Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Notorious (1947) - Alfred Hitchcock

Grant and Bergman embrace.
U.S. government agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) and his superior (Louis Calhern as Captain Prescott) want to know what a group of Nazi scientists and businessmen are up to in Argentina. To find out they recruit Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the beautiful American daughter of a convicted German spy, to seduce Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a man who once loved her and was an old friend of her father's. Sebastian is one of the Germans' chief financiers. Even though Alicia has a reputation of being wild and promiscuous, she is reluctant—she is no patriot and she harbors ill will toward post-war America, which she believes drove her father to suicide. She relents however, after falling in love with Devlin. He loves her too but won't tell her; he is too wrapped up in duty and the importance of their mission. Sebastian falls prey to Alicia, but when he discovers she is a spy who threatens their plans, and indeed his own safety, his ruthless mother provides a deadly solution.

Grant's Devlin is Hitchcock's most conflicted hero, and one difficult to root for. Suave, witty, and handsome, he can also be rude and nasty. Deeply in love with the woman he has endangered, it is Grant's most serious role. His barely controlled emotion in several scenes with Bergman are some the best acting of his long career. When Alicia comes to tell Prescott she'll act as spy, she all but begs Devlin to tell her not too. His mouth tightens and he leaves the room. Later, during one of their clandestine rendezvous she tells him that he can add Sebastian's name to her list of playmates. He is more visibly angry, his voice projecting disgust, but it is not with Alicia, but rather with himself. She is merely following orders.

Devlin proves Grant a considerably more versatile actor than his common persona suggests. He never played anyone quite like it before or since. One thinks of Cary Grant as a likable rouge, but Devlin is hardly a character to elicit our sympathy. That role belongs to one of the villains of the film, Sebastian, and that's one of aspects film that makes the film so interesting. Claude Rains—a consistently great supporting actor—makes us feel sorry for him, a Nazi! He is trusting and vulnerable. He genuinely loves Alicia, and unlike Devlin, openly admits it. His shock at her duplicity is painful to watch.

Notorious is slight on action but full of suspense as one should expect from Hitchcock. Grant is convincing as the agent who can keep his cool when needed. No one wore a suit better and it's no wonder that Rains' character is jealous of the man. His suspicions are aroused when he finds the two kissing in the basement after they've inspected some strange bottles of champagne.

                            Alicia: What does the speedometer say?
                            Devlin: 65.
                            Alicia: I want to make it 80 and wipe that grin off your face.

The film has an elegant look, heightened by the black and white cinematography. These Nazis have money. Famed Hollywood costume designer Edith Head designed Bergman's gorgeous wardrobe. Though inexplicably not for this, Head was nominated for 35 Oscars.

One of the most famous camera shots in any Hitchcock film takes place at a party hosted by Sebastian. Alicia suspects that a clue as to the Nazi's secret activity can be gleaned in the wine cellar. She has stolen Sebastian's key and must slip it unobserved to Devlin, who has crashed the party. Hitchcock used a crane high above the dance floor;  the shot pans the crowd, stopping at Alicia; her hand is behind her back, holding the key. Another highly regarded shot peers through the space between a door and its jam. It is superbly made thriller.  

What Makes Notorious Special:
"You can add Sebastian's name to my list of playmates."
Long-time Hitchcock collaborator Ben Hecht wrote the clever screenplay. This is essentially a love story, and as in real life  sometimes one or both partners are unable to express their true feelings and love is threatened. In Hitchcock's, Hecht's, and the actors' hands, how that threat is averted makes for great viewing.

The final scene involves Devlin's suspenseful attempt to rescue a weakened Aliciashe is being slowly poisoned. He supports her limp body as they come down a long stairway where they are confronted by Sebastian and his mother as his suspicious and dangerous colleagues watch and wonder what is happening. They have already "disposed" of one of their own for an innocent but foolish slip of the tongue. Sebastian has a Hobson's Choice. He can stop Devlin, but would reveal that he has compromised the group's efforts; or he can let Devlin and Alicia escape, knowing  that U.S. government authorities will soon intervene. Whispered threats leave you wondering how Hitchcock will resolve the crisis.    

Bergman's performance easily tops that of her Oscar nominated role in The Bells of St. Mary's the same year.

Inside Story:

Sebastian confesses to his mother.
The shady Nazi plot involves uranium, a key ingredient for making nuclear weapons. At the time of filming, FBI agents reportedly kept Hitchcock under surveillance, wondering what the director knew about such efforts.

Hitchcock makes his cameo appearance as a party guest at Sebastian's mansion, accepting a drink at the bar

Major Awards:

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Rains) and Writing.

Other Alfred Hitchcock/Cary Grant Collaborations:

  • Suspicion 1941
  • To Catch a Thief 1955
  • North by Northwest 1959

Grant performances nominated for Best Actor:
  • Penny Serenade 1941
  • None But the Lonely Heart 1944   

Major Awards:

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