And lo! Fan With a Movie Yammer has finally reached its first film by arguably the most famous director who ever lived. Yes, Alfred Hitchcock takes the stage in this yammer with his oldest entry on the Sight & Sound list: Notorious (1946). The British director certainly made a name for himself in his native land, getting into the directing biz back in the silent era, but it was in Hollywood where the “Master of Suspense” principally made his mark. And Notorious is a very Hollywood production in many ways, with its A-list stars, pro-America plotting, and Edith Head costumes. But the film runs darker than a lot of American studio productions, incorporating noir elements in its story of a federal agent (Cary Grant) enlisting the daughter of a Nazi spy (Ingrid Bergman) to infiltrate a ring of Nazi émigrés up to some sort of shady business down in Brazil. Though set after World War II, the film harnesses the trauma of that conflict and the brand new concerns of the nuclear age to craft a clockwork espionage thriller. And the movie largely lives up to its title, dealing in murky ethical waters with some very unsavory or emotionally damaged characters who are working to balance love and duty — even if the duty part may be quite distasteful indeed. (101 min.)
J. – I’ve been struggling with how to best start this yammer, S. There was quite a bit to admire about this film and there were certainly segments I enjoyed a great deal, but I ultimately walked away rather dissatisfied. So do you start with the good or the bad?
I think perhaps I need to first mention the elephant in the room for me here — Alfred Hitchcock. There are five Hitchcock films on the list and Notorious is the only one I had never seen before. In all I’ve probably seen nine or 10 of Hitchcock’s many films and — I can already hear my credibility crashing through the floor — I just don’t particularly like his movies. This is not universally true — I do enjoy Rear Window and North by Northwest quite a bit, but even those films don’t excite me the way that so many other movies do. I’ve never been able to put my finger on exactly why this is so, and I find it particularly frustrating given that each of his movies seems to have at least some scenes I like very much. But they always leave me a bit cold in the end.
So with that laid out on the table, I now think it’s imperative to start out with the positives of Notorious — and there are quite a few. I suppose the first thing that leaps out at me from the good side of the ledger is the look of the film. Notorious is frequently gorgeous, everything from the sets to the costumes to the lead actors. But more than anything I love the cinematography of the film. Few films have such engaging play of light and shadow. In this regard Notorious seems to borrow heavily from noir films with its unusual angles and shadowy sets, but it isn’t so relentlessly chiaroscuro as movies like M or The Third Man. There is a softly luminous quality to a lot of the shots, which I think can really be appreciated in a scene with Bergman and Grant talking to each other on a moonlit Rio balcony. The lighting is so careful and even makes particularly excellent use of the light reflected in the eyes of the performers. I’m not sure the two actors ever looked more appealing, but more importantly the lighting serves to punctuate and color the emotions of the scene — it becomes an element of the storytelling and not just a means of looking cool.
S. – It is truly a beautiful piece of cinema. The care that was put into every scene is palpable. From a purely aesthetic point of view Notorious provides a level of entertainment outside the story just from the enjoyment of looking at how each scene is populated and framed. It gave me the impression that some of the scenes had been filmed over and over again, there was a deliberateness that I found a little intrusive. I’m trying to unpack my impression a bit more, because hyper-attentive direction doesn’t usually bother me (I love Wes Anderson films!) yet here something felt a little off. I got the sense that the world was a bit hollow at times, stepping into a postcard and then back into reality in an awkward way. In particular scenes involving only Bergman and Grant had a very different atmosphere than the rest. This may have been intentional but I felt that it disrupted the flow and prevented me from becoming immersed in the film.
J. – There is definitely a bit of truth to that. The really atmospheric stuff was almost entirely devoted to scenes with Bergman or Grant (or both), poor Claude Rains never got to really look his best. I suppose that is not too surprising, given that these two are both our heroes but also something of antagonists. There’s is a light and dark relationship, which I think is actually one of the better aspects of the film. I like how the movie puts them together and has them develop a rather obvious attraction but finds means for both the job and a certain kind of pride to keep them apart. Grant is particularly great in the this respect. He seems to have an equal measure of lust for and disgust with Bergman’s character, and to some degree with himself. I think I find that so appealing if only because Grant often plays such charming characters, and he is rarely particularly charming in this film. Dapper, sure. Interesting, sure. But not charming — he’s actually a bit of an ass. And I like that Rains is rather the opposite of all that. He’s not all that dapper or interesting, but he is charming — just not charming enough to hold Bergman’s interest. It makes for something of a thankless role for Rains through much of the movie, but I definitely feel like that character comes into his own by the end as well.
I think for me the big problem is Bergman’s character — or should I say characters. There’s a massive disconnect between the Alicia Huberman of the first, say, third of the film and the Alicia Huberman of the remainder that really rubbed me the wrong way. In general I struggled mightily through the set up in this movie. I found it to be dull and muddled, and I largely blame Bergman’s character. Now, I don’t blame Bergman, just her character, who is so poorly written in the early sections of the movie. Alicia is put forward as a socialite, judging by her company and the ease with which she fits into Rio high society. That’s fine; that’s actually a great fit for Bergman the actress. She’s also depicted as a drunk and a wayward woman — again, fine, totally in keeping with Bergman’s range as an actress. But why on earth does this European socialite spend the first 20-plus minutes of the movie talking like an uneducated gangster moll? Why would you have Ingrid Bergman ever sneer the word “copper”? It makes no sense and creates this massive disconnect that is so jarring and utterly divorced me from the character and the film. Notorious gets so much better when it drops the noir talk and lets Bergman play a role that is in keeping with her strengths. And once the awkward set up is out of the way, Notorious actually hums along quite nicely (for the most part).
S. – The Bergman role was rather schizophrenic, Alicia changed from an unpredictable lush pushed to the edge into a calm and calculating socialite in the blink of an eye. It was kind of hard to swallow. The bigger effect of this inconsistency was how difficult that made it to believe that Devlin was in love with her, because just who the hell was she? The attraction needs no explanation, but if we are to buy into a deeper attachment capable of causing such moral angst I couldn’t make the connection. This disconnect is made all the more unsatisfying when faced with two great actors delivering quality performances. It was like the pacing was off, a little too rushed. During the first half of the film I feel like the look was given precedence over character development. Having said that I did really enjoy the scene on the balcony when Alicia is prompting Devlin to admit that he doesn’t want her to go through with the job they had come to Rio for and he just as desperately wants her to refuse it on her own terms. Watching those two butt heads was great.
J. – Yeah, the first half definitely worked best in those moments when it was just Grant and Bergman playing off each other without much consideration for the plot, but there wasn’t enough of that. And what’s particularly strange about it is that it felt rushed but also incredibly slow at the same time. The first half of the movie is quite tedious, with the exception of that balcony scene and the bit when Alicia is drunk driving. There are lots of meetings and a ton of exposition, so the character stuff gets a bit lost. Which is a pity, because I like the performances, even in the bit parts (like Devlin’s boss, played with humorous nonchalance by Louis Calhern, aka Ambassador Trentino from Duck Soup). I recognize that in order to get the clockwork running you need to introduce all the parts, but it all felt clumsy to me.
But the second half finally gets moving and I loved the bit that revolves around Alicia getting the key to the wine cellar from Claude Rains. The suspense during that sequence is wonderful, from the initial removal of the key from the keychain to the discovery of Devlin and Alicia near the wine cellar. That was masterful stuff all the way through and far and away the best portion of the film. I was particularly enamored with the amazing shot from the balcony that starts up on the second story and moves all the way down to the key in Bergman’s hand. It’s totally a show off move, but it also hammered home the importance of the key and the deadly consequences of being found with it. Everything to do with the key was great filmmaking, and it also finally enabled Rains’ Nazi industrialist Alex Sebastian to develop into something interesting — a rare combination of evil and vulnerable. You almost feel bad for the man as he first believes his wife is cheating on him only to discover that she is actually out to bring down his entire life’s work. Sebastian finally becomes a worthwhile character — and so does his terrible mother.
S. – The suspense over that key was excruciating! Not only was the whole sequence beautifully shot (how good is that glide down into Alicia’s hand!) the relentless ratcheting up of the tension was perfect. The characters seem to coalesce in the second half of the film enough for some depth to emerge. I almost began to feel sorry for bad guy Rains as he becomes increasingly tormented with jealousy, while good guy Devlin seems determined to miss his chance at happiness because he cannot allow himself to trust Alicia. Meanwhile the true villain of the piece, the menacing Leopoldine Konstantin as the mother-in-law from hell, drives the evil agenda forward with an iron will. Yet even though things hit their stride once Alicia is inside the Nazi lair, the drama tends to fizzle out towards the end. All the elements are here for a fantastic story, I just felt that the pacing prevents the narrative from living up to the amazing creative standard set by the visuals.
J. – I have to agree with you there, S. The slow poisoning of Alicia is a great idea, but it does feel like it was handled in a clunky way until the denouement of the story. And once again it is not the performers who are at fault. Grant is great in his ratcheting unease, Rains is convincingly conflicted, Konstantin is a remarkable figure of menace, and Bergman is particularly wonderful as the poisoned Alicia, drawing no doubt from her Oscar-winning performance in Gaslight (1944). But there is little drama and tension in much of this until Grant shows up at Rains’ mansion to rescue Alicia. It just gets tedious, and demonstrates a pacing problem that runs throughout the film — shoddy setup, killer execution. Every time the characters spring into motion the film is simply wonderful, but the slow, muddled lead up to those moments really deadened the overall effect for me. And for anyone who suspects we might just be lacking patience, I can only point to our both really liking Day of Wrath, which mines slow, slow, and even slower tension for excellent suspense. So once again, it appears, I have found much to love in a Hitchcock movie, just not enough to dig the film as whole. Rats.
On a wholly separate note, this yammer marks the 63rd list film we have discussed. We are officially one-quarter of the way through the Sight & Sound list!