Monday, January 7, 2008


"This is a very strange love affair."


"Maybe because you don't love me."

I adore Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious for how it so consistently flummoxes all expectations.

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman starring in a film together in 1946, at the height of their fame, should have been the romantic cinematic event of the year. Audiences even today have certain expectations when they hear of the coupling. Yet, for most of Notorious, Hitchcock spends the film doing an end run around those expectations. He knows what we want to believe, and he let's us know that he knows, but instead of gratifying our desires, he chooses to make us wait.

Honestly, that doesn't make Notorious all that different from most of Hitch's filmography. Though most people think of the director's title "Master of Suspense" in terms of the chills and the shocks he peppers through his movies, it's a title that is deserved for other reasons, as well. That suspense is the suspension of our yearnings, drawing out our satisfaction like a delicious tease. His mis en scene is cut for seduction. It's why so many of his movies end with a big kiss. He's put us through hell for the preceding two hours waiting for it.

This is most evident in Notorious, where the love affair is kept in check for the first reel, finally unleashed, and then immediately pocketed again. For most of the film, Cary Grant plays a real son of a bitch. He's cold and he's cruel, and very un-Cary Grant-like. It makes Ingrid Bergman uneasy, and it makes us uneasy, too. We can tell she loves him, and we're pretty sure he still loves her, so why doesn't he just do something about it?!

In the film, Ingrid Bergman plays Alicia Huberman. Alicia is a notorious woman. While that word probably makes us think of a criminal when heard today, when a woman was notorious in 1946, it wasn't very gangsta. It's a reputation thing, you understand. Ms. Huberman is known to enjoy a drink or two in the company of men. By comparison, the fact that her father has been convicted as a Nazi spy is positively tame. It almost restores a little honor to her public image.

Cary Grant is T.R. Devlin, emphasis on "Devil." The two meet at Alicia's hedonistic blowout following dear ol' dad's sentencing. She likes him at first, but that's before she knows what he does for a living. Devlin is a government agent, and he has a proposition for Alicia--come work for the U.S. and reinvigorate some of her good name. Their wiretaps tell them that she is a patriot and did not condone her father's actions. They want to put her on assignment in Brazil hunting down her father's contacts. The way Devlin gets her to do it, it's almost like blackmail. It's certainly more bullying than your usual rah-rah sign-up speech. It gets through to her, though, and she decides to do it, seeing it as an opportunity to turn over a new leaf.

It's a bit of a character conundrum, since she's presented herself up until now as a wanton woman who cares not for serious things. Clearly, that image was a front, a way to shield herself from the disappointment of her immigrant father. (Mother has departed this Earth, her natural-born U.S. citizenship intact.) If the most important man in her life has betrayed her so, then better to block out all possibilities of any further caring relationships. Her way of flirting with Devlin is to inform him that the only reason she likes the sappy lovesong playing on the hi-fi is because it's such blatant hooey. Here may be the source of her notorious reputation, when her opening line in a romance is to inform the suitor that romance need never come into it. Such talk from the star of Casablanca, whose affectionate glance was worth all of Europe!

Most of the delayed gratification in Notorious comes from waiting for the fronts to crack. While Alicia pretends not to believe in love, so does Devlin like to pretend he is a hard individual. His is a professional demeanor, keep a distance, he's here for the job. There is no mistaking the white knight, however. He's very protective of Alicia in his way, lending that sympathetic ear like any decent fellow stuck babysitting the drunk girl at a party. He could take advantage, but he's trying not to. When he finally does kiss Alicia, it's only to repay her for taunting him.

That kiss unleashes a lot, too. From the moment they first lock lips, they can barely stay separated. They appear uncomfortable if their mouths are more than six inches apart, inhaling each other's exhales. Which is all by design. Hitchcock has been laying it on thick just so he can take a heavy hammer to it.

The job the government boys have for Alicia is sending her to cozy up to one of the ringleaders of the undercover Nazis down there in Rio. Send the whore to do a whore's job, essentially. Their callous attitude about what they are asking her to do is part of the male double-standard. They are more than willing to take advantage of a woman, and then they'll blame her when they get away with it. It's also the attitude of boys playing at being soldiers. If they're going to send other boys off to die, what's a woman's virtue in the bargain?

Of course, this is like a knife in the gut for Devlin. The blade gets twisted further when it's revealed the target that Alicia is supposed to seduce is Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), a man who was once in love with her. No one ever asks if she was in love with him, as well. Does it matter? In Devlin's mind, he's sending the woman he loves into the arms of a former lover. That's gotta hurt a jealous ego.

Ironically, when Devlin returns to Alicia's apartment to tell her what is going down, she has adopted the domestic duties of a wife. She cooked dinner (albeit poorly), is wearing an apron, even refers to herself as "mama." The woman whom Devlin scoffed at when she swore to give up partying is going to prove to him she can be a wife and a mother. They punish her for being a tramp, and now they punish her for trying to go straight.

It's really a crossroads for Devlin. Send her to Sebastian or don't send her? Love of a woman or your love for your country? A product of his time, he wants to be a hero, and so he chooses that his country is more important. A lot of men in wartime movies had a bit of a martyr complex, and Devlin carries that into the post-War period, but he's not too happy about it. So, to cope, he swings all the way to the opposite side, reverting to the cold jerk that Alicia first met. To drive the point home, he hits her below the belt and makes a nasty comment about her character. It's unfair, particularly given what she is about to do in order to facilitate his martyr complex. Which of them is making the real sacrifice?

As a good friend of mine once said to me, it doesn't matter how bad it gets for everyone else, women always have it a little worse.

There is certainly a lot of complex psychology going on here. Moviegoers heading out to see Notorious would have been going in order to see its stars in many a passionate embrace, yet Alfred Hitchcock keeps inserting himself between them and pushing them apart--and for very dark, painful reasons, at that. The sexual tension doesn't dissipate by being shattered, it only multiplies, each new piece growing to the size of the original. Every time Alicia and Devlin meet to exchange information, it's so devastatingly present, they can barely look at each other. They want to be as close as they once were, you can feel how badly they want to rip each other's clothes off, yet it can't happen. In fact, when they have to kiss in order to fake out Sebastian, who has now become Alicia's suspicious, jealous husband, it's something they can barely put back in the bottle. Yes, just like what had spilled out of the champagne bottle, the Maguffin of Notorious, in Sebastian's secret cellar just moments before.

And yes, Alicia and Sebastian get married. That's how far she is willing to go, that's how much the traditional romantic roles are subverted. It's tougher for her, too, because Alicia is not so good at disguising her feelings. She asks Devlin multiple times to make a choice, upbraiding him for not defending her honor. Every time she brings it up, too, we're on her side. Just how hard would it be, Cary Grant? I mean, really!

Which is really the defied expectation that fascinates me most about Notorious. In what other movie are we meant to not like Cary Grant? It's really tough accepting his choosing the job over the lady, particularly since he is such a prick about it. It's not an entirely new concept in romantic fiction. Jane Austen and the Bronte Sisters regularly cast the standoffish jerk as their top candidate for love, somehow redeeming him by the end and proving that he was the right choice all along. In those instances, however, the characters are new, and they don't carry the baggage of being Cary Grant, Hollywood's top leading man. The director and his actor had discovered once before that pushing the Cary Grant persona too close to the dark edge was a difficult prospect. Their 1941 collaboration, Suspicion, originally had Grant's character trying to kill his wife by poisoning her, but ultimately, the film was rewritten to make it so that the suspicion was no more than that, because the public didn't want a Cary Grant that was a murderer.

Thus, it's probably not a coincidence that Devlin's redemption uses the same elements as Suspicion, only inverted. Fans of the earlier film will recall the actor walking up a flight of stairs with a well-lit glass of poisoned milk. (There is even a visual allusion to that glass in the hangover remedy Devlin makes for Alicia after that first party.) In Notorious, it's Alicia's Nazi husband that is poisoning her drinks, and Cary Grant runs up the stairs not to finish her off, but to carry her to safety. Taking us back to the busted domestic scene at Alicia's apartment, he all but scoops her up in his arms and carries her back over the threshold of her marriage to Sebastian. Had it not been integral to the plot for the pair not to give up the game just yet, Hitch probably would have had him do so. Instead, he settles for her having to lean on him to walk. It's Devlin reclaiming his manhood in all of its chivalrous glory. It's all well and good to go off and defend your country, but you must take care of what you've left at home at the same time.

If I can make this about me for a moment (and I can), part of what lead me to return to Notorious this early in the run of reviews I'm writing exclusively for this blog is that I have a certain attraction to heroes that don't seem like heroes. This pertains to both the fiction I enjoy consuming and that I enjoy writing--though I've discovered in the latter category that this can come up even when it's not the author's inention. Almost all of my books have, at some time or other, received criticism for having protagonists who don't always make the right choice and thus some find their likeability a bit strained (and the strain is not always fairly come by, either). What interests me is that I never set out to write a complete bastard as my main character, nor did I even consciously think of the characters as flawed. I just always saw them for who they were and let them make their choices accordingly.

Now, maybe as their papa, I'm more willing to keep my eyes on the fact that some kind of redemption is on its way, but it does cause me to wonder what the difference is between a character who makes the wrong choice without knowing it, and someone like T.R. Devlin in Notorious who makes the wrong choice with full knowledge of its wrongness. Granted, there are noble intentions behind it, but at the same time, the way Ben Hecht writes Devlin, he doesn't have the character try to ease any of the blows he delivers on Alicia.

Part of this certainly comes out of a need to keep her alert and not have her distracted by going soft and gooey with romance. To me, his harsh words and sour manner are intended to remind her that this is dangerous stuff, there will be no playing around. But it's a tightrope that the writer has to walk (and the director and star; I know I shifted from them to Hecht here, but I had to give him his credit somewhere). Without the noble goal, at least a couple of the three writers who worked on Suspicion couldn't make it work, and perhaps that's the dangerous element of having flawed characters in literary fiction: the reader doesn't quite know where the hero is going the way they do in a genre star-vehicle, and may not have enough faith to follow him there.

I've been thinking about this dilemma a lot, because I have been working on a comic book script that tackles the same concept. I want a hero who doesn't appear to be acting like a hero for most of the story, who chooses a stony professionalism in order to manipulate the woman who should be the love interest into doing what is required of her. It remains to be seen if I can pull off the intentional jerk better than I do my usual accidental jerkface males, but I'm going to try. Notorious' ability to give the ladies--and some dudes like me--the vapors when the hero does finally reveal his true feelings is the highest I can aspire to, and it's a tall order. Fingers crossed.

Note: This movie is currently out of print from Criterion, and thus may be hard to find cheaply. It has some pretty awesome extras, however, and is worth the trouble and extra dollars.

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