‘Notorious’ is another masterpiece. It opens, as do various Hitchcock movies, with a very specific place and time establishing caption:
Miami. Florida, Three-Twenty P.M.,
April the Twenty-Fourth,
Nineteen Hundred and Forty-Six….
As her father is being sent down for some untold terrorist activity, we first see the elegant Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) emerging through the throng of courthouse reporters, dressed in bright angelic white. The reporters want a statement, but we dissolve to her throwing a party instead. The exterior of her place has a man walking frame right to left and you’d expect Hitchcock to use this opportunity for one of his personal appearances, but he resists*. At the cocktail party – winding down as there are only seven people there including her – she wears black and white stripes with an exposed midriff (racey) and is already well on her way to sozzlement. A figure sits with his back to camera, unengaged in the revelry. Huberman calls him handsome and another woman says he’s not a party crasher as he is poured a big old drink.
It’s a great way to tease you and introduce Cary Grant (playing what will transpire to be an FBI guy called Devlin). We know who is he is before the reveal, but it’s nice to be kept even vaguely guessing. The other partygoers have crashed out and it’s interesting to see how obviously inebriated Alicia is – movies always seem to be full of people who drink tons or get through stack loads of drugs but don’t seem to be at all affected by their ingestions so it’s good that there’s a vaguely accurate sense that someone is actually off their heads (it’s bold also that Alicia is basically an alcoholic throughout the whole film, always up for a double when it’s offered). Devlin in contrast seems sober as a judge even with the amount of booze he seems to have consumed. They go for a picnic/drive and she ratchets the car up to eighty, some good old swervy back projection and a trick shot of a bike cop in the rear view. To shut her up Devlin gives her a thwack and their romance is firmly established in the old fashioned way.
Their love story reaches full throttle when they fly down to Rio – a great scene at her hotel where, even delivering line after line of dialogue, they manage to keep kissing each other pretty much the whole time.
Alicia is clinging to him as a new father figure/lover but then Devlin finds out what his bosses (led by the great Louis Calhern as Paul Prescott) have planned – to get her inveigled into terrorist baddie Alexander Sebastian’s home (played by the neat, erudite and superb Claude Rains) – they overjoyed that Alex then wants to make her his new wife (they consider her a loose enough woman to do this – basically viewing her as a whore. She is, after all, notorious). Tough for Devlin to stomach, but he’s a pro. Hitchcock repeats the Devlin-with-his-back-to-the-camera idea in the scene with his superiors – eventually he turns to camera and pricklingly defends Alicia’s honour, comparing her sarcastically to one of the boss’s wives ‘sitting in Washington playing bridge’.
This briefing scene is sandwiched between two starkly contrasting hotel room scenes – the first loving, the second cold and bitter as he imparts her mission that will doom their love. Cary Grant executes a great expression of mixed contentedness and regret when he successfully sets up a meeting between Alicia and Alex, his professional pride at a job well done mirrored by his personal agony as he offers up his lover to another.
Alicia, on her first date with Alex, is dressed all in black – conscious of her doom at being offered up as a Mata Hari. Bergman’s expression of regret at her success with Alex (being invited to his home and to meet mum) matches Grant’s in its poignancy. When Alicia informs Devlin that he can add Alex’s name to her list of ‘playmates’ Hitchcock cuts to a rapid profile shot of his male star with the succinct rebuffal of ‘skip it’ spat out, the whole mission sticking in his craw.
Her introduction to Alex’s sinister crew is immediately creepy – each of the foreign accented fellows looming in to kiss her hand. Alex, so typical in Hitchcock, has a domineering Mother (Madame [Leopoldine] Konstantin playing Madame Anna Sebastian) who will grow in viciousness as the story unfolds. Mum Sebastian is frosty from the start with barely hidden contempt for this upstart female who has her precious son in the clutch of her palm.
The faux pas of the sweaty Emil Hupka (played by the impressively monikered Eberhard Krumschmidt, spotting the wrong wine present at dinner and making a show of pointing it out) will get him killed by the much more villainous looking ‘Dr. Anderson’ played by Reinhold Schunzel.
Mum’s dominance occurs throughout – in particular when Alex decides to marry Alicia – Mater openly suspicious of the younger woman’s motivations, a lovely track round Mother as Alex confronts her with uncharacteristic defiance, mummy’s boy that he is.
The photography and lighting throughout the film is wonderful: stark blacks and whites – almost noir-like light and shade, and very beautifully done by Ted Tatzlaff (an interesting CV, ‘Notorious’ seems to be his last film as a cinematographer, he then switching to direction until 1959. He then seems to not work on any further films until his death thirty six years later).
Hitchcock pulls out a variety of inventive and distinctly, well, Hitchcockian shots and sequences throughout the film. As Alicia comes to after her drunken and punched unconscious night near the start, a luminous white liquid sits on her night table (evoking Grant as Johnnie’s famed glass of milk/poison from ‘Suspicion’) and her p.o.v. has Devlin rotating into the frame in a really bizarre but evocative series of shots to perfectly express her disheveled state.
The main and most celebrated shot in the film is the famous ‘from large to small’ shot starting high up in Claude Rains’ ballroom, panning right and then craning down to the vital ‘Unica’ key clutched in Alicia’s hand – the key to the suspicious cellar the two of them need to investigate in order to locate the MacGuffin/wine bottles full of mysterious black powder/uranium. It’s beautifully executed with only a very slight loss of focus and, of course, a wonderful idea and the very best of these types of shots in all the Hitchcock movies.
The buildup to the two of them searching the wine cellar (repeated shots of champagne stocks running down) is very well handled and a really interesting way of building the suspense without masses of dialogue. It’s a bit of a stretch that out of all the bottles in the cellar Devlin just happens to knock over and break one of the suspicious ones, but you have to go with this.
These are all showcase shots and sequences and it’s important not to get dazzled by just these obvious moments in a movie this great. The atmosphere of darkness and scheming, the intrigue of cross and double cross are what keeps the narrative cracking along. These sequences scream overt style – but it’s the whole process of telling the story that keeps you gripped. There’s an argument that these ‘flashy’ shots (not wishing to cheapen them at all, they’re marvellous) could actually be seen to derail the narrative by being so odd. Certainly not even the most casual viewer could fail to notice the more radical Hitchcockian moments but – in most cases – his style is subserviant to story and therefore works**.
As the film darkens, so the shadows get deeper. Alex fully realizes his wife is in cahoots with Devlin (anagram of ‘devil’?) and climbs the long staircase to go and see Mother (again evocative of Johnnie’s milk run from ‘Suspicion’). When Alex tells mother Alicia is a wrong ‘un, Mum gives a triumphant smile: ‘I have expected it’ she gloats and can’t wait to exact revenge. This Mother figure is a real nasty one and reminds me of the vicious spitting Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) from ‘From Russia With Love’, poisoned with hatred and jealously (although lacking the spiky shoes). Alex can’t believe it, and is all too aware that his cohorts will kill him – they did the same to poor old fat Emil, and all he did was point at some wine bottles.
Profiles of Alex abound, but Mum lights a fag, keeps her head and plots how to save him. ‘You are protected by the enormity of your stupidity’, she says, and she’s right. The drip drip slow poisoning of Alicia via her daily coffee is really well done – Hitchcock loves these everyday items turning violent (milk/showers/birds/flash bulbs/bread knives etc). Mother and son are sticky sweet and carry on as normal as they slowly bring about her demise. The apotheosis of the coffee shtick comes when the cup she is offered is brought to her by Mother and placed in the foreground – huge – whilst she is being quizzed as the source of her illness.
As a family friend reaches for the cup and is stopped by Alex and Mum, Alicia twigs what is happening – two fantastic fast tracks to her murderous family members. It’s really powerful to watch and you feel her helplessness as she slowly loses herself in sickness and cannot claw her way out from this quicksand of poison.
Her saviour Devlin eventually susses what is going on and gets himself into the house, approaching her sick bed in a manner that echoes the earlier scene when she was badly hungover – this time he appears as a silhouetted figure and slowly comes into her focus. The grand staircase becomes the main area of eventual drama – can they make it down without the bad guys figuring out that Alex is at fault. All of them – Devlin, Alicia, Alex and Mother – are in mortal danger and it’s a neat twist that suddenly all of them have to escape from the hardcore evil doers. Devlin bundles her into a car and Alex is locked out, asking what he should do. ‘That’s your headache’ says Devlin. The final ‘Alex, will you come in please I wish to talk to you’ sees the little man turning and ascending his own stairway to hell. He is a dead man walking, and he knows it. Alex can be seen as a total coward here – if Devlin had let him into the car, what would have happened to poor old Mother (not that we have any particular sympathy for this devil)?
‘Notorious’ is sublime film-making and a high water mark in an oeuvre of movies that has many extremely high points. It finds a balance between suspense and drama perfectly and features sophisticated performances – and very daring in the case of Bergman. With ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ it certainly is the best of the Hitchcock 1940’s American movies and right up there with ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ and ‘The Lady Vanishes’ in his career to date.
Edith Head supplied Ingrid Bergman’s costumes on the picture – and wonderful they are too. Head is a fascinating character and won eight Academy Awards in her career, and was nominated for a total of thirty four (!). Her books (‘The Dress Doctor’, ‘How to Dress for Success’ and ‘Edith Head’s Hollywood’) are well worth checking out. She would go onto to work on another ten Hitchcock movies.
*saving himself for the later party scene as he sups a glass of shampoo before exiting shot frame left @ 1 hour and 2 mins approx.
I like the way that when Devlin plays her a recording of her he has it on a twelve inch record – how time and technology have progressed…
**Not to De Palma bash yet again, but it’s the kind of thing that he does and it torpedoes the storyline – he seemingly so enamoured of the glamour of flying the camera around that he neglects to give you a story you actually care about.
It’s probably just me, but the main front door of Alex’s house looks very similar to the logo for Joel Silver’s Silver Pictures: