I’ve had nothing but difficulty in trying to come up with something to say about Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 melodramatic spy romance Notorious that’s worth saying. It’s one of those movies where I know enough to know I don’t know enough to feel confident in what I know that I know. What I know is that I need to write something and move on.
Ingrid Bergman plays Alicia, the daughter of a Nazi conspirator, who’s recruited by Cary Grant’s government espionage agent character Devlin into going undercover to gather intelligence on Nazis in Brazil. The conflict between Alicia and Devlin’s mission and their budding romance is the major source of dramatic tension in Notorious. It’s probably a masterpiece but I’m too dim to fully express its perfections. I whole heartedly recommend listening to Marian Keane’s freudian commentary on the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray release. Her brilliant and cogent analysis of the film says everything I wish I could say but aren’t skilled enough to observe.
At first glance Notorious seems like another spy drama padding Hitchcock’s impressive body of work but it’s more complex than that. In his other spy stories like The 39 Steps and Saboteur, the energy comes from the thrill of the chase. In those films the audience is baited on the hook of ‘Will they escape?’ or ‘Will he get caught?’ and those questions linger till the climax. Notorious follows the same conventions of suspense set to a nail-biting slow-burn. Violence in spy movies is almost passé but not a single gun’s fired in Notorious and yet it’s more thrilling than The Expendables. We’re still concerned about the characters and their peril but it’s not because they’re in exciting action packed gunfights or hanging from the Statue of Liberty, it’s because we’re worried that if their schemes are discovered they’ll be executed on the spot. The drama comes from the love story but the tension comes from wondering what would happen if Alicia’s duplicity were discovered.
Hitchcock doesn’t over use his fancy camera work in Notorious, reserving them for moments when they’ll have the most effect. For example, the famous shot in Young & Innocent where the camera starts a wide pans across a large room before pushing into an extreme closeup of a percussionist’s face was impressive but it seemed more like a trial run for an extremely similar shot in Notorious. The shot felt more motivated, more justified in Notorious. Likewise Hitchcock uses special effects and POV angles to suggest a not altogether lucid perspective. These are the choices of a craftsman not a gun for hire.
I’m questing to develop a complete picture of Hitchcock as a filmmaker by watching his films in as close to release order as I can. It isn’t a perfect system. I would’ve preferred to watch Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Rebecca and especially Suspicion before Notorious but that didn’t happen. It’s difficult to be decisive at this point in the experiment because while I felt like he did his best work so far in 1942’s Saboteur I also felt like 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt was a no doubt dud and then somehow his abilities are rescued by Lifeboat in 1944. He’s a visual genius, that I’ll never deny, but I wonder if his best work is often over attributed to him as an sole creative force. Both Notorious and Lifeboat are fascinating and incredible films but they’re both propped up by strong writers (Ben Hecht’s CV is like a who’s who of uncredited glory and John Steinbeck’s work is foundational American literature) and brought to life by the nuanced performances of world class actors. Is this a lesson in appreciating the achievement of a group over the figurehead? Does Hitchcock deserve to be singled out as a cinematic messiah? I hope to find out. The suspense is killing me.