Notorious Review

As part of the BFI Genius of Hitchcock season, currently taking place, I went and saw the romantic thriller-noir Notorious, starring the stunning Ingrid Bergman and the charming Cary Grant. The film, which was originally released in 1946 through RKO. The awesome feeling of seeing a Hitchcock picture on the big screen was enough to make any film geek’s heart get a little fluttery, added with the fact that Notorious is one of his best pictures. As soon as the heavy set red curtains opened, we were presented with a trailer for the silent picture, The Lodger, featuring a new soundtrack from Nitin Sawhney, which was enough to bring a smile across my face before finally seeing the RKO radio tower logo appear on screen – now you know the film was about to start. The credits appeared, and in big letters, the Master of Suspense himself, ‘Alfred Hitchcock’.

Notorious marked a new chapter with Hitchcock, as many note that he brought an air of thematic maturity to this picture that many had not seen before in his work. Hitchcock’s biographer, Donald Spoto, writes that “Notorious is in fact Alfred Hitchcock’s first attempt—at the age of forty-six—to bring his talents to the creation of a serious love story, and its story of two men in love with Ingrid Bergman could only have been made at this stage of his life.”

The fact of the matter with Hitchcock’s cinema, is that despite just being one man, one director, he created a whole filmography, which is distinctly ‘Hitchcockian’, much like further auteurs (one thinks of cinema as ‘Sirkian’, ‘Lynchian’ etc…). He went from being the director to a commodity and instead he became as much part of the frenzy surrounding his films as the films themselves. This could be one of the reasons why he made a cameo in each and every one of his films, which adds something to his films because one finds themselves looking for the Master throughout the opening and you know you are watching a Hitchcock film when he appears.

Notorious itself follows the story of Alicia Huberman (Bergman), the American daughter of a convicted Nazi spy who is recruited by government agent T. R. Devlin (Grant) to infiltrate an organization of Nazis who have relocated to Brazil. Whilst there she has to contact her father’s old friend, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), and seduce him. Straight away, one sees a new level in Hitchcock’s cinema – he manages to fit the love story in and amongst the thriller, crossing the generic boundaries of both and therefore making the audience forget those limitations and instead fully immerse themselves across the genres.

The film is known for two scenes in particular. In one of his most famous shots, Hitchcock starts wide and high on a second floor balcony overlooking the great hall of a grand mansion. Slowly he tracks down and in on Ingrid Bergman, finally ending with a tight close-up of a key tucked in her hand. So arresting is the shot that an outline of the key became a graphic element in the film’s promotional material. Hitchcock also devised “a celebrated scene” that circumvented the Production Code’s ban on kisses longer than three seconds—by having his actors disengage every three seconds, murmur and nuzzle each other, then start right back up again. The two-and-a-half minute osculation is “perhaps his most intimate and erotic kiss.”

Notorious is perhaps the most revealing of the Hitchcock films, as a film that so precisely integrates the melodrama of a love story with the thriller techniques that made Hitchcock the director he is know as today. The acting itself, is something that you see rarely in today’s cinema, with Bergman and Grant embodying the most brilliant undercover love. When they are in a room together, there is electricity and everyone can see it. Furthermore, there is even a strong comedy element to Notorious in the form of Alex’s mother (Leopoldine Konstantin), who is very reminiscent of the ‘mother knows best’ act one would see later in Psycho (1960). She is both horrifying and hysterical as a controlling mother who doesn’t trust her daughter in law and even puts into action the plan of killing her. A particular scene with her, is when Alex confronts her about his discovery that his wife is a spy, his mother sits back in her bed and smokes a cigarette whilst working out what to do – she is very clearly controlling the phallic imagery in this scene and this swaps the gender roles one would typically expect.

If you would allow me a moment to just basque in this film’s glory, I would like to consider two  particular sequence that really shows off the versatility of the two actors and the ways in which film has become a cornermark for visual style.

The first sequence is during Alicia’s drink party at her house after her father’s guilty verdict – initially one realises Bergman’s beauty as she stands taller than the rest of the characters, who are all visually below her and therefore this sets up the hierarchy for the rest of the film and represents her beauty throughout. She even stands taller than Grant on his first appearance (which is simply his back to the audience as he waits for the party to come to an end). Bergman manages to look both stunning and provide some early dark humour in her drunken state – she sways for side to side and automatically makes the audience comfortable with her. Any other actress and she could have been a lot darker, and maybe even represented as someone siding with her Nazi sympathiser father – but as Devlin points out, she loves her country, the USA. As the guests leave, there isn’t a cut but instead a quite stunning pan around to Grant’s face as she stares up at Bergman. She doesn’t know who he is, but he certainly knows who she is. The erotic chemistry between the two is simply stunning. This sequence is followed by the joyride, where she drives at top speed down an open road with this perfect stranger. When she realises who he is, they have a faux fight and Devlin knocks Huberman out – certainly something you wouldn’t see in cinema today from the romantic lead!

A further sequence which shows of the mastery of this film is during the party at Alex’s house to show off his new bride, they have arranged for Devlin to come along and try and get into the wine cellar which is locked. When Devlin walks into the party, he goes to look for Alicia who is with her new husband. The party is full of people, all beautifully dressed in this stunning set, but there is very clear star lighting on our three characters. Each wonders around as if there was no one else around, and Hitchcock’s use of depth of field is enough to make Orson Welles smile a little bit. The camera stays perfect static, whilst the long depth of field helps the audience spot where the three are and makes a little puzzle for them to get around the party. As Alicia and Devlin are trying to talk and pass the key from one to the other, you are constantly wondering where Alex is.

I walked out of Notorious massively enthused about the rest of the festival and would defy someone to walk away not enjoying this proper war themed thriller. The story had something to say, in a ‘dream USA’ way and was typically Hitchcock in the ways that the film looked, moved and was read. Highly recommended and a massive standout in a frankly astonishing filmography.

The Genius of Hitchcock Festival Reports – Keep an eye out for more Hitchcock in the coming months!

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