Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Notorious: by the ticking of the champagne clock

I first glimpsed Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece, Notorious in college. A journalism professor showed us the scene at the party with the key and the device I've come to call the "champagne clock." I don't remember what the teacher's point was, I just remembered the bliss of seeing my beautiful Cary on the big screen in class. After that, I sought out the movie in the library, marveling at the obsessive craftsmanship of the director in balancing the tension of scenes like the champagne clock with the moments of humor and the swooning romance.

Notorious is a sophisticated movie. It acknowledges that there is such a thing as sex and that it doesn't always happen in marriage. The title at first seems to refer to Ingrid Bergman's character Alicia and her bad reputation, but as the film goes on it becomes increasingly ironic. Alicia grows ever more vulnerable and desperate, and is the victim surrounded by playboy spies, murderers and mother-in-laws. Even the supposed bad guy, Alex Sebastian, played by Claude Raines is to be admired for his good taste in women and pitied for his over-bearing mother, who is the real villain of the piece.

Bergman's performance is wonderful. She is achingly insecure one minute and quite funny in the next. My favorite scene is the one in which Cary Grant's Devlin returns from the meeting where he's gotten the assignment to have Alicia seduce the evil Nazi played by Claude Raines. He is suddenly cold toward her, but she doesn't realize right away and chatters on happily about how her chicken caught fire once while it was cooking. How could any man resist her sweetly amusing Swedish sing-song love patter? How come Devlin doesn't just drop to his knees, declare his love and tell his bosses to go drink some of Mrs. Sebastian's delicious coffee? I guess there wouldn't be a movie if he weren't such a fat-headed guy full of pain.

Cary Grant also gives a layered performance. He is tough, and glib in all his interactions with Alicia, but there is just a glint of sentimentality in him that comes gushing out in genuine sentiment in the final love scene with Alicia. The famously long embrace looks so passionate in stills, but is quite gentle and sweet in the context of the film. Cary's voice is hushed, his dialog almost rushed as he must quickly declare his love, keep Alicia alive and moving out the door, all the while planning an exit strategy for his rescue. When Claude Raines appears he turns back into the Iceman, giving him that same hard side that he always showed Alicia, all the while continuing to whisper encouragements in her ear. When he guides her slowly down the stairs he looks as if he were balancing on a tightrope (or on the roof of a French Chalet, perhaps?) . Cary Grant got his start in show business as an acrobat and once you know that fact it's difficult not to see him as a stilt walker pulling off the illusion of ease in an uncomfortable situation.

Hitchcock indulges in plenty of camera "gimmicks" showing Devlin only from the rear in the first scene, turning his image upside down when Alicia has a hangover and using strange lighting and focus effects to dramatize Alicia's illness. Some of these experiments work (the upside down Devlin) and some fail and become distracting (filming Devlin from behind.) I don't think Hitchcock's importance as a director lies necessarily in those innovations of his. I think it has to do with the overall incorporations of his obsessions (and I know a thing or two about those!) into his art. The mother-in-law is a variation on Mrs. Danver's from Rebecca and like Danver's, Hitchock hints that she has some kind of unhealthy sexual obsession, in this case with her son. In Bergman, Hitchcock found the first of his cool, but passionate blondes. When Bergman left Hollywood she was replaced first with Grace Kelly and then with Eva marie Saint and Kim Novak. Yes, Notorious is definitely a good place to start for a blog that is about Cinema obsessions.


Nancy "Beaky" Bruce said...

"I guess there wouldn't be a movie if he weren't such a fat-headed guy full of pain."

hee hee hee.

ah... the suspension of disbelief. Those of us obsessed have it in spades.

Saw Night and Day for the first time on a larger screen today. The ending has always bothered me. The last shot of Cary's face. He's got every expression in Notorious perfected.

But what we see at the end of N&D is another fat headed guy full of pain.... I don't think that was supposed to be the look... (linda! you're hurting me!)

Back to Notorious -- if you ever get to see it on the big screen with a theater full of people, jump at the chance. The comedic parts play particularly well on the big screen, making the characters a bit more accessible to the audience. It's nice.

Jennythenipper said...

Hi Nancy:

I have seen Notorious and Night and Day on the Big Screen. Night and Day was a completely different movie I felt. it holds up so much better. The dancing, the technicolor spectacle are really lost on TV.

I saw Notorious when the Warbrides screened it in DC at the National Library when they restored it. Gorgeous!

I think the funny is always better in a theater. People hear other people laughing and it reminds them.

Oh and thank you Beaky for being my first visitor. I shall always remember that!

T. Sena said...

This is in my top three fave movies list. But I said it a trillion times on the thread already.

I love the way you summarized the feeling behind the movie. It's hard to capture, for certain.

Tina (ARLC)

Jennythenipper said...

Hey thanks for stopping by Tina! I'm embarrassed that after i posted the link to this, I found some rather large typos that I should have corrected long ago.