Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Notorious Hitchcock

by Salman Hameed

On of my all time favorite films is Notorious. The story, the cinematography, the dialogue - everything is just superb. It is now out on blur-ray along with other Hitchcock classics, Spellbound and Rebecca. I was reading this article about Notorious this past Sunday and I was struck by this paragraph which illustrates the way films became a different art form than novels and plays:
It’s with Hitchcock that many of us begin to sense the presence of the director, to understand that movies are more than a matter of attractive people reciting their lines in front of a camera. Along with Orson Welles, Hitchcock is the filmmaker most responsible for making viewers aware of form, for showing us that what we have here is something distinct from novels and plays, a medium with its own things to say and its own way of saying them.
Very cool! It makes sense, and of course, Citizen Kane is a perfect example of this. The article goes on to talk about Notorious and how it switches the points of view in the film and then makes an interesting comment about authoritarian cultures. First the bit about Notorious:
“Notorious,” for example, could be considered an exercise in the artful variation of points of view, as created through camerawork that is, with one conspicuous exception, almost entirely objective. As he would do 14 years later in “Psycho” (1960, and perhaps the film most closely related to “Notorious” in the Hitchcock canon), Hitchcock begins the film with a kind of journalistic detachment, offering a precise dateline (“Miami, Florida. Three-Twenty P.M., April the Twenty-Fourth, Nineteen Hundred and Forty-Six ...”) and inviting the audience to share the predatory curiosity of the reporters and photographers waiting outside a courtroom for the “notorious” Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the beautiful and loose-living daughter of a Nazi spy who has just been convicted of treason. 
An alcoholic with a reputation for sleeping around, Alicia is far from the typical Hollywood heroine of 1946. But Hitchcock quickly transfers our sympathy to her with a single, audacious image: at a party at her house, a dark silhouette, seen from behind, dominates the scene with a supernatural presence: this is Devlin (Cary Grant), a man without a past (or even a first name) who turns out to be a federal agent, sent to manipulate Alicia into signing up for a dangerous secret mission. As irresponsible as Alicia may be, we learn from the lighting and his position in the frame that Devlin is something much worse: a user, a schemer, a cop.
...
 The point of view now widens to embrace the couple, as Devlin struggles to complete his mission and get Alicia out safely. These passages become the occasion for some marvelously executed set pieces: the theft of the key, the discovery in the wine cellar, Alicia’s realization that Sebastian knows of her treachery (by now, they are married) and is slowly poisoning her.
But Hitchcock has one more shift of perspective to execute. With the discovery of his wife’s infidelity Sebastian too has become a victim. He has loved inappropriately, against the wishes of his mother — a figure (the actress is billed as Madame Konstantin) as stern and desiccated as Mrs. Bates in “Psycho” — and now he must pay for his error.
This is what makes both Psycho and Notorious extraordinary. But the article goes further to talk about the embedded critique of suppression in the name of preserving order and morality. We see this in the rhetoric of the religious-right in the US and I'm familiar with even more pronounced debates in Pakistan (it also reminded me of the recent episode of TV vigilantism against couples in Karachi by the host of a morning TV program): 
For Hitchcock, this is nothing less than the error of being human, of having needs and feelings within an authoritarian culture, a compound of church and state, that insists on suppressing such things in the name of order and morality. At the end of “Notorious” Hitchcock doesn’t focus on the glamorous couple escaping into a future of shared romantic ecstasy but on the isolated figure of Sebastian, slowly climbing a short flight of stairs (always a weighted image in Hitchcock) on the way to facing a lonely death.
Perfect! 
It is at such moments as this that we finally and most fully appreciate Hitchcock. Behind the dazzling entertainer, behind the peerless master of form, there is a man of great heart, who sides not with the judges but with the judged, who reserves his compassion for those unfortunate creatures — like Norman Bates in “Psycho,” Scottie Ferguson in “Vertigo,” or the entire uncomprehending population of Bodega Bay in “The Birds” — who must live under the eyes of angry gods. Which is to say, all of us.
Read the full article here and here the trailer for Notorious:



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