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....


Kate Gabrielle said...

I didn't think the first post seemed that bad! Are you a perfectionist? :)

Anyhow-- I do love this movie, and I thought you did a splendid job talking about it!

R. D. Finch said...

Riku, this is one of your best posts ever--really focused and thoughtful. The next time I watch "Notorious" I'm bound to see it with new eyes. I especially liked the attention you gave Rains. Of all his many, many fine supporting performances, this is to my mind the best. He is such a coolly menacing scoundrel throughout the movie, but in that last seen so pathetic that I can't help feeling sorry for him. I am, however, puzzled by the statement that there are no "dramatic [camera] sweeps." I may be mistaken (it's been awhile since I last saw it), but I recall this as the film where the camera sweeps around and around Grant and Bergman during that incredibly long kiss, multiplying the already abundant eroticism of the scene even further.

Olivier EYQUEM said...

Nice job, and congratulations for your Nobel Prize. I'll see if I can get you the Goncourt here in France. You speak of a "ménage à trois". I would go further and speak of a "ménage à quatre", considering the importance of Sebastian's mother in the plot. I remember a very striking shot of her and Sebatian in the bedroom, clearly suggesting an almost incestuous relationship between them.

Anonymous said...

The name of Bergman's character is Alicia, not Alice. Just a clarification in case other readers to this post were confused.

Also, is the Sebastian character really a "coolly menacing scoundrel" except for the last scene? He certainly seems heartless, but he is also controlled by his mother for much of the film, suggesting a certain weakness on his part throughout.

Just some thoughts, I really do like Riku and R.D. Finch's other ideas very much.

Richard Hourula said...

Thanks anonymous I fixed the Alice/Alicia mistake.

Jay said...

First of all Riku - great post!

I agree with Anonymous regarding Hitch's depiction of Sebastian. He is one in a fairly impressive and insidious line of impotent "mamma's boys." One of my favorite moments from this terrific film (thanks for posting on this Riku!!!) occurs when, shortly after discovering that he has married an "American agent" and acknowledging that - if discovered - will surely be killed by his Nazi cohorts, Sebastian's mother sits up in her bed, gleefully lights up a cigarette(!), essentially tells him to stop whining like an insufferable wuss, reminds him that he is "protected by the enormity of his stupidity," and then happily takes over the task of punishing/poisoning Alicia. While this castrating super-ego mother figure would eventually reach its nadir in the "persona" of Mrs. Bates (though Mitch's mom in _The Birds_ comes close), Sebastian's domineering mother is a wonderful addition to this recurring motif in Hitch's cinema.

I also love the way Rains' Sebastian is so perpetually insecure in his masculinity around - or when even thinking about - Devlin...great stuff.

Again, thanks so much for the post. I love that it has generated so much discussion. Keep up the great Blog!

robert said...

It's simple: 'Notorious' features four protean Hollywood talents at the peak of their respective careers. Grant was never more debonair, nor required to do more acting as the troubled T.R. Devlin (you'd be troubled, too, if you had to "pimp" the woman you love to a Nazi with a castrating mother!). Bergman was at the height of her luminous beauty and, as if that weren't enough, gives a performance that transcends her looks--no mean feat. Hitchcock puts everything together perfectly with an intelligent script by Ben Hecht. I ask: does it get any better than this? Flt