Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Notorious (1946)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock


Director Alfred Hitchcock takes sizable steps professionally, creatively, and stylistically in his 1946 production Notorious. With this picture Hitchcock begins to play more with his use of the camera, and manifest even more themes he himself would become infamous for. He would push the envelope of the Production Code by skating around the rules. Most of all, this suspense picture would fulfill a contract Hitchcock found problematic in his career, but would happen to become one of his best pictures.

Notorious is a spy thriller about a US agent who hires an American born daughter of a Nazi spy to infiltrate a post WWII Nazi organization operating in South America. Following World War II the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), is recruited by government agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) to penetrate a secret Nazi ring functioning in Brazil. Along the way Alicia and Devlin begin a steamy romance until it is revealed that the Nazi leader Devlin wants Alicia to get close to is Alexander Sabastian (Claude Rains), an old family friend of Alicia’s who has had a romantic infatuation with her. Alicia and Devlin’s relationship sours as Alicia goes as far to marrying Alex to infiltrate his secret operation pointing to development of a Nazi atomic bomb. Alex leans of Alicia’s espionage connects and attempts poison her, but Devlin comes to her rescue, leaving Alex to face the inevitable punishment from his Nazi superiors for allowing their operation to be subverted.

Fresh of the recent end of World War II Notorious capitalizes on the fear of residual espionage from World War II enemies with a thriller that contains romance, mystery, and intrigue. With an original story inspired by dangers and conspiracies that were on the minds of post war audiences, this film shares suspense that was both timely and timeless, making it one of Hitchcock’s better features. Cinematically Hitchcock creatively begins to play with his camera a bit more, allowing it to move and travel, telling more information in single shots than before in a series of cuts. Furthermore, we begin to see the auteur push the boundaries of what were considered cinematic ethics at that time, creating one of the most passionate kissing scenes in American motion picture history.

The story of Notorious begins with Alfred Hitchcock wanting to produce a film about a woman using her allure for espionage, a modern Mata Hari story of sorts, with Nazi’s being the common enemy of the day. Initial pre-produced began under David O. Selznick, with whom Hitchcock was contractually obligated to produce one final picture under. As documented, Selznick and Hitchcock never saw eye-to-eye creatively and Selznick made development difficult for the famed British filmmaker. While presenting the story to the studio head, Selznick demanded rewrite after rewrite, disagreeing with plot various plot devices Hitchcock envisioned. Eventually Selznick financial difficulties with his western Duel in the Sun, influenced him to sell the rights of Notorious, Hitchcock’s attachment, and the use of its attached stars to RKO for $500,000. This freed Hitchcock of Selznick and allowed him to create the picture with his own vision.

The film stars Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in what was up to this point Hitchcock’s first attempt at a fully fleshed out romantic love story. Bergman during Hitchcock’s previous picture, Spellbound, quickly become the director’s favorite actress, having become infatuated with her beauty and acting ability. Grant was hired over the Selznick’s insistence for casting Joseph Cotton. Grant had become a favored actor of Hitchcock having worked with him back in 1941 in Suspicion. The two stars shared enormous chemistry on screen with can be culminated in the most controversial scene in the movie by censors.

Per the Production Code no on screen kiss could last more than three seconds. To share the deep romance desired by Hitchcock between Alicia and Devlin the kiss had to be longer, and to do this Grant and Bergman would kiss no longer than three seconds, pull away, nuzzle or perhaps say a little something then continue kissing. This would go on for two and a half minutes. By Production Code standards the kissing scene fit within the rules, but it would be one of the most passionate love scenes to that point. In contemporary terms, it may not seem all too controversial, but for 1946, two and half minutes of the stars kissing and nuzzling was far more passion than what was considered decent in some people’s eyes for movies.

Claude Rains is a perfect Hitchcockian villain. Rains, a veteran star in his own right, had the ability to play villainous and evil, as well as appealing and likable throughout his vast body of work.  Here as Alex he is charming and affectionate, but can be devilish and menacing when he must be. He is a na├»ve villain being taken advantage of by Alicia as he falls in love with her, but when he discovers her true intentions of their relationship, his performance marvelously turns. It is this type of villain Hitchcock loves to put in his features. Like Joseph Cotton in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) or Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960) Rains’ Alex is the villain you can like, then absolutely fear, only to see him pay for his actions in the end.

Echoing Hitchcock’s villain theme of having strong mother issues if Alex’s mother played by Leopoldine Konstantin, playing in her first and only American motion picture. Her performance captures to cold, evil side that Claude Rains’ character shares, channeling the villainous attributes, creating a sense of added dread as Alex attempts to secretly poison his own wife after discovering she is a spy.

Apart from Hitchcock handling his first serious love story and freeing himself from the oppressive Selznick, he begins to take more creativity with his camera to create shots that delivered a unique feeling to his films. In Notorious he would have Ingrid Bergman staged interestingly behind objects as she awakens to manifest her dishevelment, even portraying a slanted angle of Cary Grant to manifest what it would have been her view looking up at his character at that moment. This feature was also known for a shot in a lavish party scene which opens on an overhead establishing shot and continues as the camera turns and cranes, focusing on Alicia before settling on a close-up of her hand clinching a key to a secret room in Alex’s house, a major plot point in the picture. This shows how beautifully mindful Hitchcock was as a filmmaker as he began to plot more complex shots to share a great deal of information in a rather short amount of time in such a singular and seamlessly beautiful take. He was easily one of, if not the best directors of the day and shots like this continue to display his growth as a filmmaker beyond a point-and-shoot director.

Notorious would release to great reviews and become one of the highest grossing pictures of the year, half of the profits going to Selznick as part of his agreement with RKO. Alfred Hitchcock was further flourishing as a director, concluding his run for Selznick that was highly profitable, but frustrating for Hitchcock as an auteur. Notorious would in time be considered one his best works and its script seen as one of the finest of its day, studied by many for its structure. Apart from the film’s nomination for Best Original Screenplay, Claude Rains was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Decades later the Library of Congress would preserve Notorious in the National Film Registry. Despite Hitchcock having a great body of work in his past, this picture proves to be a great turning point for the filmmaker as he continued respect, freedom from his Selznick contract, and a new sense of creative control he yearned  for that was proving to be even more successful with each passing picture.

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