A DIVINE SYNERGY: Hitchcock’s Notorious

Of all your pictures, this is the one in which one feels the most perfect correlation between what you are aiming at and what appears on the screen . . . “(Francois Truffaut to Alfred Hitchcock)

Notorious is the shining light of Alfred Hitchcock’s output in the 1940’s and his first true masterpiece. Oh, Rebecca won the Oscar, Foreign Correspondent is a great romp, and Shadow of a Doubt is a fine movie and the first sure sign of Hitchcock settling in as an American filmmaker. But after the 1930’s, which established the director as a European sensation and an auspicious debut in the States, the rest of the decade was a bumpy ride; in fact, after Hitchcock made Notorious in 1946, establishing himself for the first time as a producer as well as director and finally freeing himself from the yoke of David O. Selznick, he went on to make four unsuccessful films in a row, only one of which has transformed its reputation over the passing years.  (We’ll deal with that next week.) 

For all Hitchcock’s troubles, we can blame the war, we can blame the studios, we can blame Selznick. We can look at the vagaries of casting or the unwillingness of wartime audiences (and some influential critics) to follow where Hitchcock led them. They would embrace his sense of experimentation only so far (Spellbound) and reject it outright when he dared show a hated enemy in a positive light (Lifeboat) or lied to the audience (Stage Fright) or experimented with the camera (Under Capricorn, Rope). And we can give Hitch himself a dollop of the blame, for all these things and for being such a puzzle to American critics and producers.

But in 1946, at least, it all came together in divine synergy, and for that everyone can take a little credit. Take David O. Selznick . . . please. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) He didn’t like the script that Ben Hecht and Hitchcock had poured their hearts into and tried unsuccessfully to replace it with a turgid rewrite by Clifford Odets. He did not approve of Cary Grant and wanted to switch him out for Joseph Cotton (whose contract Selznick happened to own). And despite the fact that his tribulations with his own production of Duel in the Sun caused him to sell Notorious to RKO and ultimately wash his hands of the whole thing, that did not stop him from bombarding Hitchcock with the usual daily plethora of memos and complaints. 

But Selznick did one good thing: for the role of Alexander Sebastian, the third side of the triangle that made up the central plot, Hitchcock wanted Clifton Webb, fresh from playing a suave villain in Laura, but Selznick insisted on Claude Rains – perhaps foreshadowing the fact that Rains would become one of my favorite actors – and Hitchcock had the good sense to acquiesce to this request. Webb would go on that year to play another suave villain in The Dark Corner, while Rains would do his part to create the most compelling love triangle Hitchcock ever produced. 

A perfect triangle: Rains, Grant and Bergman

The one constant from the start was Ingrid Bergman, with whom Hitchcock wanted to make a film exploring the dark side of espionage, where a woman would be forced to essentially prostitute herself for the “forces of good.” The gossip says that Hitchcock was in love with her, but the main evidence of that was his willingness to go where he never went with an actor: he let her give him notes on her character!

Like Shadow of a Doubt, another happy experience for the director, a perfect cast was assembled. Like that earlier film, Hitchcock had a delightful collaborative experience over putting together the script, as both Thornton Wilder and Ben Hecht displayed no authorial heat when their “partner” exerted privilege and made whatever changes he wished. 

Technically, however, Notorious does Shadow of a Doubt and Spellbound one better: it is the greatest amalgamation thus far of all of Hitchcock’s themes and symbols given visual form. And it contains something in greater supply than any of his earlier films: heat. The chemistry between Bergman and Grant is electric. It is said that Grant helped Bergman through a bout of nerves during shooting and became a lifelong friend after Notorious wrapped. The film has one of the two greatest filmed kisses in the Hitchcock canon, and this one is a grand culmination of romantic/sexual feeling while the other one – in Vertigo – is feverish and sick. (I also want to give honorable mention to the kiss that introduces Grace Kelly in Rear Window, but that is purely personal.) The chemistry between Bergman and Rains adds to the power of this triangle, while the connection between Rains and his mother, played by the great German actress Madame Konstantin in her only American film role, is the ne plus ultra of destructive mother-son relationships, to be topped only by the Bates family in Psycho

As I mentioned last week, the typical male-female relationship in a Hitchcock film is of a beleaguered hero (usually male) who must incorporate the assistance of an at-first-reluctant helpmate (usually female) to get out of a huge jam that, more often than not, has both the good guys and the bad guys chasing them. Coincidentally or not, the 40’s was the decade where we saw more of these situations with the gender reversed. Young Charlie of Shadow of a Doubt had her policeman; Connie from Lifeboat had her crewman; Constance from Spellbound and Eve Gill from Stage Fright had their boyfriends-accused-of-murder. Interestingly, Joan Fontaine, in both her roles for Hitchcock, had . . . nobody. Instead, she was in direct conflict with her husband until he finally came around to clearing the air about all her, well, suspicions. Despite all these variations, the purpose is always the same: criminal woes breed a successful romantic relationship; indeed, in all but one case, that is the outcome of each film, and the rest is Maguffin McGravy.

With Notorious, however, we have a different set-up: Alicia Huberman (Bergman) and Agent Devlin (Grant) are pretty much straight down the line equals in this film. Perhaps the focus falls more heavily on Alicia in the latter half, due to the nature of the plot. Maybe it’s the brilliance of both actors, coupled with the director’s love for both, but there is an equal weight of attractiveness, of dysfunction, of anger, of passion that makes it impossible to fit Grant into the slot inhabited by Madeleine Carroll or Eva Marie Saint, even though Saint will end up inhabiting something of both the Bergman and Grant roles from Notorious when she appears for Hitchcock in North by Northwest thirteen years later. 

Alicia and Devlin are similarly damaged by the clash between their patriotic and personal feelings. Alicia has endured a highly public disgrace when her beloved father is convicted of treason after helping the Nazi cause. While it is made clear from a recording held by the government that Alicia despised her father’s actions, she is torn apart by the way he is paraded before the public as his arrest and trial come and go. She has resorted to drink and sex to numb her feelings, and this is how we find her the night she gives a party and finds herself drawn to a handsome crasher, a government agent named Devlin. Although it is not spelled out, Devlin has perhaps been at his job too long. He has seen the human effect of the actions his agency has taken to preserve American freedom and safety, and in order to maintain his ability to work, he has made himself numb to feeling. (I have to say that after watching Grant one week apart, first in Suspicion and now here, I have a deeper respect for his ability to act, not just wield star power.) 

Guess who?

One of the things Hitchcock does when he’s fully on his game is to give his star(s) a wonderful entrance. Bergman bursts out of the courtroom where we’ve been peeping through a crack in the door to hear her father’s sentence passed, and her entrance gives the scene tension and life. But Grant’s first appearance is one of his best ever: at the party, his whole first extended shot is of the back of his head as Alicia takes note of him and begins to flirt. We don’t need to see his face! That exquisite outline is unmistakable. 

In those first moments, Grant is a charming mystery man, a calming presence to a drunken Alicia – and a lifesaver when she insists on taking him for a joy ride. (This is yet another foreshadowing of North by Northwest, only it will be Grant cascading drunkenly behind the wheel in that film.) Although the arrival of a motorcycle cop forces Devlin to reveal his identity to Alicia, his game with her is only beginning. Only by focusing on the damage wrought on Alicia’s psyche can Devlin get through the assignment of charming her into accompanying him to Rio de Janeiro in order to get her to assist him in some as yet unknown way. It helps that Alicia is an alcoholic, something Hitchcock captures brilliantly with his camera work, as when Alicia wakes up the morning after her ride and can’t seem to focus properly on the still-present Devlin.

Almost makes it worth the hangover . . .

While waiting for orders in Rio, Alicia and Devlin fall hard for each other. This marks one of Hitchcock’s most triumphant slides around the censors of his career since he felt it was imperative to show his audience that both these people were grown-ups, especially given what Alicia would soon be asked to do. Hitchcock stages the longest kiss of his career, lasting two and a half minutes. The challenge was that the censors literally timed all acts of romance to make sure none of them lasted long enough to kindle true passion. And so Hitchcock directed his two stars into a sort of kissing dance through Alicia’s apartment, out onto the balcony and back inside. There’s a sexual spark here more overt than almost anything you are bound to find in Hollywood films of that era. 

Unfortunately, passions are dashed after Devlin is called back to his office and learns the true nature of Alicia’s assignment. Horrified at what he must ask her to do,  he must now convince her to do it: look up an old friend of her father’s, loyal Nazi Alex Sebastian, now returned with his mother and Nazi retinue to Rio, and seduce the guy in order to find out in what unknown but undoubtedly bad-for-America business Alex’s crew is engaged. 

That business – the smuggling of uranium ore for nuclear purposes in bottles of wine – is the film’s Maguffin. The real business at hand is the personal havoc wreaked on both Alicia and Devlin as a result of their shared assignment. To this end, every motif and symbol known to Hitchcock comes into play. The concept of doubles, which we have examined before, is used here in multiple, complex ways. Alicia and Devlin are the most seriously antagonistic couple in Hitchcock. In fact, Devlin deliberately baits Alicia when he returns to her apartment in order to push her away from him and into Sebastian’s arms. The emotional stakes are high: Devlin must return Alicia to her earlier state of self-loathing in order to get her to embrace her assignment, and that, in turn, makes him angry at her – for accepting the assignment. He has trained her to be an effective spy, and now he is furious at her for being successful. 

Both Alicia and Devlin bring baggage with them, largely due to a horrific parent figure: Alicia’s traitorous father, and Devlin’s loathsome boss, Captain Prescott (Louis Calhern) who, with each assignment, has contributed to Devlin’s dehumanization. In this instance, doubles become triples, as Alex Sebastian is also under the thumb of a loathsome parent. Alex and Devlin are the most traditional Hitchcockian doubles in the film, two elegant, handsome men both in love with the same woman, separated only by their political allegiance. As so often happens in a Hitchcock film, Alex’s redeeming trait is that he truly loves Alicia and is ever courteous and protective, while her true love Devlin throws her to the wolves and snarls at her for staying there.

Triangle Interruptus: Louis Calhern gets between Grant and Bergman

The sign that Alicia and Devlin are maturing toward a true love relationship begins with another act of passion, this one a “fake” kiss in the wine cellar so that Alex will misconstrue their presence near the uranium-filled bottles as a romantic assignation. Unfortunately, Alex isn’t stupid and soon reasons out the truth. For a brief span, nobody is looking out for Alicia, leading to her near death by poison. Fortunately, Devlin allows his heart to open and to see the truth about Alicia’s predicament; the positions of the two men are thus reversed and their true colors revealed. In Hitchcock, a man under his mother’s thumb is never a good thing, and Alex’s throwing in his lot with his mother’s schemes is the worst thing he does. Meanwhile, Devlin essentially breaks from his “father” figure by pulling Alicia out of her assignment. (Fortunately for them both and for America, she has managed to get the information they need to end the Nazis’ plan.)

Both the American and the German sides are represented by a group of plotting men who gravitate around their leader. The group doubling here helps establish Hitchcock’s ambivalence regarding the efficacy of espionage. The men who work for Captain Prescott – on our side – are a bunch of louts who talk smack about Alicia as if they were horny frat boys and seem to have no care or consideration for the danger into which they have put her. Meanwhile, the Nazis holed up at the Sebastian home treat undercover Alicia with courtly respect. Even after she has given herself away to Alex and is slowly being poisoned, the Nazi medical man, Dr. Anderson, continually expresses concern over her health and offers to do whatever he can for her.  

One must also take note of the brilliant use Hitchcock makes here of a favorite icon of his: the staircase. This one curves gracefully in the center of Sebastian’s home, where every move up and down it generates suspense. In the first half of the film, upstairs is the only place where Alicia maintains some control, even managing to wrest the house keys from Alex’s mother – except for the all-important key to the wine cellar. This leads to a pure Hitchcock moment where we witness Alicia’s struggle to steal the key from her husband’s ring. We are left in suspense as to whether she has succeeded until the last moment, when we are treated to the ultimate in directorial brilliance: a bravura tracking shot that starts with the wide high angle view of a great party and travels down the stairs until the camera stops on a close-up of Alicia’s clutched hand holding the key. 

Triangle Horribilis: Alicia gets between mother and son

In our class, Elliot talked about some of the endings that had been proposed, including Mrs. Sebastian chasing down an escaping Alicia and Devlin until she is hit by their car and dies (ugh!) to having Alicia herself succumb to the poison, leaving Devlin bereft for life (dark!) Instead, we are given the grown-up romantic ending we deserve, with Devlin taking Alicia away from Alex, who is forced to pay the piper not for being a Nazi but for being an inept one. We don’t get to see Alicia in full recovery and have to hope for the best, but then Hitchcock always likes a swift resolution and sees no need to dot every “i.” But we have witnessed the crucial moment in the heroes’ relationship, where Devlin swoops in and declares his love for a dying Alicia. The scene in her bed is both suspenseful and swoon-worthy. Even though the situation is dire, they can’t keep their hands off each other. There is a moment where Devlin has to run around the room getting Alicia’s coat and a few necessities in preparation for their escape, and yet the camera rests throughout on Alicia, sitting up in the bed and gazing adoringly at her man. 

Alicia and Devlin are true Hitchcock heroes, cleansed by a trial of fire of their self-destructive tendencies. Devlin finds a purpose in living again, while Alicia burns through the fever of guilt and despair that has defined her since her father’s arrest. In Hitchcock, it takes the trauma of rooting out a nest of spies – or hanging by one’s thumbs on a national monument, or barely surviving an attack by birds – to transform into a person ready to embrace love at one’s core. This film is the moment where it all comes together for Hitchcock, and while it is unfortunate that the next few years will see him take a few steps backward, the final imprint has been set. The brilliance that will define Hitchcock in the 1950’s has been unveiled. 1951 is where we’ll start next week (with a fascinating detour back to ’48). You want doubles? You’ll get doubles in spades. What else could you expect from a double bill starring this guy . . . ???