Archive for Notorious

The Devil and T.R. Devlin

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2009 by dcairns

Or: WEAPONS-GRADE POMMARD.

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Was slightly perplexed by the Art Nouveau font, but now suspect it’s the film’s first suggestion that the audience should not approach this as a straight thriller.

At last, I have watched NOTORIOUS. The first theory I have formed is the theory about why I never watched it all the way through before: I was watching it as a thriller. Viewed in this way, the early scenes may seem unnecessarily lengthy and detailed, in need of ellipsis to get us to the suspense scenes faster. But this is an idiotic demand to place upon Hitchcock and Hecht, I now realise. NOTORIOUS is a relationship drama first and a thriller second. It’s an early expression of the theme of MARNIE: “Everybody’s a pervert,” only here, “Everybody’s a neurotic.”

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The inverted POV shot, first used by Hitch in DOWNHILL.

The opening scenes, which contemporary audiences would have had no trouble enjoying as romance, (im)pure and simple, without any foolish demands for thrill-sequences, set up Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman, the hard-living wild child of a convicted Nazi, and Cary Grant as TR Devlin, the US agent in the employ of Ambassador Trantino, who recruits her to spy for the US. But apart from the mission, they set up the relationship and its in-built problems. Devlin’s moralistic disapproval of Alicia doesn’t go away when he falls in love with her, and it will colour his responses to all her actions, leading the pair into perilous straits, emotionally and in terms of real physical jeopardy. Later.

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NOT a good sign if Cary Grant brings you milk this early in a relationship. Fortunately, when the glass is moved, it no longer glows, and appears to be some kind of hangover cure concoction. No poisoning until later. Hitchcock sometimes seems to be playing with the idea that audiences might recognise some situations from SUSPICION.

The celebrated kissing scene should really be acclaimed in terms of its superb placing in the story, since it’s followed sharply by the come-down of Grant hearing about the mission and presenting it to Bergman as if he expects her to accept it — patriotically, he doesn’t feel he can talk her out of it, so he leaves the choice with her. She understandably resents him for this, while he in turn resents her for accepting the filthy task of wooing Claude Rains.

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All leading up to the beautiful deadened moment when Grant looks around for the Champagne bottle he’s left behind at his bosses office. Watching the film as a partial grown-up, I find this wine bottle more involving than the later ones filled with Uranium.

I was distracted during Claude Rains’ dinner scene by the fact that he seems to be either slightly drunk, or having trouble with his dentures. At any rate, there’s a mushy slur to his voice here which thankfully vanishes later. Now the movie becomes an adultery drama, like THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS only with spying — Ann Todd, that film’s star, would pop up in Hitchcock and Selznick’s next “collaboration.” Her scenes with Claude in David Lean’s movie feel almost like a non-thriller remake of the Hitchcock.

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And then there’s mom. Entering down a long flight of stairs, like Dracula, and marching into a big scary close-up, exactly like Christopher Lee’s DRACULA, Claude’s materfamilias, played by “Madame Konstantin,” is the second really nasty Hitchcock mother — for the first you have to go all the way back to EASY VIRTUE. This is not a constant figure in Hitchcock’s cinema, although critics like to harp on about it. But Madame K is so fierce, she does rather counterbalance the positive impression made by Patricia Collinge in SHADOW OF A DOUBT.

The real business now is adultery, not espionage. It’s slightly daft that the couple have so much trouble sneaking away together at the party, since all that’s needed is for Alicia to slip the wine cellar key to Devlin and point him at the door, then she could distract her husband and everything would be dandy. But this pair of love-birds really want to be together, the whole spying thing is practically an alibi for their elicit relationship. Indeed, if it weren’t for the atomic Nazi plot-line, the heroes’ behaviour would be completely unacceptable to the censor.

I seem to be racing through this one with undue haste — possibly because I don’t know it as well as others, but more likely because after my marathon session with THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, I’m a spent force. But I know you’ll all chip in with your thoughts to shore up this underweight post.

Amazing crane shot of key! Of course I’d seen this extract in many documentaries. In context, it’s interesting because it doesn’t add new information, or nothing that a regular establishing shot couldn’t add, but is a kind of stylistic flourish serving as an overture to the big party suspense scene. As Hitch said, it tells us that within this grand setting, a miniscule object will play a crucial role.

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Amazing repeat shot of Claude Rains mounting the stairs, just like the one of Cary Grant in SUSPICION. Fiona suggested that at any moment he might turn back, having forgotten to fetch the luminous milk. Of course, in this movie it’s coffee that’s nearly fatal to the heroine, suggesting that Hitchcock was plotting to ruin the great American breakfast forever. If you eliminated all the dodgy foods and drinks in Hitchcock’s cinema, from cigarette-studded eggs to everything prepared in FRENZY, to cat (RICH AND STRANGE), you’d have the basis for a pretty good weight-loss regime. Maybe that’s the hidden secret behind REDUCO, The Obesity Slayer…

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The last third of NOTORIOUS ramps up the suspense as Grant and Bergman consistently mislead each other and make their problems worse, as each tries to force an admission of love from the other. It’s Grant who cracks first, rescuing Bergman and bringing about a brilliantly neat happy ending which solves the problem of those pesky Nazis and wraps up the love story all in one. No wonder this took ages to come up with (many many drafts with hopeless, lame, tragic endings) because it’s really quite intricate. Clifford Odets did uncredited work on the love scenes in this, where Hecht’s unromantic spirit refused to take flight. Generally, NOTORIOUS has far better dialogue than SPELLBOUND, its predecessor — I think Hecht was uncomfortable writing for psychoanalysts. Of course, another significant difference this time is that the project passed out of Selznick’s hands before filming: DOS supervised the scriptwriting process, but had no control over the movie’s final form. The quality of which is another argument against those who see Selznick as an essential guiding force for Hitchcock at this time. THE PARADINE CASE, next week’s Hitch, shows what happened when DOS picked up the reins again, and by all accounts it ain’t pretty.

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Hitchcock Year, Week 3, Things I Read off the Screen in Downhill

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2009 by dcairns

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Hitchcock’s follow-up to THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG, again starring composer and matinee idol Ivor Novello, doesn’t have much of a reputation. Peter Conrad’s The Hitchcock Murders, for instance, doesn’t even mention it — maybe because it doesn’t feature any murders.

(Incidentally, if you follow the IMDb, we should be discussing THE RING this week, but overviews of Hitch’s career confirm that DOWNHILL was in fact his fourth production.)

The tale of a public schoolboy who faces disgrace and expulsion for buying sexual favours with money filched from the tuck shop, whose name takes on an amusingly double entendre ~

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This seems to me a very useful Hitch film, since the world of the English public school was one he knew well. His parents, aspiring to better him, had packed him off to St. Ignatius, a Catholic boarding school, where the young A.H. began to learn all about suspense from the masters, who would cane you on Friday for something you did on Monday. And indeed, Hitch does manage to create some dramatic tension from a visit to the headmaster’s office in DOWNHILL, tracking slowly towards the scowling head from Novello’s POV.

Following this, we get a track-in on Novello and his chum, from the POV of the accusing flapper, and a dishonest flashback of the kind Hitch later disavowed in STAGE FRIGHT, as she accuses Ivor of knocking her up. (She apparently intends his family to pay child support, but we never find out if this happens — she walks out of the film and is never so much as mentioned again.)

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Years later, Hitch would recall with horror the bathos of this scene — ” Does this mean I won’t be able to play in the Old Boy’s match, sir?” asks the heartbroken Ivor. Actually, if this part of the film is less effective than some others, it’s more to do with the impossibility of Ivor Novello, aged 34, playing a schoolboy.

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Sliding into depravity by way of a symbolic subway escalator, our hero first takes to the music hall (it’s a slippery slope!). Hitchcock was more familiar with London’s theatre world than many film people, but the main value he derives from this sequence is the elaborate set of false impressions he engineers at the start of the sequence. At first Novello stands, looking rather dashing and well kitted-out in dinner jacket and bow tie. Then Hitch pulls back to reveal that his star is waiting tables at a swank restaurant. Crime rears it’s ugly head as the lad pockets a stray cigarette-case, but then Hitch pans right and reveals a theatre audience watching the scene, which is constructed for their benefit upon the stage.

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Inheriting wealth, Novello is able to marry the star of the show, but her expensive tastes soon bankrupt him, a development amusingly presented with the aid of two intertitles. The first reading “£30, 000” in Large Impressive Letters, the second repeating the same sum in much smaller ones.

Next comes the seedy life of the gigolo/taxi-dancer, evoked with lip-smacking relish by Hitchcock, aided by some ladies made up to look rather ghastly when a shaft of pure sunlight illuminates the ballroom and exposes the decadence therein. (Several of the dramatic high points of the film have to do with setting Ivor at the mercy of predatory women: he manages to look properly intimidated.) How Ivor gets from here to a Marseille dive, strung out on drink or drugs or something, is not quite as clear as I’d like — this film would fail as a How-To guide to achieving full social depravity.

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But, while commentators applaud the inverted POV shot of Novello, which anticipates a similar one of Cary Grant in NOTORIOUS (and from there is picked up by Nick Ray for REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and HOT BLOOD) and the shadowplay with bamboo curtains in the Bunne Shoppe, I was most impressed by the oneiric climax, where the addled and raddled Novello is packed on a ship to England and hallucinates a mad jumble of events from his life, by virtue both of double-exposures and surreal staging — a sailor on the ship literally becomes Novello’s stern father. Maybe this part of the film seemed to be kicking in because I had just changed the music (my highly fizzy-facky VHS of the film had none) from Mendelssohn to Ellington (I highly recommend Ellington for this movie, it has more of a jazz spirit than you’d think). But this sequence is very experimental and strange, and makes DOWNHILL probably the first Hitchcock film whose happy ending could be read as a dream, or the vision of a dying man.

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(It’s been argued, not so much convincingly but very intriguingly, that Hitch films such as SUSPICION and VERTIGO actually become dreams partway through — the second half of VERTIGO, from shortly after Kim Novak’s first death plunge, is all playing in Jimmy Stewart’s grief-deranged head as he vegetates in the asylum, undergoing music therapy, while SUSPICION really ends with the poisoned milk, as Hitch intended, and the big make-up scene with the involved explanation is Joan Fontaine’s fantasy. I don’t believe either of these interpretations, but I love them. Chris Marker posits the VERTIGO hypothesis, Bill Krohn offers the SUSPICION one.)

The happy family reunion and Old Boy’s match which end DOWNHILL come hard on the heels of the dissipated Novello’s hallucinatory sea voyage, which in itself might not be happening (it has some of the same zonked feverishness as Dorothy’s trip to Oz by tornado), so it’s not a huge stretch to see them as imaginary. This probably wasn’t Hitch’s intention, and certainly not the primary interpretation he wanted us to leap to, but it connects DOWNHILL to some very interesting later Hitchcockian conundrums… when a director’s work strays this close to dream, and regularly incorporates dreams, hallucinations, flashbacks and other subjective effects into its narration, it’s easy to imagine it sliding all the way into mirage.

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