monday, october 06, 2008

Notorious

No matter how much you prepare yourself for Hitchcock at his best, you simply are not ready for the power of his skill as a director. For year's I had intended to see his 1946 masterpiece Notorious but never did for one reason or another. Finally, at the incessant urgings of a cinephile whose opinion I value quite highly, I ponied up for the (sadly out of print) Criterion re-release.

And, of course, was completely blown away.

If it's not the best movie I've ever seen, it's certainly in the top five. It's taught but effortless, charismatic but disturbing and probably the best example of Hitchcock's sometimes flitting humanity - a glorious element of his earlier work that sadly became overshadowed by his cynicism in his later films.

As one might suspect for a tale involving Nazi's plotting revenge from a safe haven in Brazil, Notorious teems with intrigue, plots and suspense but it transcends all of it to tell one of the post powerful love stories ever committed to celluloid. It is a tale of a fallen woman seeking redemption for the excesses of her past and a man unable to believe she has been able to change.

Every scene is perfectly placed, every line drips with layered meaning and Hitchcock pulls out all the tricks of his trade he has at his disposal and uses them to the complete perfection.

Still, as technically brilliantly constructed as the film is, Notorious would collapse as an almost academic exercise if there wasn't a vibrant humanizing element to hold it together. Watching the film can be an emotionally devastating experience and that's a direct result of the raw charisma and chemistry of its stars.

At the time Notorious was made, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman were the leading stars of their era. While their work here is often overshadowed by other more famous films, t at their luminous best and neither ever seemed so completely in command of their powers as actors. Hitchcock, though, knows how to use the powerful charisma of his leads.

Grant is as suave as he is compelling but there is always something dangerously in reserve to him - the lynchpin of his character here, the American agent T.R. Devlin. The distance he keeps from the audience is similar to the distance he keeps from Bergman's Alicia Huberman. It's a performance that resonates due to the similarity.

Still, you give him the benefit of the doubt. As William Rothman writes in his essay for the Criterion release: "Because he is Cary Grant, though, we do not doubt that he has the spiritual depth and strength of character requisite for the romantic hero."

But more important for the success of the tale is Bergman's sheer star power. Her beauty and compelling demeanor will buy you her sympathy from the start even while her character struggles to attain it from those around her.

No matter how notorious she is to those around her, she is untainted in the eyes of the viewers. And Hitchcock produces torrent of suggestions concerning her gallivanting past and reputation - she's had a drunk driving conviction, she's known as "good as making friends with gentlemen" and lets not forget the whole affair involving her father.

While Notorious begins in Miami its primary action occurs in Rio de Janeiro - beneath the gaze of Christ the Redeemer. Alicia is seeking redemption for her past and prove herself worthy of love but, to do so, she has to seek the affections of yet another man and force the man who does love her further away.

Still, it is her paramour who has to undergo the change of heart and alter his way of thinking. So, oddly, as much as the film focuses on Alicia, it's really about Devlin's inability to have faith in the woman he has fallen in love with.

He feels compelled to test her fidelity by forcing her into a relationship with another man as a means to earn his faith. He is the one spurs her horse and sends her into the arms of her former admirer Sebastian (played pitch perfect by the phenomenal Claude Rains). Then he claims to cede the field and leave the decision completely up to her - but, really, all he's done is create a situation she cannot win.

As famous as Hitchcock was for saturating his film with oedipal themes Notorious is interesting due to the fact there's a strong Electra complex rippling it as well.

Certainly Sebastian's mother dominates the actions of her son with a disturbing sexual threat (their most meaningful exchanges happen in her bedroom) but there is also a clear association between Alicia's father and her future paramour.

The two are introduced exactly the same way - from the back - and her incessant searching for sexual gratification in other men is attributed in her unhappiness from her relationship with her father. Ironically, she falls into the same trap due to the weakness in the man she has chosen for her affections.

When Devlin brings her the news of her father's death it's more than a moment of reflection, it allows a deep shift in her own understanding of who she is.

"I don't have to hate him anymore, or myself" she says but Devlin seems to miss the import of the moment, an oversight he will spend the rest of the film regretting. Because it is at that moment she has the ability to be her own person and, finally, give herself to someone wholly and truly. And he doesn't see it therefore he cannot believe it.

The trick is that the person she chooses doesn't have the trust in her she has for him. Her reputation weighs too heavily on him and then there is the tragic paradox of their situation.

"I'm practically on the wagon, that's quite a change," she insists.

"It's a phase," he responds, clearly unbelieving or unable to let himself believe. And then proceeds to badger her until she orders another - a double.

Devlin's disbelief in Alicia's ability to change is tied up in his own distrust of himself. She drinks to cover her own discontent, he is discontent due to his own sober nature.

With the romance of the film firmly in hand, Hitchcock then takes to the inner workings of his films with a zeal rarely matched in his entire oeuvre. If the romance of Alicia and Devlin is at the surface of Notorious there are also rich depths of symbolism and imagery that surge with meaning below.

While many directors can successfully use a consistent system of a single symbol or two to bolster the impact of their works, few could juggle an array of diverse symbols with the grace and skill of Hitchcock. And Notorious is an example of the master at the top of his game. From start to finish the films is filled with cups and keys, doors and locks, bottles and fluids - a constant tableau of images and seemingly innocuous elements laden with import.

The most obvious symbolism has to do with keys and, most notably, the UNICA key that is the lynchpin of the plot (although, interestingly, not the MacGuffin of the film). It clearly suggests phallic significance but it carries so much more importance than that. It's very like Hitchcock to look beyond the symbol and give a sense of the meaning. Too often we react to the phallic symbol for itself and forget what it signifies at a deeper level.

For example it's first introduced by suggestion - through the discovery of the UNICA lock which it will open. Alicia pits her new husband in a battle for control over the household by asserting her rights for the keys of the household. Sebastian's squared jaw after the confrontation suggests it was a concession not given willingly at all.

Alicia ritually goes through each lock until encountering the UNICA lock that leads to the cellar - a passage to the id and the murky dark domain of the powerful impulses of sexual impulse. The lock seems to suggest chastity or at least control - the ability to restrict ones access to the sexual nature. Now married, Sebastian controls her sexual favors and his possession of the UNICA key is evidence of it.

Yet the importance of the lock and corresponding has already been prefaced by a layering of doors left ajar and closed. It's one of the most subtle symbols of female sexuality but it's also fantastically powerful as well. Alicia's willingness to let men enter her life and - by extension - her own body is suggested by the portals she leaves open and the men she allows to walk through them.

(It's interesting that the first doorway the viewer is presented is into the court where her father is.)

The scene where she takes the UNICA key from her husband is filled with doors halfway ajar or open. And Sebastian talks about his competing paramour as Alicia sets her face and steals the all-important key.

Hitchcock then presents the viewer with the vertigo-inducing shot of the party that swoops down in a dizzying manner to reveal the key in Alicia's hand. She has chosen to take the key of her husband and willingly present it to her paramour, Devlin. An act that will be the crux of the plot but also embody the dangerous sexual tension that underlies the entire film.

But then, after the illicit meeting of Alicia and Devlin is revealed to Sebastian his real horror begins when he discovers the loss of the key - completing his transformation to a cuckhold. The final proof of the betrayal is even less subtle - the remnants of fluids left after the covert congress between his wife and her lover.

Again, this is a fantastically powerful image that Hitchcock has carefully laid in place for the viewer throughout the film. Drinks and the exchange of fluids between intimates is present from the earliest scenes. The idea of vitality as well as the exchange of viscera as part of the sexual act is part and parcel of Hitchcock's tableau in Notorious.

There is a confluence of sacred and the profane in the idea of body fluids. For good reason. The fluids of our bodies - blood, semen and saliva - are the crux of our most intimate connections an subject to our most binding taboos.

While the meanings may change dramatically depending on context, all have undeniable profound psychological meanings. From the sensual thrill of the kiss to the sacred congress of conception it's an element of sexuality at once sensual and repulsive.

Hitchcock criss-crosses his plot with the images and acts of liquids. Alicia's first appearance is stoically leaving the sentencing of her father but her first lines come in the next scene as she - clearly tipsy - is serving drinks in her bungalow for a group of friends.

"The important drinking hasn't started yet," she notes and that certainly is the case.

She offers him a drink. She offers everyone a drink. He accepts and, a moment later, she shoos everyone from the party and then they share a drink from the same glass. The suggestion isn't subtle but the symbolism certainly is.

And if you missed the point the struggle in the car at the end of the evening bristles with the sexual suggestion the hints earlier let lie fallow.

The next day she has overimbibed and faces the toll of that indulgence. Devlin now offers her a drink to help her recovery. Within the space of minutes Hitchcock has given the viewer a symbolic blueprint of the film that will come. It's not a matter of tipping his hand as a storyteller, it's another delicious way of whetting the anticipation.

These are drinks - fluids - freely exchanged that anticipate the relationship between the two despite the societal disapproval the two will face due to their pasts. Later, when Alicia weds and garners societal approval, the drinks/fluids are laden with menace and the possibility of death. It's the grimmest of ironies and a classically Hitchcockian paradox.

Interestingly, Hitchcock gives the film a more subtle counter symbol with a constant movement from inside to outside that frames the emotional states of the characters. Alicia, cramped in her bungalow aches to be outside and escape the stuffiness with Devlin. In Rio she revels in the sea air on the balcony but then flees inside to a bottle when he spurns her.

It's a counter symbol to drinking and the suggestions intimacy and taboos it's becomes laden with in the film. Breathing and being free are an antidote to the excesses of imbibing.

"Take some deep breaths," Devlin tells her as he carries her from the sway of the poisoned drinks and the lair of her husband.

The payoff of all this is the final scene when Devlin carries Alicia out the doors of her husband's house to her lover's waiting car. When Sebastian appeals to be admitted into the car his action of locking the door is more than simply auditing him to his fate - it is a statement of possession. Devlin, by accepting his true feelings for Alicia, now possess her with a finality that Sebastian's UNICA lock was unable.

One of the most underrated skills of Hitchcock as a director is what he leaves unsaid and unshown. Notorious boasts one of the most frustratingly beautiful incomplete endings in film but the surety of the way the story has unfolded before leaves the viewer with complete confidence in the conclusion.

In lesser films in the hands of lesser directors these are simply holes or gaps but the sure-handedness of Hitchcock imbues these spaces with their own meaning. Having delivered on promises in the plot and character development up to that point, there is no unease at the assumptions the outcome of the film requires. The dramatic peak and the emotional resolution are the heart of the story and that he delivers in spades.

Devlin's simple action of pressing down the lock with his finger becomes a resounding crescendo to not the action of the scene but for the film itself.

more:  Movies 

posted by kleph @ 7:00 am |

comment posted by: Holly on october 6, 2008 @ 5:41 pm
You said it right.
 
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