01 April 2009
The Third Man - Hitchcock's Camera in Notorious
The camera focuses on a little coffee cup. It looks as though the coffee in it must be dark and rich. But we know there's poison in that cup and must watch as the film's heroine, played by Ingrid Bergman, drinks from it. She is slowly being murdered.
From the top of long winding stairs we look down at an elegant party. The camera moves slowly down towards a woman gradually focusing our attention to her hand in which she nervously and absently fiddles with a key. The key will unlock a wine cellar door and perhaps also unlock a riddle in this spy mystery.
A woman meets her betrothed's mother. We see the older woman across the room but she walks from there right towards us, her visage eventually filling the screen. We can sense her importance to the story and her menace.
Drunken revelers at a small party with a lovely young woman the star attraction. But there is man seated, unmoving his back to us. Who is he? Why is this figure not lit? He’s just a dark silhouette. Finally we meet him, it is Cary Grant looking as suave and handsome as ever.
It's been said that in Alfred Hitchock's Notorious (1946) the camera is as much a character in the film as are Grant or Bergman. Certainly the camera is a subjective story teller here, less a witness than an interpreter.
A hungover Bergman awakens to see Grant filling a doorway but we view him as she does, sideways. As Grant approaches Bergman the camera maintains, indeed increases, the sense of morning after vertigo that is the trademark of colossal hangovers. Later, when Bergman is drugged and about to pass out we, through the camera, experience her disorientation and descent into confused darkness.
Notorious is as close to perfect as any film can get. There's not a wasted second, there's not a questionable camera angle, there's no contrived dialogue (much credit on this final point must go to screenwriter Ben Hecht, one of the best ever.)
Anyone who ever questions Grant's acting chops need only watch this film. His character of T.R. Deviln is not so much cool as cold. Yes he is tall dark and handsome, but the emphasis is on the darkness. His love for Bergman’s character, Alicia Huberman, is tortured. He is a federal agent, Alice is his mole. He must watch her seduce and marry an object of their investigation, Alexander Sebastian, played by Claude Rains. We feel his pain, though not forgiving his harshness towards her.
We also feel Alicia’s pain as she must give herself to another man at the behest of the one she loves. That it's also dangerous business makes this a psychological thriller of the first order. Bergman is also memorable as she undergoes the transformation from promiscuous party girl to spy.
Sebastian and his mother, with whom he and Alice live, catch on to Alicia's duplicity. If his fellow Nazis plotters find that he has wed an enemy spy, he’ll surely be killed. Rains was a gifted actor and his talents are evident here. He is the momma's boy as Nazi. The sophisticate as jealous husband who suffers the ultimate betrayal. That he was able to convey so complex a character undergoing so many emotions is a credit to Rains' talents.
Notorious has three principal characters locked in an agonizing dance. A menage a trois with deeper implications than mere fidelity. This story is elevated to the rarefied air of being among the greatest pictures ever made by how the camera interplays with those characters, how and for how long and on what that camera focuses.
Such personal story telling is high risk, it took a master like Hitchock to get away with it. The camera somehow never seems to intrude. There are no hand held or jerky sequences, there are no dramatic sweeps. Everything is done to draw our attention on the characters and their unique circumstances. We marvel at what the camera shows us and are not distracted by it. Like the performances of the three stars, everything blends perfectly into an unforgettable story.
The camera watches as the car pulls away from in front of a house and a man is left standing alone. Now we see some men standing in a doorway looking down at the lone figure, beckoning him. The door is brightly light, the men stand to either side of it in darkness. We sense the lone figure’s unhappy destiny....