Wednesday, 1 February 2012
Starring: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains
By Alan Bacchus
How can you pick a Hitchcock favourite from such an enormous body of work featuring such great pictures? Well, I can surely narrow it down and identify Notorious as one of his best, or at least one of my favourites.
It was part of the David O. Selznick contract, which brought Hitchcock to Hollywood in 1940. While the espionage plotting and set piece anchors are hallmarks of Hitch, there’s a seriousness and sense of emotional grandeur at play that points to Selznick. The love story in Notorious is a genuine romantic conflict, which resounds louder than the thriller spy games or the suspense set pieces. It’s an element that plays out as well here as in Hitchcock's later and more revered films (e.g., Vertigo).
It’s post-WWII, and Ingrid Bergman plays Alicia, the daughter of an American traitor who spied for the Nazis during the War. With her family name dishonoured she's ripe for recruitment by the handsome government agent, Devlin (Grant), to be a double-agent of her own. Her mission is to spy on a group of Nazi sympathizers plotting world domination in Brazil. Alicia accepts the challenge and travels to Brazil with Devlin to begin their elaborate spy games.
She ingratiates herself to Sebastien (Rains), one of the Nazi leaders, and seduces him into marrying her. Unfortunately, she’s also fallen in love with Devlin, which heightens the stakes for both characters to complete their mission safe and sound. But when Sebastien catches on that Alicia's working for the Americans, he turns the tables and conspires to murder her under cover of his even more diabolical and murderous Nazi compatriots.
The celebrated set pieces in this picture involve the tactics used by Alicia and Devlin to source out Sebastien’s evil scheme. A single key to his wine cellar becomes the object of desire – a frequent motif of Hitchcock's that is also used memorably in Dial M for Murder. The most famous shot in the picture, of course, is the monumental crane shot, which starts on a balcony at Sebastien’s party and pushes down into a close-up of the key clasped within Alicia’s hand. It’s one of Hitchcock’s great shots, not only for its superlative technical achievement, but also because of Hitch’s ability to place the drama of a scene in one inanimate but significant object, which, under normal circumstances, would be insignificant.
After the exchange of the key, Devlin’s search in the wine cellar for the smoking gun evidence continues the sequence. As he reaches for the logging sheets between the bottles of wine, Hitch cuts frequently to one of the bottles leaning precariously over the edge. As the tension mounts and the bottle falls we expect Devlin’s cover to be blown. Instead, the moment reverses and reveals the illegal uranium ore located inside the bottle. What a great sequence!
But Notorious is a masterpiece for equally weighing these great moments of tension and suspense with the agonizing love triangle between Alicia, Devlin and Sebastien. Despite being the antagonist, as played by Claude Rains, we sympathize deeply with Sebastien. Although he’s a Nazi, we recognize he’s genuinely in love with Alicia, and when he realizes she’s a spy the ramifications for their relationship are sad and tragic. And through his diabolical mother, we can see that the decision to attempt to murder Alicia is painful.
Cary Grant’s rescue of Alicia in the final act is the ideal climax, a masterpiece of composition and editing. After Devlin makes the decision to take the ill Alicia out of the house, he’s confronted by Sebastien, who can’t fight back for fear of blowing his own cover with his colleagues. Their journey down the curved gallery steps is drawn out magnificently by Hitchcock’s exclusive use of close-ups of his characters, amplifying the nail-biting tension of Devlin’s tense bluffing game.
The scene caps off one of Hitchcock’s most serious films, mostly devoid of his trademark British wit. The genuine three-way romance and the strong themes of patriotism and trust are as complex and memorable as the love triangle politics in Casablanca.