did wear elevated shoes, and walked on a ramp in some shots, the height differential if often quite noticeable). He’s also a wimp, a momma’s boy, and a cuckold. A different kind of villain then.

*. Just as Alicia is a different kind of heroine. This was Bergman’s second turn in a row as a very unconventional female romantic lead: the professional woman in Spellbound and the self-destructive fallen woman here. In his DVD commentary Richard Jewell points out Bergman’s desire to be cast against type, as for example in her swapping roles with Lana Turner in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941). Plus there was the way Hitchcock liked to subvert a star’s persona (as per Drew Casper in his commentary).
*. Alicia is certainly a bit of rough. She’s not just an alcoholic but one who drinks and drives (which was a crime, even in the 1940s). She’s also a loose woman (in earlier drafts of the script a prostitute), which frankly makes Sebastian’s marrying her even more of a romantic gesture. Surely he had better, and safer, options.
*. You can, and many have, analyse every frame of such a carefully contrived film. I keep wondering about Alicia’s double-whorl ‘do at the party. Are they horns? Eyes? It seems they’re a deliberate statement of something, being so over-the-top. Not that Bergman can’t pull such a look off.
*. The ending is another point that makes one wonder at how Alex is portrayed, and his role in the film more generally. Why end with him? Is it that Devlin, for all his rakish charm just isn’t that interesting? Perhaps, and again there’s a feeling that Sebastian’s is the tragedy here. Love saves some and destroys others.

4 thoughts on “Notorious (1946)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    I guess there’s a lot of love for the terms McGuffin, but it always feel like a reduction of story-elements to me. Pretty much every story has a McGuffin if you want to slice and dice narrative in that way. This is a nice film with some talking points, but not Hitch’s best to be sure.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      I think there’s still a point in relation to Hitchcock and the MacGuffin (it gets spelled Mac and Mc, but aren’t you Scottish?). Of course every movie has its plot devices, but in his theory of them, and by giving them the silly name, Hitchcock is really saying something about how little plot and motivation mean to him. I find it irritating that even in a great movie like North by Northwest we’re given a plot that literally make no sense at all, even for a moment, or that here he’s not interested in what it is the Nazis are up to. It seems to me that if the story doesn’t care about such matters then it’s hard for me to care or respond except on a basic emotional level to what is immediately happening on screen. Which I guess was Hitchcock’s point, but something I resist.

      Reply
      1. tensecondsfromnow

        I’ll take your note on the spelling, maybe I’m seeing things through a Scottish filter. But yes, there’s something about the deliberately empty plot device that can be alienating, opening the door for style-over-content accusations. If I see one more computer disk/flash drive, or magical jewel that opens a portal, it’ll be too soon.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        There’s definitely a sameness to the plot devices we get today. Though I suspect there are young people today who might not even remember what a flash drive was. Better to stick with the magic jewels.

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