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Thursday, 21 January 2010

Notorious (1946)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

It's hard to know where to stand with Notorious. In his role as the 'master of suspense', Alfred Hitchcock habitually played with his viewers like a magician plays with his audience, sending us off to follow red herrings wherever he could conjure them up. I'm still stunned at how often he kept turning everything around in Vertigo, keeping me hooked while building up and then knocking down what I believed was the direction of the plot; and of course in Psycho he performed no less a devious act than to than kill off Janet Leigh, whom we firmly believed to be the major star, in the first third of the film.

Hitchcock also frequently toyed with the MacGuffin, something that is fundamentally important for the characters in a story and around which the entire plot revolves, yet which carries no direct importance to us in the slightest. Hitch didn't invent the MacGuffin, but he did more than anyone else to make the term famous, and the most classic uses of the concept in cinema are his, especially those MacGuffins in North By Northwest and Notorious. Here the MacGuffin is the uranium ore stored in bottles in the wine cellar of villainous Nazi Claude Rains in Rio de Janeiro. If it weren't for these bottles the film could not exist, yet they could have been almost anything else just as well and my telling you about them at the beginning of this review won't spoil your viewing pleasure in the slightest.

Yet Hitch does a lot more playing with our minds in Notorious than just using a MacGuffin. Like my previous Hitchcock experience, North By Northwest, this is a Cary Grant movie, or so the credits tell us. His is the first name on the screen, alongside that of Ingrid Bergman, yet he has almost nothing whatsoever to do. He's nominally an American secret agent called T R Devlin who acts as the key liaison for Bergman on an undercover mission in Brazil, and it's Bergman who gives the bravado performance here. She plays Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a Nazi on American soil; but as the secret service know from surveillance that she does not follow her father's views, they send her undercover in Rio to infiltrate the household of the other important character in the story. He is Alex Sebastian, the head of a Nazi organisation involved in some sort of nefarious plot; he also knew Alicia's father and he was once in love with her.

Grant seems to play along with this abdication of everything that a star role requires. The film opens as it means to go on with Ingrid Bergman firmly the focus of our attention. Photographers are waiting for Alicia, crying 'Here she comes!' as if she's a celebrity, which of course she is, given that this happens mere moments before she hears her father receive twenty years. Then we see her drunk and partying to drown her sorrows, while the voyeuristic camera follows her wherever she moves, again just like it would follow a celebrity. The scene revolves around her and she is in utter control of proceedings. Yet Cary Grant is also in this party scene, though it takes us a while to realise it. He doesn't say a word and appears as nothing more than part of a back blotting out a little of the screen.

Is this just because he's a secret service agent and as such trained to be socially invisible, or is it because he isn't really the star at all? This sort of thing continues as the film progresses. When they leave the party together and Bergman is pulled over by a policeman for speeding, Grant handles the entire affair from offscreen. The camera stays on the cop or on Bergman, but never on Grant. His role could be interpreted many ways. He could be described as little more than a love interest, her means of introduction to Sebastian, or nothing but a necessary link between Bergman and the world. Maybe Grant's entire character is a MacGuffin. Everybody and everything in the film is involved with him, often deeply, yet we hardly care. We're too busy watching Alicia get deeper and deeper involved with the South American Nazis.
However important Devlin really is, it's Alicia who gets the screen time, the best lines, the most powerful scenes. Bergman is the one who has to carry the twists and turns of the plot and she does so marvellously. When, instead of a romantic dinner, Devlin informs Alicia of her mission, he tells us plenty by doing nothing whatsoever. He simply stands there, while Bergman acts around him. Yet Bergman was not Oscar nominated for her performance: Olivia de Havilland won instead that year for To Each His Own, beating the favoured Rosalind Russell in Sister Kenny, two films that I had never even heard of and still haven't seen.

Claude Rains was nominated, however, as Best Supporting Actor. He plays Alex Sebastian and he does his job so well that we see all the complexities in his life. He is a Nazi, committed to his cause, and happily involved in whatever secret evil scheme that requires all that uranium ore. Yet he truly cares for Alicia and we share his pain when he realises that she has betrayed him. The final scenes are powerful because of his being in them. Then again this is what Claude Rains did, so much so that it's easy to mistake him for being the lead in a whole slew of movies in which he's technically only playing a supporting role, this one being a perfect example. It hardly comes as a surprise to find he was Bette Davis's favourite actor or that he taught some of England's greatest names, people like Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud.

So Rains is superb; what about Grant? Well, he does a superb job in depicting the nearest thing to an invisible man since, well, Claude Rains played the original for Universal. If the aim was for him to fade into the background so as not to be noticed, then he did what was required of him and I can respect him for such a lack of ego. He does that job superbly, but by definition that doesn't make a star turn and to my thinking Rains should have been up for a Best Actor Oscar rather than merely a Supporting one. So it goes. Sometimes it feels that T R Devlin is more of a cameo role, suggesting that Cary Grant is really a secret agent playing himself, more believable here than in North By Northwest, but cameos are supposed to be noticed and Devlin is all about not being noticed.

There are other great performances here notable of mention, all of whom steal scenes from Cary Grant even if they only have a few scenes in which to do so. Most notably, while Sebastian may run many dark and nefarious operations, his mother runs him. She is played capably by Leopoldin Konstantin though the part was previously offered to Ethel Barrymore and I could easily see Maria Ouspenskaya, one of my favourite character actors, in the role instead. Konstantin shines even though all the other Nazi conspirators in the house are memorable too, and Bergman and Rains weave their web around them.

Outside of acting and Hitchcock's taut and deceptively simple direction, the cinematography in Notorious is wonderful, courtesy of a man named Gregg Toland. It's easy to look at cinema and realise that directors like Hitchcock, Kubrick and Welles are major names, but there are others behind the scenes who are just as important and this project helped me begin to notice some of them, especially those who worked at MGM, the largest and most powerful of the Hollywood studios. Every MGM film I saw seemed to carry the names of Douglas Shearer and Cedric Gibbons, and many also include Edith Head, names as important as they were prolific.
Shearer ran the sound department at MGM from the moment they had such a thing and he went on to win 14 Oscars, not just for Best Sound Recording but also for many technical innovations that went on to change the industry. Gibbons started at the Edison Studios in 1915 and worked for Metro and Goldwyn even before they were merged into MGM where he became supervising art director for over 1,500 MGM films. He didn't just win 11 of his own Oscars for art direction, he designed the Academy Award statuette itself. Costume designer Edith Head only won 8 Oscars but was nominated for 35, including an unprecedented 19 year run from 1949 to 1967. I already had great appreciation for others like special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen or cartoon writer Michael Maltese, but it didn't take long to realise that I should add Gregg Toland to that list too.

His work on Citizen Kane introducing Orson Welles to deep focus photography could just be the pinnacle of achievement in his field by anyone, but he continued to prove himself worthy in many other films, including in 1946 both Notorious and the most decorated picture of the year, The Best Years of Our Lives. Toland has tricks to play here too. There's an awesome camera tracking shot down a staircase from a high landing that zooms in all the way to a key in Alicia's hand. We watch part of a horse race as reflected in the lenses of a pair of binoculars. Many shots are taken from Alicia's incapacitated point of view: while hung over in bed, she watches Devlin rotate as he walks towards her, and later after being poisoned her view shimmers, blurs and contorts. Toland's talent was huge and his death only two years after this film was a great loss to Hollywood.

The other major name behind the scenes is Ben Hecht, who wrote the script. He was a notable writer both on and off screen, with many novels, short stories and plays behind him, along with sixty or so screenplays. In Notorious he wrote with such depth that I'm sure I didn't catch all the levels he wrote at, even after doing my homework first. Most obviously though there's an underlying theme of alcoholism. There's drink everywhere in this film and most of the plot developments take place through its use or misuse, including the major turning points which I won't spoil.

So how good is Notorious? Well it's a classic for sure, though maybe behind Rear Window, Psycho and Vertigo in my estimations. I'd certainly rate it higher than North By Northwest, which is so highly rated in the Top 250. Back in 2004 I was still learning about Hitch and what he really meant to the industry. I began this project with only four of his films under my belt but notched up another three in my first six project reviews. One of the great things about Hitch is that his films are so easy to find nowadays, frequently shown on TV and easily available on DVD. Even if you don't have a budget many of his early English releases are in the public domain, so can be picked up cheap in ten or twenty film box sets.

I'm working this project in the internet age where availability of films is the strongest it's ever been. It's hard to think back to the sixties where many films as important as Hitch's just couldn't be seen. Back then you couldn't just wander into a WalMart or logon to Amazon to pick up the one you're missing. In fact there were even Five Lost Hitchcocks, five of his most famous films, that were entirely unavailable in any form because he'd bought the rights back from the studio to leave to his daughter as a legacy. It doesn't bear thinking about and I'm very thankful that in this era I could deluge myself in his work, realising both how vast the man's talent really was and how much I've been missing over the years. The more of his films I see, the more I want to see the rest, and I can't think of a better recommendation than that. I felt that way after seven in 2004 and I still feel that way today after forty one.

2 comments:

The Rush Blog said...

So Rains is superb; what about Grant? Well, he does a superb job in depicting the nearest thing to an invisible man since, well, Claude Rains played the original for Universal. If the aim was for him to fade into the background so as not to be noticed, then he did what was required of him and I can respect him for such a lack of ego. He does that job superbly, but by definition that doesn't make a star turn and to my thinking Rains should have been up for a Best Actor Oscar rather than merely a Supporting one. So it goes. Sometimes it feels that T R Devlin is more of a cameo role, suggesting that Cary Grant is really a secret agent playing himself, more believable here than in North By Northwest, but cameos are supposed to be noticed and Devlin is all about not being noticed.


Is that all you saw in Grant's role as Devlin? A cameo? What did you want him to do? Ham it up on the screen? Personally, I think it's one of his best roles ever. Not because his character was "cool" or "mysterious". Because underneath the cool facade was an emotional man with an inferiority complex when it came to love and women.

Hal C F Astell said...

(adding links)

Thanks for your comment.

I watched Notorious in 2004 and didn't have much of a clue who Cary Grant was. It took me a while to work out why he was so important and I think that's mostly because of an unfortunate choice of films to introduce me. Arsenic and Old Lace was his least favourite of his own films. Notorious has him on screen for a very short time. North By Northwest I still have problems with.

I think Grant did what he needed to do in Notorious. The problem is that he was stuck with a part that inherently required him to be externally nondescript and inconsequential. It came with the job. Devlin is a character that we should look past not look at. His most telling scenes are the ones when he's not on screen, like the car scene when we watch Bergman and the cop, or the ones where he lets Bergman act around him (including the one we don't even know he's there until we read up on the film).

Most of the films I watched from the Top 250 in 2004 I rewatched in 2010 to get further perspective before posting my reviews, having worked through so much in between. This was an exception. I think this was my fourth Cary Grant when I watched it in 2004. When I see it again it'll be after at least 41 of his films so perhaps I'll be able to see something more in depth than I did at the time.

Hal