Saturday, June 9, 2012

Notorious and use of Camera in it

Disclaimer: I have discussed almost every single aspect of this movie I think worth discussing in detail, including most of plot and its ending. If you haven't seen this movie(WHAT ??), maybe you want to see it first.

Last month was a little peculiar in the sense that I know at least half a dozen people who saw Notorious(1946) for the first time. I felt like I was talking about it with many different people for almost all the month. It might just be coincidence that I also read quite a few articles on it too and all this from completely different people who to the best of my knowledge did not influence each other to either watch it or write about it. Notorious(1946) is not only my favorite Hitchcock but one of my all time favorite movies, #5 in my Favorite 100 list. However, neither have I written anything about it, nor have I seen it since I saw it for the first time and fell in love instantly with it. So, with it being in the back of my mind for almost whole month, I decided to take this chance to make up for both this anomalies. Incidentally, I have never written anything about most of my favorite movies. So, maybe I can even make this a recurring feature like Profile of a Director and talk about few of them. Let us see where it goes from here because I am not really good at following plans.

There are 3 main reasons why I love Notorious. First Hitchcock's impeccable direction which throughout this movie keeps the tension palpable, secondly almost perfect pairing of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in an unconventional romance but they are so amazing in their respective roles that it almost hurts to see them together in single frame. There are quite a few exceptional pairings in Hitchcock's films itself, I for one can make a strong case for Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo(1958) or Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window(1950). But, none of them has ever come closer to this unfortunate couple. But, most of all, it's the Camerawork in this movie that impresses me. Now, I am not the person who understands much about the technical aspect of the movie-making. I have never learned anything in school or college about it nor have I attended any lectures on it. So, it takes something special for someone like me to notice anything beyond what you see on surface. If you have seen The Wire, this is almost as surprising as D'angelo Barksdale summarizing The Great Gatsby in most perfect sense ever. But Hitchcock's camera is such an integral part of this story that it feels more like another character in the movie. And I also love the fact that these 3 aspects are so well blended together that they compliment each other perfectly to take it on completely another level. The fact that neither Hitchcock nor any of the leads or at least this exemplary work behind the camera was even nominated to the Oscars that year has failed to make any sense to me.

Hitchcock uses a lot of techniques with his camera to impress us. Right from using close-ups all the time to give it much personal, much closer look to using point of view shots like rolling the camera around as Alicia rolls on to her bed while looking at Devlin or 'That's your hair in your eyes' shot, he keeps on pulling different techniques out of his sleeve. Hitchcock opens his shop very early in the movie. After the very first shot in the courtroom where we see Alicia i.e. Ingrid Bergman's father get convicted, we go to her house where she is seen with some friends and a stranger she doesn't know. This stranger is Cary Grant but we are not privy to this information right away as most part of this conversation takes place with camera behind Grant, just showing the back of his head casting shadow on the whole frame, kind of suggestive of some kind of sinister motive of the person but then after everyone leaves, we see him to be Grant i.e. Devlin. It is really interesting to me that Devlin, Cary Grant's characters keeps on making this good to bad and back again transition throughout the movie. I have always said that Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in Notorious is my favorite pairing. Funny thing is they spend most of this movie away from each other, trying not to fall for each other, even hating each other. There are hardly couple of scenes in the beginning to link them romantically - Alicia flirting with Devlin initially, Devlin trying to keep it business and then Devlin giving it up and embracing her with all the passion he can muster. But the beauty of Hitchcock's direction is these mere couple of scenes are more than enough to keep us wanting to bring them back together, making their whole journey as painful to the viewer as to characters themselves. Once Devlin is been detailed about Alicia's assignment and he returns to romantic rendezvous Alicia is planning at home, there is a deliberate attempt he makes to push her away, to make her hate him so that the whole thing can be easy for her. He even takes initiative to set her up with their Alex Sebastian, their target - Claude Rains in another exquisite supporting role.

Story moves ahead swiftly with every scene where two leads are in frame together is like clashing of two knights ready to cut each others throats, only difference here is there only weapon is their words. Bergman and Grant both work wonders portraying almost suffocating air of personal deception with an amazing control of their body language. Hitchcock plays one more stroke of genius by adding a scene with Devlin's bosses questioning Alicia's past after she has practically put her hand in Lion's mouth for them. Devlin apparently troubled by it tries to put meager defense of it but backs out at the slightest notion to give this already troubled relationship much required depth. Alex soon asks Alicia to marry her despite his mother's disinterest. By this time, there has been a kind of role reversal in the movie. With all his apparent passiveness to defend Alicia and completely closing out to her, Devlin has temporarily assumed the role of a villain whereas standing against the will of his own mother and openly portraying his desire for Alicia, Alex is in hero's chair. This again is perfectly planned out so as to achieve little more impact with apparent climax. Here, however, Hitchcock plays one more of his tricks with the camera now as a matter of key to the wine cellar is at hand - that of a tracking shot, probably the best I have seen. Alicia has arranged for Devlin to come home in party so that he can have a look at something suspicious in their wine cellar. She has also sneaked that key from Alex's bunch. Shot opens with camera completely zoomed out and little out of focus, seemingly trying to find something to focus at. It follows the spiral of the staircase, with some guests on it, until it finds Alex and Alicia standing at the foot of the staircase. It starts to zoom-in on them but seems little skewed and it keeps zooming-in until comes into focus with a close-up shot of Alicia hand holding the key in it. There is also one more short tracking shot of a Coffee cup in the end as well after she is been found of spying, poisoned to get rid of her, slowly but surely.

Hitchcock was Master of Thrillers. Almost all the movies he did dealt with it in some kind. However, thing with Notorious that makes it worth for me personally is thriller aspect of the story takes a backseat to the romance narrated in the most unconventional fashion or character study of it's two leads. Probably, also the reason why Vertigo(1958) works much better for me. This is also evident in the final minutes of the movie as Devlin worried that Alicia lied to him about falling back to her drinking ways goes to see her and finds out she is being poisoned. These last minutes concentrate on Alicia and Devlin finally getting together and making their way out safely than her blowing the cover of the Nazi leaders gathered in the room downstairs. However, Hitchcock not only concentrates on the two leads but also makes the side characters interesting and rich. Claude Rains as Alex is the third corner of this love triangle, visibly older than the other two leads but I have seen far too Audrey Hepburn movies to be troubled by this. More importantly, Hitchcock plays his card very carefully, not trying to force this difference on us. Another character that leaves an impression in even a smaller role is Leopoldine Constantine is role of Alex's Mother, as evil and calculating as you can get. Visibily unhappy with her son's increasing proximity with Alicia from start, she almost seems elated after heartbroken Alex goes to tell her the truth about Alicia. Quick to point out the fact that 'They are being saved by the enormity of her son's stupidity', she even concocts plan to get rid of her almost immediately, as if she is been waiting for the moment for quite some time.

Notorious isn't the only movie that Hitchcock has played with his camera in. Psycho(1960) is one more example of equally masterful, if not better, display of his technique. Even his direction is usually the most notable aspect in the movie. However, there is something delicate, right from those beautifully constrained performances from the leading pair, in the way this whole movie is presented that touches somewhere deep inside me. I have seen close to dozen movies that Hitchcock did and I like almost every single one of them. All the movies I mentioned in this post are definitely some of my all-time favorites. However, Notorious has always occupied a place close to my heart and with the recent re-viewing I can assure you that it still does.

Rating(out of 5):


  1. Very good review; I watched this film just a week ago, and I agree the use of the camera is very impressive, and Grant & Bergman are a great on-screen couple.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting !! I am glad that you not only enjoyed the movie but also agree with Camerawork and Grant-Bergman Pairing. Thanks !!


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