Op-ed: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions – ‘Notorious’ (#86)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judge whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre, I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
Alfred Hitchcock is undoubtedly one of the greatest directors of all time as his influence is undeniable and it is hard not to admire the technical trickery that he employed to build up suspense and tension in the many classics he directed. I am often dazzled by the camerawork he employs and the imagery he produces is unforgettable and yet I often have reservations when it comes to his work. I tend to like films that are character-driven and I usually need to be invested in characters and their emotions in order to get fully swept up in its story. Hitchcock is a director who often prioritizes the plot and scenes in which he can show off his directorial abilities in a flashy manner over scenes that focus on dialogue, developing the characters or their relationships. Sometimes you can feel his boredom in scenes that deal with two people talking and it feels like he is trying to hurry through these scenes as quickly as possible so he can get to another tense scene in which somebody has to escape from a small room with a valuable object hidden in their hand. I am often frustrated by the fact that I end up admiring Hitchcock’s work more than I love it because I struggle to care about anything that happens in his films. Yes, there is impressive camerawork and masterfully staged scenes but when I don’t actually care about the people who are impacted by all of the tension it is hard to see the tension itself as something that is important.
This was not true when it came to some of his work as I am a great admirer of Shadow of a Doubt (1943), in which Joseph Cotten is allowed to bring depth and emotion to the murderous psychopath he plays. I also wouldn’t deny that Hitchcock wants to explore complex themes in his films as we all know that he loves to humiliate icy blondes, create discomfort in audiences by making them consider the ways in which they respond to violence, and likes portraying overbearing matriarchs on-screen who cow their weak and troubled sons. At the same time, I think the characters often turn into symbols rather than fully formed human beings and occasionally they feel a little one-dimensional as he tries to hit on a certain point without any subtlety. He famously compared actors to cattle and those who worked closely with him noted the fact that he liked to place actors in the frame as though they were objects to be admired and not living, breathing human beings who could be collaborated with. This comes across in his films as there were times when he brought out the worst in actors and they seemed wooden and stiff while also allowing for big, scenery-chewing turns that could have been reined in by a director who cared about acting more. All of these complaints do not apply to his entire filmography and he made several films that don’t have the flaws that I have spoken about but when it comes to Notorious I felt like I had to establish my issues with it right off the bat.
The film concerns Alicia Huberman, Ingrid Bergman, who is an American patriot who happens to be the child of a Nazi war criminal. American spy Devlin, Cary Grant, convinces her to seduce her father’s friend Alexander Sebastian, Claude Rains. She ends up marrying Sebastian which makes Devlin jealous as they were once lovers. When Sebastian realizes that she is a spy he begins poisoning her and she comes close to dying but Devlin rescues her and they are able to live together freely.
It feels like Hitchcock was an auteur when it came to this project as his fingerprints are all over it. He does seem obsessed with getting the plot to move forward at a breakneck pace here and you can almost feel him squealing with joy when he finally gets to stage scenes in which Bergman clutches at a key while Rains confronts her. All of his attention is turned towards the big set-piece scenes and while they are exceptionally well shot I couldn’t help but feel like they could have been even more powerful if he had put just as much effort into the other scenes. He sets the mechanics of the plot in motion in a remarkably small amount of time but we don’t get to know the characters and when they get involved in espionage and criminal activities they do just feel like chess pieces on Hitchcock’s board. Some people can tolerate this and will point to all of the technical virtues of the picture to support the idea that it is a flawless masterpiece but I wanted to care more and for a variety of reasons I couldn’t.
I suppose it all comes back to the infamous Bergman who continues to leave me cold. This is the second all-time classic of hers that I have reviewed and yet again I hoped that I would see the star quality that everybody else talks about. She plays a sexy, lovable, vulnerable, and brave woman in this film who enchants every man who meets her. This is the sort of role that asks for somebody with that intangible je ne sais quoi that makes everybody around them gaze at them with a certain fascination and awe. In the opening scenes, she has to go from being sad after learning that her father has been convicted of several crimes to trying to drink her problems away to trying to seduce a random man to being filled with patriotic pride. All of this has to happen in about twenty minutes and Bergman has to represent all of these emotions in scenes that are about four minutes long as well as sharing the screen with Grant for half of them. Hitchcock was asking a lot of her here and the script certainly doesn’t help her as she only gets to offer broad outlines of how she is feeling through dialogue.
I can’t say that she captured my interest during these opening scenes as I just couldn’t believe the dramatic shifts in character that she seems to go through. We find out that she has a promiscuous past and feels some self-hatred because of this but she doesn’t have much time to explore that idea. We see her getting drunk, driving poorly, and awkwardly asking a man to serve as her one night stand, in a way that wouldn’t offend censors, but I didn’t feel like we were getting a lot of introspection. It seems like she only has this dark past so the rather improbable plot makes sense and in the span of a few minutes, we get to see Grant guilting her into serving as a spy. All of these elements are meant to neatly click into place so the plot can finally get underway but during this time we are also meant to understand the fact that she is damaged and already has romantic feelings for Grant. In terms of her having a dark past, we don’t get to learn all that much, for obvious reasons, but I also felt like Bergman wasn’t getting across much inner turmoil or deep concern with her facial expressions. She likes to fall back on that impish grin that is meant to make her look cute before pursing her lips, furrowing her brow, and sucking in her cheeks so she can look like the sort of strict schoolmarm that Catholic audiences of the era could embrace. She can’t be too sexy because conservatives who loved her as a nun in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) would be outraged but she also has to be fairly saucy to make us believe that two men would be drawn into relationships with her after knowing her for all of five minutes.
We don’t really see when Grant and Bergman fall in love or in lust and become close enough that they are kissing and presumably getting intimate. It was an odd choice on Hitchcock’s part to not give us the moment in which the music soars, Bergman’s eyes go all soft and Grant starts to call her baby. I suppose he is trying to imply that this is not an affair that is driven by love but these two people have simply fallen into this relationship because of the circumstances they are in. That was my charitable interpretation of his decision not to show us how this relationship started as I think that he probably just wanted to cut down the amount of time that Bergman and Grant had to spend in that car. We are meant to think that this is a grand love affair in which these two have genuine feelings for one another even though they both feel like they can’t trust one another. Grant is meant to be completely enraptured by her even though she has spent a significant portion of her life seducing men she presumably did not care about and she is meant to want to give up everything she has just to be with him.
23 minutes in we get the most famous scene in the entire film as the two of them stay at a hotel together and kiss for three minutes on the verandah. We are hit with the fact that they are romantically involved and have been kissing like this for quite a long time as they both seem very comfortable doing it. This is the ultimate romantic fantasy for a lot of people as you have two famous movie stars staying at a luxurious hotel on a beach in Rio de Janeiro and they are able to kiss without becoming bored with one another. Hitchcock famously got around the three-second kiss rule that the Production Code administrators had put in place by having Bergman and Grant break apart for a few seconds in between kisses. They still nuzzle each other’s faces and remain intimate as well as discussing their feelings for one another and talking about what they will have for dinner. I admired the way this scene was handled as you feel like you are just watching a slice of life and Hitchcock finds a way to combine the mundane, ordering dinner, with the fantasy, kissing forever. It must have been hellish to get this scene filmed as the two actors had to remember all of the intricate steps in this lengthy kiss and the cameramen had to find a way to track Grant as he moved across the room while still allowing the audience to be aware of where Bergman stands in relation to him. This was one of many times when I wish that the work had been done to make me care about this couple as I could have swooned during this scene if I had seen why these two were kissing. Because I didn’t believe in either Bergman or Grant as the characters they were playing I didn’t care about them.
The most common defense that I have heard of the remarkably quick period in which Bergman and Grant fall in love is that she is so beguiling that they can’t help but be together. Because I don’t love Bergman the way that some people do I don’t think that I could relate to the feeling of falling in love with her at first sight. I take issue with the first romance in the film but I think her second seduction is even more problematic. We find out that she knew Rains as a little girl when he was her father’s friend and he has lusted for her from afar for years but I still found it hard to believe that he would marry her based on what we see. They reunite when she chases after him on a horse and after a few dates, he decides to propose to her after seeing her talking to another man. He is set up as a cunning villain who is clever enough to outwit our heroes and yet he is putty in Bergman’s hands. We don’t get to see her being a brilliant spy and manipulating him into falling in love with her. Instead of getting to see that we just have to watch a flustered Bergman accepting all of Rains’s declarations of love and his eventual marriage proposal.
It seems like Hitchcock wants us to believe that Rains is into her simply because of what we learn about their shared past but there wasn’t a hint of lust or love in Rains’s eyes. Their marriage feels like yet another convenient plot function that gives Bergman access to his house and his resources. This was not the romance we were meant to care about so maybe we can give the film a pass for not investing as much time in developing this relationship but the love triangle would be more dramatically effective if we could see why both of these men love her. As it was, I didn’t see why either of them loved her. This was my big issue with it as a romance and that’s why I don’t think it should have been placed on a list of great love stories. You could put it on a list of great suspense thrillers but as a romance, it doesn’t work and it feels like people voted for this simply because of the people who were involved. Hitchcock, Grant, and Bergman are all big names, and even those dummies who haven’t seen their films know that they are all highly regarded. I do suspect that the people who voted for this list had not actually seen most of the nominated films and simply wrote down the titles they had heard of. They didn’t consider the fact that some of the nominees weren’t necessarily love stories and they couldn’t exactly evaluate the quality of their selections because they hadn’t actually seen the films. This led to some strange choices and the inclusion of Notorious is rather baffling.
As much as I praised the visuals in Notorious I do think that Hitchcock often composes ugly shots here and there are times when Bergman is made to look bovine. Edith Head was usually a master when it came to designing gowns that would flatter the starlets who wore them. Just think of Audrey Hepburn wearing that white ballgown with the blue embroidery in Sabrina (1954). She made Hepburn look adorable and the hair and makeup team was able to style Hepburn in a way that would draw attention to her best features. Poor Bergman is stuck wearing a bizarre black dress that does nothing to highlight her thin waist. It just sort of hangs on her and makes her look like she is one of the members of the mysterious sex cult in Eyes Wide Shut (1999). The sleeves are puffy so her arms look heavy and the pleated skirt gives it the feeling of a school uniform instead of seeming chic. The gold band that hangs around her waist only makes it worse as it appears gauche and clashes with everything else going on in her ensemble. Surely Head could have scrapped this design as soon as she started thinking about it as it does not suit the sophisticated object of affection at the center of the story. I could see one of Hitchcock’s villainous mothers wearing this sort of unflattering outfit but I don’t who decided to inflict this punishment on the leading lady.
It feels like Hitchcock got lazy in general when it came to Bergman’s appearance. Usually, you feel like he spent hours arranging the hairs on an actress’s head and get the sense that he looked through all of the costumes he wore but that sense of specificity is lacking here. If this was meant to be a sleek romantic fantasy then you would think that the characters were wearing the sort of outfits that you would only see in Vogue and they would always look like they were preparing to appear in a photoshoot. Nothing should be out of place and we should admire the enviable perfection of the people we are looking at. You don’t get that feeling in Notorious as Bergman often verges on looking scruffy and when she is meant to be looking glamorous she is sporting a hairstyle that makes you feel mild disgust. When she first meets Grant she is wearing a tacky animal print shirt that is loosely tucked into a chunky belt and her hair resembles cauliflower. It is all rather disconcerting and it would feel more at home in an independent production rather than a high budget thriller that is supposed to double as wealth porn.
At this point, I must also admit that Grant is not one of my favorite leading men. I don’t really have a problem with him and when he shows up in a film I usually think he’s just fine but I’m also not excited by him and I do not fantasize about being with him. I am not attracted to him and I don’t see why he is viewed as the greatest guy in the world by a whole generation of women. Perhaps he just hasn’t aged well and his appeal was related to a variety of social mores that existed at the time. As a romantic partner, he always seemed a bit stiff to me and when I am being romanced by a man I don’t like to feel like he has studied seduction techniques while he is gazing into my eyes and playing with my hair. I always get that feeling with Grant and other than the fact that I am not physically attracted to him that is what turns me off. He also has a particularly unpleasant look that he pulls out regularly. If you have ever seen the poster for That Touch of Mink (1962) you will understand what I am saying as he often looks like he has a piece of blue cheese under his nose and he jams his lips together and flares his nostrils to indicate the fact that something smells bad. Is there anything more anxiety-inducing than feeling like your date doesn’t like the way you smell? I think not. Having said all that, I do think that he’s perfectly adequate in something like The Philadelphia Story (1940) and he doesn’t rub me the wrong way in the same way that Spencer Tracy does.
Grant plays a difficult man in this film but I don’t feel like he gets the opportunity to fully delve into Devlin’s inner life. As explained before, we never figure out why he is in love with Bergman and why he continues to chase after her even when she marries another man. He is meant to be tortured and we are supposed to sense that he distrusts all women even though he easily falls for Bergman’s charms and begins sleeping with her. He puts his job first but he finally realizes that he loves her so much that he will put himself in danger to save her. All of this happens so quickly that it is hard to keep track of what is going with his mental state. Grant is almost reduced to a Kuleshovian style of acting as he adopts a blank facial expression and waits for other people to tell him how feels. Maybe he was challenging himself with this role and he is often identified as the quintessential Hitchcock leading man but in this and Suspicion (1941) it feels like he doesn’t know what to do.
Now I find myself talking about the things that I did appreciate about Notorious and I do have to admit that I was amazed by Hitchcock’s skill at certain points. He finds a way to slowly but surely crank up the tension so the play of shadows against a wood paneled door will have you holding your breath. This isn’t something that is inherently scary and he doesn’t feel the need to have Rains making scary gestures as he putters around in the next room. If he had been performing Nazi salutes the scene would have drifted into mediocrity as it would have felt like a typical Nazisploitation film from this era that pretends to be educating its audience about the evils of Nazism while delighting in how dangerous and controversial it is. The fact that Rains’s movements are so innocuous makes the moment all the more terrifying. He moves around in the next room as Bergman tries to steal a key that will allow her to get into a room that houses items that she needs to investigate as part of her job. The editors try to make this scene move at a rollicking pacing so that we can feel as rushed and disoriented as Bergman does. She clutches at the key for half a second and then gazes at the door before finding herself flipping through the keys again. More emphasis is placed on Rains’s shadows than the task at hand and this feels like a deliberate decision as it mirrors Bergman’s viewpoint. She needs to take precautions in order to avoid being caught so she wastes time checking whether Rains will come close to catching her so that she can quickly put the key back in place if he catches her. You do feel stress during this scene as she finally wiggles the key off of its chain and hides it inside her clenched fist.
This was just one of many exquisitely orchestrated scenes of suspense and Hitchcock also had a talent for organizing large groups of people as the big parties that are held at Rains’s mansion feature crowds of extras. Instead of standing around in small clusters that have clearly been organized, they are artfully spread out and they all seem to move fairly naturally. We don’t get the obligatory close-up shots that marked a lot of 1980s biopics and the extras don’t get to engage in mugging but the people turn this way and that in time with what Bergman and Rains do. One shot begins with a woman dressed in a black and white dress walking down a staircase and everybody in the room turns to look at her except for Bergman and Rains. They are in their own world and for once Hitchcock seems to be focused on the strain that her lying has put on their marriage. We start to think about what they are talking about and wonder why they aren’t engaging with the people around them. They are a wealthy couple who presumably move in the right social circles and yet Bergman isn’t walking around the room and regaling everybody with funny stories while Rains looks on proudly. Hitchcock illustrates their isolation here and it is hard not to marvel at the dazzling skill on display.
I also appreciated the fact that this doesn’t devolve into being a simple travelogue even though it is set in an exotic location. You get an establishing shot of Rio de Janeiro in which you admire the clear waters and the urban sprawl but Hitchcock is able to weave locations into scenes in which things actually happen. In the 1950s so many films featured five-minute-long montages in which audiences were bombarded with shots of landmarks in a certain city that had no relation to what was happening in the film’s plot and this can be frustrating when you watch them today. At the time audience members were delighted by this and it wasn’t easy to travel to these locations and buying Life magazine was expensive. Today you can easily look up images of these landmarks so you don’t feel the need to stare at them from different angles for a long period of time. Notorious doesn’t fall prey to this annoying trend and while this may have been because they didn’t shoot on location they still could have taken enough rear projection shots to put together one of those unbearable montages.