Weekend Film Recommendation: 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 this week’s film recommendation: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 triumph 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 is swilling booze 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!).

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.

p.p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior recommendations.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Dial M for Murder

I have recommended only one Hitchcock film (The 39 Steps), probably because his American classics such as Psycho and Rear Window are just too obvious as recommendations and so much has been written about them already. Also, I have only seen Vertigo about a dozen times and don’t therefore yet feel qualified to fully explain why it is one of the greatest works of art of the latter half of the 20th century, though I know in my heart that it is.

So let me recommend what is usually consider a minor success of The Master: 1954′s Dial M for Murder. The movie had a strong foundation because it was based on an extremely well-crafted hit play by Frederic Knott (who also wrote the screenplay for the movie version).

The story is a simple one: A tennis-playing effete British smoothie (Ray Milland) discovers that his glamorous wife (Grace Kelly, elegant and effective) is carrying on a passionate love affair with a broad-shouldered American (an appropriately manly Robert Cummings), so he decides to murder her. But rather than do the deed himself, he seeks the help of an intermediary, leading things to go horribly awry…unless of course he can clean up the mess by framing his wife for a terrible crime.

When film directors adapt plays, they typically insert scenes of exteriors, use many long shots and wide shots and trolley shots etc., in order to give the audience a cinematic experience. Hitchcock did just the opposite, shooting almost entirely on a single set, and using camera placement within it to keep things fresh. The claustrophobic framing adds to the tension of the film while somehow never coming across as stagy.

The highlight of this film is the astonishing performance of Ray Milland as Tony Wendice, the suave and unflappable villain. He won a Best Actor Oscar for The Lost Weekend, but I think he’s even better here. Even when he cruelly and cleverly blackmails an old college mate (Anthony Dawson) into participating in his murder plot, he is ever calm and smiling, the perfect British upper class sort. It is that emotional tone in his performance, combined with Hitchcock’s directorial genius, that makes the famous closing scene of this film so memorable.

The foil for Tony Wendice isn’t really his romantic rival Mark Halliday (Cummings), but the intelligent, moral Chief Inspector Hubbard. He is played by John Williams, never a huge star but someone Hitchcock used over and over in movies and TV shows because he consistently gave solid and intelligent performances. Williams is at his best here, nicely leavening his hard-headed cop role with touches of warmth and humour.

In summary: Fantastic source material, fantastic director, fantastic cast – what’s not to like?

p.s. You may wonder why such a short movie has an intermission. This film was originally made in 3-D, and the intermission was to give a chance for those theaters with only two cameras to load the next two parallel reels. I regret very much never having seen the 3-D version, because Hitchcock allegedly used the technique in a more creative, less gimmicky way than did other film makers. The most famous 3-D moment was the extreme closeup of Ray Milland’s finger dialing M. To get the shot right, they built a gigantic phone and a huge paper-mache finger tip! In any event, unlike most 3-D movies, it’s perfectly watchable without the 3-D effects.

p.p.s. I always post my film recommendations at 11:11, and here it is 1/11….a blog post time stamp for the ages…if only I’d started reviewing films in January of 2011.