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'Notorious'

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Notorious
(1946)



The very first time that we see James Bond on film is in a shot that is a visual quote from Notorious. In Dr. No we see a gambling table where the focus is on a woman struggling with her luck at cards. She is with the man who controls the bank, whose face we cannot see. After losing to him several times she asks his name and he replies, speaking for the first time and lighting a cigarette, “Bond. James Bond.”  The shot replicates our introduction to Devlin (Cary Grant) in Notorious. In Hitchcock’s film the camera shows us a drunken party in the home of Alicia Huberman, where she is urging everyone to drink up, irritated that the man whose back we see in the foreground won’t join in. The camera, after an extended shot, gradually pans around to reveal the famous visage of Cary Grant. The mechanics of the shot are somewhat different in Dr. No, but the effect is the same.


Bond’s intro is not the only thing that was borrowed from Hitchcock for the spy series. Like Notorious, the Bond films feature a handsome spy who travels to exotic international locales. And just as Bond meets beautiful women and charming villains, so Devlin in Notorious falls in love with the beautiful Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), who in the course of her duty woos and marries Alexander Sebastian, who is as charismatic and likable as Auric Goldfinger, and in service of just as evil a cause.


Notorious is one of Hitchcock’s most beloved films not merely because it is one of his finest espionage films in the tradition of The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent, and North by Northwest, but because it is his greatest romantic film. There are romances in most of his films (especially those involving Cary Grant), but none of his other movies hinges so completely on the culmination the central love story. North by Northwest is an espionage thriller with a romance in the background; Notorious is a romance with espionage in the background.


The romance works partly because of the chemistry between the leads, but it works mostly because of the brilliance of the script by Ben Hecht. One of the greatest screenwriters of the studio era—apart from the many scripts on which he received credit, Hecht was the leading script doctor of the age and worked on literally hundreds of films anonymously—Hecht crafted a story that was both enormously entertaining and politically prescient. Both a passionate Zionist and among the first well-known Americans intent on exposing the Nazi atrocities in Europe against the Jews, Hecht crafted a story of Nazis escaping to South America years before anyone thought of the continent as a refuge for former members of the Third Reich. But while on a subtle level it is a message film, Hecht never lost focus on the central love story and at no point in the film does our attention to the love triangle between Alicia, Devlin, and Sebastian (Claude Rains, in one of his greatest roles) flag.


It is a widely repeated myth—and one that Hitchcock loved to foster—that he crafted every scene ahead of time and storyboarded every moment. It is true that he did occasionally carefully plan scenes out ahead of time, but in fact there is far more contingency in his films than people appear willing to concede. No film shows this more than Notorious. Many major scenes underwent revision during shooting, including both the very beginning and the end. In fact, several endings were planned and more than one partially shot. One of the most famous scenes in Notorious was the long kissing scene—in which Hitchcock evaded the Production Board’s rules that people could not kiss beyond a certain length of time by having Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant engage in a long string of short kisses, all of them within the time limit dictated by the Code—during which their dialogue and most of their blocking was adlibbed.


The romance between Devlin and Alicia is one of Hollywood’s greatest stories about the redemption of a bad girl through love. In initial story conferences, there was thought of actually coding Alicia as a prostitute, but everyone recognized that this would never have made it past the censors. Instead, they made Alicia into a sexually promiscuous (but nonprofessional) hard-drinking party girl, and much of the tension in the film stems from the undeniable love that she and Devlin feel for each other almost immediately. Although Devlin falls just as hard for her as she does for him, he struggles throughout the film with his Puritanical morality and his difficulty in accepting Alicia’s colorful past. While much of the plot resolution concerns the investigation of Sebastian’s involvement with the Nazis, an equal and perhaps more important conflict lies with Devlin’s struggle with his own moralistic attitudes. For Alicia, she falls for Devlin immediately and for her he is very definitely her knight in shining armor, if only he would deign to rescue the maiden. The film’s climax comes not in the solving of the mystery of the uranium ore, but with Devlin’s realization that Alicia is in trouble, which forces him to acknowledge just how deeply she feels for him. In the film’s last scene he does become a knight errant and rescues his damsel in distress. The way in which Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia—despite being near death from poison—expresses her ecstasy at Devlin finally professing his love for her very nearly matches the impact of her loving stoicism at the end of Casablanca (interestingly, a scene in which Claude Rains was also in). It is easily the finest romantic moment in any of Hitchcock’s films. It is not a surprise that Notorious made both the American Film Institute’s list of the one hundred finest romance films and their list of the one hundred greatest thrillers.


One scene that was envisioned ahead of time and meticulously executed was the famous overhead elevator shot at the party. Because they had no cranes that fit the needs for the shot, carpenters constructed a wooden elevator on the set in the middle of the foyer of Sebastian’s mansion. The scene begins with the camera high overhead over the party goers and then descends slowly to the floor while zooming in on Alicia’s hand, in which she cradles the key to the wine cellar that she has stolen, a wine cellar that Devlin and Alicia want to investigate. It is rightfully celebrated as one of Hitchcock’s most brilliant visual moments and one of the most striking shots in the film. The film is also notable for several subjective camera shots, such as when Alicia looks at Devlin upside down early in the film to simulate her hangover and late in the film to express her impaired physical state from being poisoned. As brilliant as this camerawork is, in Notorious, as in all his work, people on the set said that they never saw Hitchcock look through the viewfinder of a camera, always trusting instead that his cinematographers would get the shot right after he had explained it to them.


Hitchcock loved to promote the myth that his references to uranium ore in the film led to his being surveilled by the FBI. Biographers have since used the Freedom of Information Act and have failed to uncover any evidence to support Hitchcock’s story. But it does make a lovely legend and it reveals the kinds of strategies—like the myth that he completely envisioned every scene of his films before beginning production—that Hitchcock loved to engage in waging his never-ending public relations campaign. Although a master storyteller, he was just as intent on telling stories about his telling of stories. The uranium ore contained in champagne bottles remains one of the most famous of all his MacGuffins and actually did lend far more urgency to the story than any other such device in any of his films.


By any standard Notorious stands as one of Hitchcock’s greatest films and is certainly, along with Shadow of a Doubt, the finest of his films from the forties.


Robert Moore


Tagged as: alfred hitchcock
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