Monday, February 4, 2013

The hard-boiled fairy tale: 9 notes on Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946)

1) Some may describe it as dull, but Notorious operates like a symbolist poem, mostly by suggestion. While Hitchcock's delightful The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) has plenty of gunplay, chairs thrown around, and an evil dentist, Notorious is all civilized constraint and stately 1940s manners in cluttered Victorian drawing rooms. One Nazi, while eating dinner, mentions twisting his ankle the last time he killed someone. We learn quickly that, in this Rio de Janeiro world of intrigue, you can die for merely pointing at the wrong bottle, but Hitchcock never deigns to show you a weapon or raise a fuss. Instead we glide up and down a staircase. A door quietly closes in the audience's face.

2) I like the seemingly frivolous early party scene in which the notorious Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) pours various hard liquor drinks into her guests' glasses and openly admires Cary Grant (T. R. Devlin) even though we can't see his face. Emotionally remote, detached, and something of a passive aggressive control freak, he tends to face away for much of the movie. Still, Alicia says that she likes "party crashers," and sits with him. Her guests talk aimlessly about fishing before they pass out. Later, Devlin will place an empty glass on the chest of one of the women lying nearby. In this film, even Hitchcock's sight gags are demure.

3) Devlin alternates between being perfectly handsome, cavalier as Alicia drives drunk, brutal when he's obliged to punch her to knock her out, and chivalric in the way he ties a scarf around her waist to protect her from the cold. At times, Devlin seems actively jealously obnoxious, such as when he nonchalantly ignores Alicia's pleas to hurry up when he's cleaning up the wine cellar.

4) Later, on the edge of death, Alicia will return the scarf, and so the seemingly trivial object gains new meaning as it resurfaces in the movie, as various bottles, a key, and a coffee cup will do soon enough.

5) On the morning after Devlin knocks out Alicia, she wakes to find that he's fixed her a "morning-after" potion to help with her hangover. Whereas Psycho (1960) concerns itself with eating, Notorious fixates on drinking, in terms of Alicia's incipient alcoholism, her attempts to dry out, and in terms of poisoning. But there's also the phallic champagne bottle which Devlin forgets once he learns that his government agency intends for Alicia to seduce a top Nazi scientist, and a wine bottle of uranium ore that serves as a MacGuffin for the famous party scene.

6) At one point, Alicia says "Down the drain with Alicia," foreshadowing Psycho.

7) The chief Nazi, Alex (Claude Rains) is a comically short mother's boy, oddly sympathetic in his headstrong love for Alicia. In 1946, Hitchcock seems much more self-aware of the foolishness of guys around beautiful women in comparison, to say, his problematic relationship with Tippi Hedren years later behind the scenes of The Birds (1963). That's the problem with Sacha Gervasi's 2012 bio-pic Hitchcock: when he's stabbing at various imagined enemies in the shower, Anthony Hopkins's version of Alfred seems scarcely self-aware of anything.

8) Hitchcock appears to fictionalize his elaborate Catholic mother/son issues in the way that Sebastian's mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) Madame Anna Sebastian frequently betrays her jealous dislike to Alicia. At one point, she says to Sebastian, "Wouldn't it be a little too much if we both grinned at her [Alicia] like idiots?" Is this some kind of reverse Oedipal complex?

9) Notorious is a hard-boiled fairy tale that loves nothing so much as lingering on the immense star presence of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman (dressed in their perfect Edith Head-designed clothes) indefinitely. Hitchcock's camera seems to ask over and over, in scene after scene: what more does one need?   

5 comments:

Jon said...

Great stuff....and this is one of my favorite Hitchcocks....probably top 4 for me. I'm not sure Bergman was ever more beautiful than she is in this film. She and Grant are tremendous together.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Jon. I've been teaching this film for years, so it was a pleasure to write down some of my notes. Marian Keanes' commentary of the movie in the Criterion DVD edition was very helpful. Students are often a bit bored by formal behavior of the characters and the stately shots. I find it compelling to try to imagine what happened to Hitchcock's aesthetics between The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Notorious (1946).

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FilmDr said...

Thanks, Oliwia and J. C. Alonso.