Friday, March 28, 2008

This Month on TCM: Notorious (1946)

On Sunday March 30th, TCM plays Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS. Francois Truffaut called this film Hitchock's greatest during his black-and-white period.

At the heart of Alfred Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS is a block of ice, courtesy of Ben Hecht’s cynical original screenplay. But the ice shows signs of thaw throughout with hot-blooded characterization, fiery suspense, and a pinch of true romance. NOTORIOUS is one of Hitchcock’s earliest true masterpieces: a blending of his signature directorial style with a heretofore little seen dramatic depth.

Ingrid Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, who is enlisted by the U.S. government to infiltrate a spy ring in Rio. Her main contact is T. R. Devlin, played by Cary Grant, who she falls in love with, but who doubts her love enough to send her on this dangerous assignment (physically and emotionally) without protest. The mutual distrust of Alicia and Devlin causes them constant pain, which they must keep in check as they take on this life-and-death assignment.

The opening title (“Miami. Florida, Three-Twenty P,M., April the Twenty-Fourth, Nineteen Hundred and Forty-Six….”) works well in contributing a distinct feeling of time and place. (Hitchcock used the same type of title card in PSYCHO and it worked there too.) This opening also serves as a visual warning to the viewer that this is not going to be a typical Hollywood romantic movie: it will have an element of harsh reality (later classified as film noir).

The blossoming of the romance at Alicia’s party in the opener with mystery-man Devlin and a drunken Bergman defines the tone: since the romance has both a cynical side (she could care less who she’s with), a dangerous side (she drives drunk), and a violent side (she pounds on him with her fists when she discovers he’s a “cop” and he eventually has to knock her out). The romance is a bit rushed: Alicia’s apathy (all she wants, she says, is “good times and laughs with people I like”) melts away fast, but there is an on-purpose element of unbelievably in their attraction. When Devlin first kisses Alicia he seems to be doing so just to shut her up. When the two get to Rio (“This is a very strange love affair… [since] you don’t love me.”) the audience searches for reasons why they are together at all. We doubt their love as much as they do. In a scene that's a slam dunk in writing, acting, and directing, Alicia trumps Devlin’s disregard for her feelings (when they meet at the racetrack so she can pass off intel) and we wonder if they've past the point of no return.

Both leads are cast against type and it’s hard to decide who does a better job at playing an ass. Grant’s Devlin is memorably mean— and the character would have to be considering the work: he’s very James Bond before James Bond. Bergman’s Alicia expects too much from everyone and is surprised when each person falls short.

Claude Rains plays Alex Sebastian, the man who Bergman’s Alicia must get close to in order to discover the Nazi plan. Rains plays the part of the heel well, in particular when he must rely on his mother to bail him out (“We’re protected by the enormity of your stupidity.”) This part gave the Motion Picture Academy a fourth and final chance to give Rains an Oscar, but they screwed him again.

Hitchcock’s camerawork throughout is one inspired choice after the next. The celebrated dolly to the key that Alicia holds in the later party sequence, is a highlight: it says that this entire sequence will keep your attention— and it does. The two wine cellar sequences are textbook in both creation of suspense and in showing the audience the thought process of each of the characters: Devlin and Sebastian. The close quarters of the camera in the final moments between Devlin and Alicia offer the layer of depth necessary to pull off the belief that they have the feelings for each other that they have claimed all along. Despite the significant use of rear-projection that dates the film badly, this is one of the most enduring films of the Hollywood studio era.

The film’s ending, which relies heavily on the Devlin, Alicia, and Sebastian characterizations, is startling and among the best in cinema history.

Notorious (1946): Ben Hecht’s cynical and character-rich screenplay, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman’s atypical casting, and Hitchcock’s deft camerawork add up to a suspense classic that offers a one-of-a-kind mixing of Hollywood romance and film noir.

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