Notorious (1946, Alfred Hitchcock)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

It couldn’t have existed without David O. Selznick. Having bought the rights to a deadweight hackneyed short story called “The Song of the Dragon” as a potential Vivien Leigh project, he ultimately handed it over to his contractees Alfred Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman, the latter only becoming interested after the former was involved. The corny fiction somehow set Hitchcock and his current favored cowriter, Ben Hecht, on a rampage of creativity that the project’s predecessor Spellbound had not permitted.

It couldn’t have existed with David O. Selznick. He sold Notorious to RKO with Hitchcock, Bergman, and Cary Grant attached — the director had ruffled his boss’ feathers (again) by waiting months for Grant’s availability. The development meant paydirt for Hitchcock, an artistic apogee, for reasons implied by a clause in the sale contract that Selznick wouldn’t be permitted any say in the ongoing production. RKO was hardly the madhouse that legend sometimes implies, but they were far more likely to take some of Hitchcock’s indulgences lying down — reshoots, longer schedules, and a constantly evolving script designed as a rough draft more than a shooting bible — than Selznick’s infamously tight ship.

It’s useful when pondering Notorious, which we should quickly mention is one of the greatest masterpieces in all cinema, to consider the problems that had plagued each of Hitchcock’s eight prior American films, of which only Shadow of a Doubt seemed to have entirely pleased him. The Selznick pictures, the masterful Rebecca and deeply flawed Spellbound, felt wrestled away from Hitchcock’s grasp; his loanouts had been shoestring productions that struggled from some of the messy quirks that seem always to blight Hollywood filmmaking. As good as the results had been, Foreign Correspondent receiving a Best Picture nomination, Suspicion becoming a huge hit and minor classic, Saboteur and Lifeboat thrillingly scrappy wartime entertainments, you invariably got the sense that he was struggling with being under the command of others such a long way into his career. Casting choices that clearly weren’t his, a flavor of restlessness, and a B-picture ugliness on the rougher fringes — it must have been a massive relief to have two stars, a threadbare story to toy with, the resources of a studio far larger than Universal and more artistically fertile than Warner Bros., and especially the full control and role of a director-producer, even if uncredited. It was really the first U.S. Hitchcock film that was actually Hitchcock’s project from fruition to finish.

That’s how it happens: a convergence of Alfred Hitchcock, David O. Selznick (on the development side, where he was best, rather than the meddling producer’s side), Ben Hecht, Ingrid Bergman, and Cary Grant. That’s how Hitchcock grabs hold of a massive A-level production all his own for the first time — little wonder that he would make only one more film he didn’t produce himself (the disastrous Paradine Case, possibly his worst post-1934 film). Notorious is more than a proving ground; it’s so astoundingly assured and such a blistering instance of pure cinema as high popular art as to be breathtaking. It’s the kind of movie that makes other movies, good ones, look terribly lacking and quite silly. It’s film noir as fairy tale, fairy tale as film noir, but with all the human dimension either stock story (and certainly the source material) would lack. As Bill Krohn has pointed out, Bergman’s Alicia is Snow White, her hand kissed in turn by Nazis instead of dwarfs in one scene, her body frail and slowly poisoned by her evil captors — but she’s so much more than a noirish dame or princess in distress, Cary Grant’s cold and desperately in love Devlin so much more than a Prince Charming or a cold-hearted spy. Even the villains, Claude Rains’ nervous Nazi Sebastian and his mother and cronies, invite us intimately into their world; Sebastian’s loving pangs and suspicions become as human as Dev’s petty jealousies and Alicia’s chilly longing.

You can get the plot across in a couple of sentences, because the plot isn’t the point, even if its strangely lovely quirks and details are atypically involving for Hitchcock, who nearly always wound up sacrificing plot plausibility and tangibles for characterization and emotion. The daughter (Bergman) of a German spy convicted of treason in Florida is recruited by the U.S. government to work on a mission in Rio De Janiero, gathering information about the activities of a Nazi ring; the agent escorting her (Grant) falls for her before he learns that her assignment is to seduce one of her father’s old cronies, and their affair is run through the wringer when the Nazi (Rains) marries her. When she’s discovered (unbeknownst to her) to be an American agent, a plan is put into place to slowly kill her; jealousy and bitterness between the two U.S. spies nearly prevents a rescue before it’s too late. As a frail Alicia’s led down the stairs by a remorseful Devlin, Sebastian is left to the ruthless dogs who’ll decide his fate.

Such a summary omits the seductive overtones that take control of the audience in Notorious — it’s a prime suspense film, of course, with one sequence in a wine cellar that must count as one of the most tense and breathless in the thriller genre (imitated forever after by everything from M:I-2 to Scoop), but its impact comes from its double life as a mature and haunting love story, one told entirely through implication and the human ballet of intimacy and ache. Hitchcock and Hecht have snared the skeleton of this story to provide them what they really want, a film that will explore the darkest corners of relationship psychology: Cary Grant so determined to believe Ingrid Bergman’s been on a bender that he can’t hide his contempt at one of his meetings, and she’s so irked she pretends he’s right; Grant’s deep love for his new associate manifested in the hateful, jealous bilge he spouts at her but also the vicious way he lectures another agent for his shallow characterization of her. It’s a constant flood of telling moments that’s never overly busy, never distracts from any more basic facet of the story; to call it “economical” is an understatement because there isn’t a wasted shot, not a wasted second.

That’s all the more impressive when you learn that Notorious never had an actual finished shooting script in any conventional manner. Rather, it was written as it was being filmed, and moreover, this was a deliberate choice (in contrast to the situation with portions of Rebecca and Suspicion that were the consequence of script troubles on those films) to allow Hitchcock to form the film itself as a final draft of the screenplay. Such an arrangement was only possible with two organic choices he made that Selznick would have balked at: he shot the film in sequence, his preferred method later on, and he included reshoots as an inherent part of the schedule to allow late modification and tweaking in camera of the story. It’s useful to read Hitchcock at Work by Krohn to learn more about the fascinating way in which this and subsequent Hitchcock projects came together, a far cry from the mythology of the meticulous storyboarding and “boredom” on the set.

The spontaneity, the creative rush, of Hitchcock’s methods bleed through onto the camera… the giveaway is that Notorious and his other films never seem artificially or obsessively “composed,” the camera angles and movements always logical and natural, invisible even. That doesn’t mean every frame isn’t beautiful. With cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff, Hitchcock conjures up a powerful noir storybook, playing with light and shadow in a stark yet sublime, almost fantastic manner more than a little suggestive of the German expressionist films that drove the director’s start in the business. In montages of films from the ’40s, it’s almost amusing how much Notorious stands apart with its cynical overshadowing of the elegance it captures and is quietly suspicious of, the intimate Dreyer-like use of the faces and eyes to tell its story, the way those faces become so massive and dark. Stills can’t possibly get the film’s genius across: the moving final product is like an erotic dream, swooping and sneaking in and out of its spaces in Rio and its mansions, Miami and its parties, the beloved crane shot (one of the most famous moments of Hitchcock’s career) an obvious duplicate of a similar take in the brilliantly bustling British Hitchcock Young and Innocent but more throttling because of how intoxicated we are by the Unica key, Bergman and Grant’s awkward ballet, the need for survival and love.

Most of all, Hitchcock and Tetzlaff have found the conduit of a lifetime for their devastatingly beautiful dreams in Ingrid Bergman. She made one film with Hitchcock before, Spellbound, and would work with him again on the still shamefully underappreciated Under Capricorn, but his photography of her in this film may be the most loving and passionately sensual visual expression of femininity on celluloid. In so many senses, Notorious overturns the fairy tale princess concept, a reprise of the more direct lashing out at misogyny in Rebecca, by punishing its characters for the slut-shaming of Bergman’s grieving adult, skilled spy, and complex heroine. It may be Cary Grant who comes to save her in the cathartic, masculine climax of carrying her down the enormous staircase to safety, enemies at her side, but it’s also Grant who must grovel to her, must confess to his evils and beg forgiveness.

Grant himself — competing with Bergman in the top tier as the greatest of all screen performers — is magnificently and atypically cast here by Hitchcock, who loved casting actors against expectations, as a bastard whose hateful behavior toward Bergman turns the audience against him and in favor, with delightful perversity, of Claude Rains’ kindly Sebastian — whose ache of loss, thanks to Rains more than anyone, is as real and harrowing as any emotion in the film when he discovers his wife has been spying on him. Only Hitchcock could make the cinema audiences of America in 1946 feel sympathy for a Nazi. Grant is so phenomenal you could waste a lot of time lamenting how seldom he got to perform such a complicated and fascinating role. These are the definitive performances of all three of these lead actors; it drives home the point that as much as Hitchcock made his name as a thriller director, what he really made were stories about people, in emotionally fraught and complex and remarkable situations. For all the film’s darkness, there’s a certain visibility to the actors’ thrill at the level of material they’re working with (and we’re talking about high standards, since Bergman spoke ill of Casablanca even after it became a classic); the actors were even involved in the unusual and ingenious creative process of crafting the story, as according to Krohn they rewrote dialogue in some scenes to suit their own performances and interpretations of their characters. Perhaps that’s what makes the famous extended kiss sequence between Grant and Bergman so sexually charged; its nonchalant talk of chickens and fingers and plates is natural, free of screenwriting pretense, illustrated like everything else in the film with faces rather than words.

I know of about six movies I’d call perfect. They are: The Crowd, The Wizard of Oz, Deliverance, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hitchcock’s own Rear Window, and Notorious. In addition to being the best of the black & white Hitchcock films, which is saying a great deal, it’s his greatest love story and an instance of a creative peak at the ideal moment — an evocative, lyrical story arriving at a time when he was capable of telling it flawlessly. Since The 39 Steps or so, his work had carried wisps of an almost mystical, fever-dream romance; you see his British films and find yourself newly excited when key scenes approach. In Notorious, every scene is like that, every moment a surreal connective flight to some heart-jumping faroff world of a woman alone, a daring rescue, and an evil that must be defeated — it’s not just pure cinema but pure storytelling, pure joyous human art.

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