Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Film #29: Notorious (1946)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about 8 months ago)

20-Words-or-Fewer Summary (no spoilers):

Gorgeous, floozy booze-bag is enlisted by suave G-Man to spy on expatriate Nazi sect in Brazil.

Full Summary (a full blow-by-blow of the plot, spoilers included. Fair warning):

In Miami, former Nazi John Huberman is convicted of treason against the United States. His daughter, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) goes home and drowns her sorrows at a small soiree at her home. Present at the party is T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant), whom Alicia believes to be a local policeman simply sent to keep an eye on her. He is, in fact, a federal agent whose task is to survey Huberman to determine if she can help the U.S. government infiltrate a suspected Nazi contingent in Brazil.

Alicia has a reputation of loose relationships and being a bit of a tippler. Upon discovering Devlin's true purpose, she initially turns him away. When Devlin confronts her with proof of her love for the U.S. and hatred for the tenets of Nazism (in the form of a taped conversation with her father), she relents and agrees to accompany him to Brazil.

Once in Brazil, the service's plot is made known: Alicia is to ingratiate herself to one Alexander Sebastian (Claude Raines), a past acquaintance who was friends with John Huberman and loved his daughter, Alicia. Once the false love is impressed, it is to be exploited and Alicia is to reveal anything that she uncovers in her dealings with Sebastian. Complicating things, however, is that Devlin and Alicia fall in love with each other. Yet, the stoic and professional Devlin refuses to allow his feelings for Alicia interfere with the mission, and he allows her to use herself as erotic bait.

Agent Devlin has his first encounter with a tipsy Alicia Huberman

The plan works, but all too well. Sebastian once again falls in love with Alicia. So much so that he proposes marriage. Along with Sebastian's love for her, Alicia also discovers that Sebastian is indeed in the middle of a plot by Nazi German expatriates to somehow reestablish some sort of Nazi power in the world. Despite his discomfort at letting his love further embed herself in such dirty dealings, Devlin and the local U.S. feds allow Alicia to marry Sebastian, in the hopes of unearthing further details of the plot.

Once Alicia is married to Sebastian, they throw a party at which Devlin arrives, posing as a playboy American on holiday, and discovers that the Germans are stockpiling plutonium deposits from a nearby mountain range. Unfortunately, Sebastian later discovers Alicia and Devlin's true identities and treachery. Sebastian and his aged mother, also of fundamental Nazi leanings, then begin to slowly poison Alicia, hoping to quietly dispatch her without further alerting the U.S. agents.

In the end, Devlin figures out what is happening and arrives at the Sebastian estate. He slyly extricates Alicia, finally confessing his love to her as she is in bed, near death from poisoning. Upon leaving with her, he leaves Sebastian behind to face his fellow Nazi conspirators, who now know the full scale of his indiscretions and will presumably "deal" with him. We are left to assume that Alicia will be nursed back to health with her love, Devlin, at her side, and that Alexander Sebastian will be "silenced" by his compatriots.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after this most recent viewing, before any research):

Really good film. Probably one of Hitchcock's absolute best, which is saying something.

After seeing Grant, Bergman, and Raines in a few earlier films, Notorious was a great departure in terms of characters. Up to this point in the list, Cary Grant had played some of the more annoying characters to me. Between The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday, I had almost forgotten what I liked about him. Now, with his role as T.R. Devlin, he finally sloughs off the skin of an arrogant sophisticate and plays a far more intriguing character. He's calm, cool, efficient, and every inch the professional spy, with nary a condescending bone in his body. Even in the face of the drop-dead gorgeous Alicia Huberman, who he admittedly loves, he doesn't let his emotions get in the way of his job. You may not love him for it, but there's a legitimate strength to him that I hadn't seen in his earlier roles.

Bergman is another one. Coming off her role in Casablanca as Ilsa Lund, which was a relatively weak character, playing Alica Huberman is a great departure. In her very first scenes, she's drunk as a skunk and buck wild. She promptly gets rough with Devlin, who only subdues her with a few quick judo chops and a pinch to a pressure point. She has real fire and shows even more acting skill, convincingly playing a woman transitioning from being a "notoriously" loose Jezebel to a person of great conviction, courage and ability.

Here's a great scene in Brazil which exemplifies everything that Bergman and Grant do well in this movie - tease each other with surgical precision. The first full 5 minutes is well worth watching:

Those last few minutes really skirted the Puritanical movie codes of the day.

Raines does a similar chameleon act. As Captain Renault in Casablanca, he was an eminently lovable rogue. As Alexander Sebastian in Notorious, however, he does a fantastic turn as a semi-suave yet contemptible Nazi. Just as his key role to complete the triad of classic characters with Bergman and Bogart in Casablanca, he does the same with Grant and Bergman in this Hitchcock standard.

The story is perfect for Hitchcock's direction. While the initial romance between Devlin and Alicia is a touch rushed in the early going, it never feels essentially unnatural. It's certainly not hard to see how they fall for each other. It's also balanced beautifully and woven into the espionage tale masterfully. The emotional power is as much left to careful glances and gestures as it is to the occasional outbursts of charged dialogue between Grant and Bergman. These things elevate this tale far above a mere suspense yarn or even an adventurous romance.

The only parts that seemed a bit out of whack to me had to do with timing. One was the aforementioned budding romance. While the characters have been together for over a week (a reasonable time for love to bloom), we viewers have had about 10 minutes with Devlin and Alicia. It was ever-so speedy to me. The other moment is at the end, as Alicia lies on her deathbed and Devlin comes in to rescue her. As he finally breaks down and opens his heart to her, my eyebrows gradually furrowed as a wondered, "has this guy forgotten that there's a cabal of murderous Nazis lingering downstairs?!" It was obviously a necessary scene, but stood out as a bit forced amidst an otherwise masterfully paced movie.

While Hitchcock had already done several very well-received movies by 1946, this may have been his strongest to that point. The exotic locale of Brazil made a great backdrop, and the opulent setting of the Sebastian estate create a great sense of place. Hitchcock always made great use of location, and his eventual use of color would dazzle in films like Vertigo or North By Northwest, but the black-and-white scenes in Notorious are just as striking, if in a more subtle way.

I would say that all but the most ardent Alfred Hitchcock or Cary Grant haters would love this movie. It's engaging and unique, and yet another classic film that has spawned endless imitation attempts (really, James Cameron's True Lies, while entertaining, is just a modified, high-octane, lesser rendition of Notorious). For the real deal without the gunfire or body count, go back to this all-timer.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research):

Plenty of good analysis of this film out there. Hitchcock has obviously been one of the most accomplished, celebrated, and prolific filmmakers in history. Any film fan worth his or her salt can pick out one or two favorites, and it seems that Notorious regularly makes the top 2 or 3 for most film aficionados. And yet, it seems to me that it is less famous than Hitchcock standards like Psycho, The Birds, North by Northwest, or even Vertigo. Why?

Those others had certain shock value to them, and this really interesting essay by William Rothman points out several things, foremost perhaps that this film was virtually the last "optimistic" Hitchcock movie. Coming in the middle of his career, it seems that he hit his stride as a storyteller and director, and he melded the dark aspects that were his hallmark with a more palatable ending for a wider audience.

Rothman points to the relationship between Devlin and Alicia as "perverse," which is true. They constantly torment each other, and not playfully. Devlin all but dares Alicia to run into the arms of Sebastian, just as Alicia willfully plays up her reputation as a drunken tart. Both of them seem to relish the opportunities to torture the other out of some sense of twisted attraction. Before Rothman's essay, I hadn't really considered it, but he seems right on.

One of the really intriguing things to arise from this movie is "The McGuffin," which has become a byword in film. The McGuffin can be defined as the thing that the plot and characters revolve around, in the case of Notorious, it's the wine bottles (filled with uranium, we later discover). Hitchcock coined the term and explained how the actual form of the McGuffin is not important, as long as we sense its importance to the main characters. Hitchcock used the device many times, but other modern examples would be the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, "The Formula" in The Spanish Prisoner, or even "unobtainium" in Avatar. I've always liked the enigma behind these vague objects, and now I know from whence they came.

An additional point about the McGuffin in Notorious - the plutonium. At the time of Notorious's release, the ins and outs of atomic weaponry were far from common knowledge. The fact that Hitchcock and the filmmakers used it as a focal point got the attention of more than one security official in the U.S. They were investigated as to where and how they had learned that plutonium was a key ingredient in the making of such a devastating weapon. Curious, no?

One final note is the original TIME magazine review. It indicates how successful the film was, even back in the day. I particularly like the writer's little jabs at how clumsy Alicia and Devlin are when it comes to the key and the wine bottles. Check out their last paragraph for a few good laughs. Here's the scene the writer was referencing:

All analysis just reinforces what a pillar this movie is in the halls of suspense film. A few more Hollywood studios might do well to study it and try to better emulate its careful fusing of elegance and simplicity to create an incredible piece of work.

That's a wrap. 29 down. 76 to go.

Coming Soon: It's A Wonderful Life (1946):

It's Christmas in June!! It's going to be weird watching this, since it's about 90 billion degrees outside here in eastern PA, but maybe Jimmy Stewart and Zuzu can take my mind off of the heat.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.