Categories
Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir Romance

Notorious


Nazis in hiding! Smuggled uranium! Espionage! All minor distractions from the central tantalizing mystery that keeps the audience in delicious suspense: Does Cary Grant’s character really love Ingrid Bergman’s or not? It’s all there in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 classic Notorious.

The plot: Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman, in one of her career-defining roles) is the alluring daughter of a Nazi sympathizer. She has a notorious reputation as a drinker, party-goer, and sexual libertine. After the war ends, her father is convicted of aiding the Nazis. At a party where she deep in her cups and flirting with all the men, she meets a handsome, mysterious secret agent who is appropriately named Devlin (Cary Grant, just perfect…again). Devlin eventually persuades Alicia to go investigate Nazis who are now hiding out in South America. Does she agree out of patriotism, guilt over her father’s crimes or growing love of Devlin? He seems at times to love her back, by why then does he seem not to care when her assignment requires her to bed and wed an old friend of her father’s (Claude Rains)? The mystery of the Nazi plot and the maddening complexities of Devlin and Alicia’s relationship become intertwined as the thrilling story unfolds.

This movie vividly demonstrates how the presence of stars can shape how audiences react to characters. Without Bergman’s high-wattage stardom, audiences might have viewed Alicia as a pathetic, boozy, scrubber. Without Grant’s fame and on screen magnetism, audiences might have viewed Devlin as a cold, calculating bastard (Indeed, if Claude Rains weren’t a Nazi, the audience might have rooted for him to get the girl — after all, at least he loves her unreservedly). The instinctive liking the audience had for the stars allows the two film icons to develop multi-layered characters rather than having them rejected out of hand. Quite simply, Bergman and Grant tear up the screen here and they get tremendous support from Rains and from Leopoldine Konstantin as a memorably terrifying mother (even by Hitchcockian standards!).

Notorious (1946, Alfred Hitchcock) | Slices of Cake

In the eyes of many film buffs, Notorious is the pivotal film in Hitchcock’s career, and not just because he famously managed to make Grant and Bergman’s Production Code-allowed three second kiss last for several minutes. When David O. Selznick sold the film to RKO to deal with a money crunch, Hitchcock finally didn’t have to choose between a big budget and production control. From this film onward through the rest of his U.S. career, he was able to be producer-director of marquee projects with A-list stars. Notorious also showcased The Master’s maturing ability to handle grown-up romantic story lines. There were love stories in his earlier films (for example The 39 Steps which I recommended here) but they were generally frothy and light-hearted. The love triangle in Notorious — scripted by the brilliant and prolific Ben Hecht — has much more psychic weight, adding a new dimension to Hitchcock’s work to accompany his already matchless ability to keep an audience on the edge of their seats. Last but not least, Hitch’s visual style, already impressive, took a major leap forward with this film: It’s enthralling to look at and comprises some of his most memorable images.

There’s only one Hitch, and Notorious is among his best works. Do not miss this classic romantic thriller!

p.s. Watch VERY carefully as Cary Grant ascends the stairs to Bergman’s room and compare what you see to the nerve-wracking conclusion as he and Bergman descend the same staircase. Why are there more steps on the staircase in the latter? Because Hitchcock knew how to string out excruciating tension.

Categories
Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir

Where the Sidewalk Ends

In 1944, Andrews and his frequent co-star Gene Tierney, Director/Producer Otto Preminger and Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle made Laura, a classic film of high society longing, love and murder. Take that same foursome, move the story setting down significantly in economic strata and add a dose of brutality and you have 1950’s Where the Sidewalk Ends.

The story, as conveyed through one of Ben Hecht’s many outstanding scripts, centers on Police Detective Mark Dixon (Andrews). Dixon’s hatred of gangsters is legendary, and leads him to relentlessly un-Miranda-type behavior toward thugs. He has a particular grudge against mob boss Tommy Scalise (an oleaginous Gary Merrill), for reasons that are revealed during the film. While investigating a murder in which Scalise is involved, Dixon loses his temper one time too many, resulting in a tragic death which he tries to cover up. He hopes to frame Scalise, but suspicion instead falls on an innocent man (sweetly played by Tom Tully) whose dishy daughter (Tierney) turns Dixon’s head. The dark story twists like a knife from there, up to and including the very last scene.

The film has some superb noir cinematography, with the standout shot being a long, fixed point take of a car with Dixon and some mobsters in it approaching and entering a car elevator (in which LaShelle cannily placed the camera) and then rising up off the screen as the men in the car eye each other suspiciously. There are also a number of arresting shots that draw the viewers’ attention to two distinct points on the screen. My favorite is when Andrews is about to tell Tierney the truth but then turns toward the viewer, his face partly shaded. She then talks over his shoulder at the camera, as his face is transfixed with shame and doubt. Preminger set up many scenes this way in his career, challenging the viewer to track both external action and internal reactions in the same shots.

Who gets the credit for these effective framings and the movie’s overall cool look? I have written about how some directors are more controlling than others of the camerawork. Preminger was a legendary martinet on the set, so one can presume at least some of the photography set ups were his idea. On the other hand, LaShelle was an excellent cinematographer not just in the half dozen films he made with Preminger but also without him: He was nominated for an Oscar nine times! So credit both of them for an effective collaboration, especially LaShelle because Preminger could be such a domineering artist.