The Hitchcock Blog-a-Thon: Notorious

Top 5 moments in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious

1. The kiss between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.

At the time this was the longest movie kiss in cinematic history. They had to keep breaking the kiss up to get around the censors. The censorship committee decreed that no screen kiss could last longer than 3 seconds. But Hitchcock made sure that their lips never touched for longer than 3 seconds – so if you put a stopwatch to it (and the censorship committee did) you would find that they were never over the time limit. But then they would pull back, nuzzle, speak against each other’s mouths, kiss again for 3 seconds … and repeat the whole thing. It’s amazing – very very sexy. It’s also REALLY neurotic. I love the underlying neurosis in this scene – it makes it so Hitchcock-ian. You can just tell that despite their desire for one another they are SO not trusting of each other.

I love Roger Ebert’s observations about Grant in this scene:

Look, for example, at his famous kissing scene with Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock’s “Notorious” (1946). In the movie, they are in love with each other, but Grant is a U.S. intelligence official trying to convince Bergman to marry Claude Rains, the leader of a postwar Nazi spy ring.

Hitchcock’s shot begins on a balcony overlooking Rio. Grant begins to kiss Bergman, and as they stay in each other’s arms, they move slowly inside, where Grant picks up the telephone and makes a call, still holding her and kissing her, and then he guides them toward the door while she breathlessly makes dinner plans and he smiles rather remotely at her and then leaves, saying “goodbye” with an ironic smile.

This is the kind of scene that perfectly captures what was unique about Grant as a movie actor. He had the kind of handsome charm and sex appeal that made him completely convincing as a romantic leading man, but mere seduction never seemed very high on his list of priorities in the movies. He and his characters often had hidden agendas, secrets they were more interested in than love itself.

Yes. Watch his face at the door when he says good-bye to the literally swooning with lust/love Bergman. Watch that distant little smile. It’s fascinating. Not at all what you expect, or want.

2. When Claude Rains looks up slowly at his evil Nazi mother and says, “I am married to an American agent.”

First of all – I read someone describe Claude Rains as an “impeccable actor”. I could not agree with this more. Is he ever false? Is he ever not perfect in whatever it is he is trying to portray? Is he not one of the best actors to ever practice the craft? I SO value him. Casablanca would NOT work without him … but neither would Notorious. Think of all of his most famous parts. He, PERSONALLY, makes movies better … just by being in them. Hitchcock’s camera angle at the moment I am describing here in Notorious, the “I am married to an American agent” certainly enhances the emotional meaning of that moment. Hitchcock shoots him from above. We just see the top of Rains’ head at first, he is looking down, troubled, we cannot see his face. In a way he is hiding from his Nazi shrew of a mother. But then he has to come clean. The camera does not move. Rains does. He slowly lifts his head so we can see the flat deadened acceptance on his face. Rains doesn’t have an over-acting bone in his body. We all should be so simple, so real.

3. The frenzied sequence in the wine cellar during the party with an increasingly panicked Ingrid Bergman standing guard, and Cary Grant snooping around.

I saw Notorious last year on the big screen – and this scene was even more suspenseful in that environment. I could sense people around me putting their hands over their eyes, a woman 2 rows ahead of me gasped LOUDLY when the bottle fell … And if you watch the movie again – please just watch the change in expression on Cary Grant’s face as he watches the bottle fall. It’s gone in a flash (the expression) – but I swear that half of the suspense in that scene is because of how well these two PLAY it. Watch the flash of horror on his face when he realizes it is too late. And that that bottle WILL fall. Marvelous.

4. The scene where Ingrid Bergman realizes her husband and his mother have been slowly poisoning her.

She’s sitting in the chair … across the room from them … and she looks with dawning horror at the two little teeny cups of coffee … and … Well. seriously. Acting doesn’t get any better than her freakout right here. She is tormented. You can feel her literally being killed, from the inside out. Go, Ingrid.

5. The entire last scene: Cary Grant finally coming to rescue her … and then the long long descent down the stairway.

— The staircase was not long enough for Hitchcock. He wanted the staircase to feel, literally, endless for that scene – to build the tension. But if they just slowly descended the staircase – they still reached the bottom with a couple of lines left over to say. So here was Hitchcock’s solution: as they descended – if you notice the background behind Rains’ head in the shots – Hitchcock had them go down the same stretch of stairway 2 or 3 times – so that it would FEEL longer. It’s seamless in the film – unless you’re looking at the blurry background you would never notice that for the first part of the scene they are not actually going anywhere. A beautiful example of how inventive Hitchcock was, how much he was able to create an illusion.

It was Hitchcock who first saw the darkness beneath Grant’s handsomeness, and perceived that audiences would be disturbed, disoriented, by seeing Cary Grant in cranky cruel parts. Hitchcock intuited that there is always a bit of envy towards people as beautiful as Grant … and so there is some pleasure in watching him suffer (huddling in a corn field, etc.) It’s unspoken, but it is there. Hitchcock was brilliant for exploiting that. And I just cannot picture another actor as Devlin. The courage of Grant is rather amazing if you think about it. Grant had a lot to lose. But was willing to risk it, for Hitchcock.

Here are my thoughts on the last scene in Notorious and why Cary Grant is not just a great movie star, but a great actor.

In the last scene of Notorious, Ingrid Bergman lies in bed, trapped in the house of her Nazi husband. She is being slowly poisoned by Nazi-man (Claude Rains) and by his terrifying evil Fraulein mother. Bergman lies in bed, coming in and out of consciousness due to the poison, the sleeping pills – Cary Grant has come to rescue her – finds her in this state – and he tries to keep her awake, he dresses her so that they can leave that terrible mansion – and he also, in his tortured way declares his love for her.

He has been cruel, distant, misogynistic, etc., throughout the rest of the film – but the genius of it is that Cary Grant (and Hitchcock, of course) lets us in on the secret: Devlin (the character) is actually not a cruel or distant man at all – he is only cruel and distant because underneath all of that, he is vulnerable, too vulnerable, and he needs her too much. Cary Grant’s performance is a show-and-tell masterpiece. He shows us everything, but he tells us NOTHING. WE can see the truth, but Devlin cannot. WE can look at him and see the vulnerability, but Devlin thinks he’s invulnerable, and that he can’t be hurt.

What the character DOES in the film is obvious: he throws her to the wolves, he hates her for her whorish past, he feels threatened by the fact that she is kind of a slut (or, uhm, nympho) – it’s not JUST that he wants her to be untouched, it’s that he feels … deeply nervous about how he will measure up (again, this is never stated, but it’s all there), he despises her on some level – mainly because of his own insecurities – he is insecure about her sexual experience, and punishes her emotionally for it – he refuses to believe that she can change her drunky-drunk Slutterson ways. But clues are dropped, along the way, that this guy is tormented about her, and actually loves her. Loves her so much that he can’t bear it. There is no happiness for this man in love. Love does not bring peace. It’s too painful. Too threatening. The clues are along the lines of “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it …” Devlin is unaware of the clues he is leaving behind. He thinks he has covered his tracks (emotionally, I mean.) But it’s all there: He treats her like a whore, except when she is out of his presence, and then he gets very very touchy about any slights on her honor, he gets very protective of her. He defends her character to his fellow secret agents (“I don’t think she’s that kind of woman!”), and yet – refuses to defend her when she begs him to, in person. (“Did you tell them I’m not the kind of girl for this sort of work??”)

In the last scene, he helps her to sit up, her head is flopping back. The lighting is spectacular: the pillow behind her head is blazing white, and her face is completely in the glow of the light. But he – he is a dark silhouette, he remains in the shadow. The only time he is fully lit in the final scene of this film is when the 2 of them emerge from the bedroom, and begin the descent down the stairway. And if you see the film again: LOOK at how different his face is when he steps out into the brightness with her.

Here it is:

He looks, in that last section of the scene, during the descent down the staircase – he looks, for the first time, like a complete man – like he has joined the land of the living. He looks … alive. Alert. With no barrier between himself and his own emotions. He is clear. He is strong. He is certain. He loves her. She is his. He will save her. He will get her down the stairs. He is thankful that he did not wait too long. He will save her, even if it means losing his own life. All of that is in that face when he emerges from the bedroom with her in his arms. Amazing acting job. The transformation.

For the rest of the film, he’s uptight, guarded, his eyes are cynical, he never smiles (except when he’s pretending, at the party). This guy is a sourpuss. He’s intimidating. You want him to lighten up, loosen up … but for his own secret reasons he cannot. Some woman did a number on him once upon a time. Something. He is damaged goods. But somehow, Cary Grant creates this character without completely alienating us in the audience. Despite the fact that he is a bastard to her! And Notorious is obviously on “her” side – the film sympathizes with Ingrid Bergman – she is the heroine, the victim – and yet – he is not villainized.

Hitchcock knew we would come to the film with preconceived notions about Cary Grant (from movies like Bringing up Baby and Holiday) – and he set about to deliberately mess with our expectations. Devlin is the darkest Cary Grant has ever been. This is a guy who is starving for love, and the only reason he resists it is because he needs it too much. The brilliance, of course, of all of this – is that that is only implied, never ever said.

Back to the last scene:

He sits with her on the bed, her face ablaze in the light, and he is a shadow-man, a black-cut-out silhouette.

He holds her. She whispers, “Why have you come …”

He whispers, “I had to see you one more time … so I could tell you I love you …”

He has never said he loved her, and earlier on in the film, she makes reference to the fact that their love affair is very interesting, because he doesn’t love her. He tries to weasle out of it, saying, “Actions speak louder than words…”

So the “I love you” in this last scene is not like other “I love yous” in films. There’s no swelling music, no climactic moment – there’s not a feeling that this “I love you” is a victory. It’s more hard-won, more tragic. It’s an “I love you” between two adults who have been damaged and chastened by life’s hard lessons. This is a grown-up movie.

She is, again, falling in and out of consciousness – but when she hears those words – when she hears him whisper, “I love you” – tears come to her eyes (Bergman is absolutely spectacular in this film, especially in the last scene) – she says, “You love me? Why didn’t you say so before?”

He holds onto her, says into the side of her cheek, “I was a fat-headed guy … full of pain.”

The entire scene is done in surreptitious whispers, which adds to the insecure feeling of it, the secretive-ness, the neuroses – this isn’t a normal love scene. She’s in the light, he’s in the dark. These two people are all messed up, basically. I don’t feel hopeful about their future together, really – even though they drive away in the same car. Whatever happened next, they’d have a difficult path as a couple. Being grown-up and being in love is tough.

If you want to know why Cary Grant is not just a great movie star, but a great actor – watch him say that “fat-headed guy” line. It’s really more that he does nothing (like Claude Rains in the “I am married to an American agent” moment). Grant just says it – simply – with no self-pity, no self-importance, no ego, no attitude – he just says it. He is admitting something. He opens the door. The door of his heart. And the eyes … his eyes …

Richard Schickel writes about Cary Grant as Devlin:

As Devlin the counterspy Grant is cool, brusque, competent — with an almost sadistic edge of cruelty about him. At the start it is clear that his assignment is distasteful to him — recruiting and running an amateur, and a woman at that. And what a woman she is. Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia is not only the personally loyal, if politically disapproving, daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, she is also a nymphomaniac and an incipient alcoholic, unstable to the point of explosiveness. And emotionally needy, pathetically so. “Why won’t you believe in me, Devlin — just a little bit,” she begs at one point. And our shock at seeing Bergman violate her previously pristine image, degrading herself in her need is, like Grant’s charmless manipulativeness, one of the things that makes this movie so superbly unbalancing. She is, in [Pauline] Kael’s terms the pursuer, he the pursued, but in the movie’s own terms that is less significant than the neurotic force-field it wants to set up between them.

In effect, Devlin is forced to become her lover in order to calm her down enough to do her job, which is to insinuate herself into the home and circle (in Rio de Janeiro) of Alexander Sebastian, who is played by Claude Rains, in one of that actor’s most delicious roles, as the only master spy in the history of the genre who is hag-ridden by his mother (yet another piece of pathology to reckon with)…

What Devlin does not count on is that he will fall genuinely in love with Alicia. Or that Sebastian will ask her to marry him. And that there is no way out of the match if she is to complete her mission.

What neither she nor the audience has counted on is Devlin’s neurosis, which now comes to the fore.

He thinks she accepts the situation too easily; her attitude fits all too well with what he knows of her earlier promiscuity; and with all the fears and suspicions of women in general which she had almost made him forget.

He turns petulant as a jilted schoolboy, reaching levels of mean-spiritedness that from any leading man would startle an audience, but which from Cary Grant are almost devastating. Hitchcock and Hecht (the writer) have now stripped him bare of his protective image as they previously did Bergman.

The resolution of Notorious requires not just the restoration of moral order, but the rebalancing of psychological equilibrium as well. And what dark intensity this brings to the normally routine process of sorting out a spy drama’s strands. One feels that if one of the Brontes had attempted an espionage story it would have turned out something like this.

With Notorious we come closer to the heart of Grant’s darkness — as close as he would allow us to come. There were two decades left to his career, but only once — and then again for Hitchcock — would he risk anything like this exposure. Something assuredly was lost by the reticence. And yet one can scarecely blame him. Self-revelation is a terrible trial for anyone; it is especially so for an actor, whose instrument is his person; most of all for an actor like Grant, who so carefully and deliberately created a screen character that was as much a fantasy to him as it was to his audience, in which he could comfortably hide himself, or whatever of himself — that is to say, the Archie Leach who had been — that still existed.

Maybe Cary Grant would have allowed Howard Hawks to mess about with his image. But not too many other directors. Grant was careful, cautious. But not with Hitchcock.

An extraordinary film, an extraordinary partnership.

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11 Responses to The Hitchcock Blog-a-Thon: Notorious

  1. mitchell says:

    Sheila..did u know that our dear friend Ms. Rachel Hamilton’s great-grandmother is in a Hitchcock film??? She is the woman who introduces Joan Fontaine to Laurence Olivier in the beginning of Rebecca…sooo cool right??? Florence Bates…a very interesting woman..of course..she’s related to Rachel!!!

  2. red says:

    I remember you telling me her life story, Mitchell – freakin’ amazing lady. I totally know who she is.


  3. I still think the kiss between Cary and Ingrid in Notorious remains the sexiest moment ever put on film.

  4. mitch says:

    Oh, I SO need to see this again.

  5. Jackie says:

    I absolutely love this movie. Claude Raines at the end begging them not to leave him… OMG!…. there’s nothing like it.

    I saw Suspicion yesterday. Love that one too!

  6. red says:

    Edward – I certainly will not argue with that. It’s achingly sexy – amazing.

  7. red says:

    Jackie – I know, right?? It’s weird – the Claude Rains guy is a horrible man, but you suddenly feel kind of bad for him. Those dudes will kill him, he knows it … and his mother thinks he deserves it!!

    How ’bout that mother, huh? She’s fantastic. Creepy Nazi lady with the coronet of braids!!!

  8. Brian says:

    Though my personal favorites of his films are still Vertigo and Rear Window, I agree with Truffaut’s comment that Notorious is “the quintessential Hitchcock film”, not least because it features the male and female lead actors he seemingly worked best with, but I’m glad you drew attention to Rains in this post. He’s so totally perfect here. As is Madame Konstantin as his mother. I don’t know if it means anything except that I watched Return of the Jedi too many times growing up, but for some reason I’ve always thought she must have been one inspiration for Ian McDiarmid’s performance as the evil Emporer in the latter film.

  9. red says:

    Brian – yes, isn’t Claude Rains just perfect as this guy? The scene where he and Ingrid meet for drinks – and he’s so nervous and fawning … it’s a bit disgusting, and yet you feel for the guy, too – because even though he is a Nazi, his love for her is sincere. And he is just being used. WONDERFUL actor.

    Speaking of wonderful, I just went and checked out your site – which I am not familiar with – and my God, you’re amazing. What a great site – I’ll put you on my blogroll immediately.

  10. just1beth says:

    Sheila- One of Tom’s elective’s this term has to do with cinematography and directing.(I believe) He is watching a TON of movies for this class, and then writing papers. A few weeks ago we watched Psycho and Vertigo- I forgot how much I loved them!! I can’t wait for the two of you to get together, because he has watched so many classic movies recently. You will have so much to talk about.

  11. red says:

    Beth – what a great class! I’m so jealous!!

    I looooove Vertigo.

    Does Tom have to take notes and stuff as he watches? I’d love to talk with him about it.

    Speaking of which – will you be around on Thanksgiving?

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