Alfred Hitchcock Triumphs with “Notorious”

19 09 2010

“The story of ‘Notorious’ is the old conflict between love and duty. Cary Grant’s job – and it’s a rather ironic situation – is to push Ingrid Bergman into Claude Rains’s bed. One can hardly blame him for seeming bitter throughout the story, whereas Claude Rains is a rather appealing figure, both because his confidence is being betrayed and because his love for Ingrid Bergman is probably deeper than Cary Grant’s. All of these elements of psychological drama have been woven into the spy story.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock reached a new peak in moviemaking with “Notorious,” released by RKO Pictures in 1946. Playing on fears that lingered in the new, postwar era, “Notorious” wraps together romance, espionage, suspense and glamor. As Hitch mentions above, the movie starred Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant and Claude Rains, with a script by Ben Hecht from a short story that had been set in World War I.

Hecht and Hitchcock moved the story into the days just after World War II. Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, whose German father is found guilty of treason against the United States as the story begins. As her father is thrown into prison, Huberman gets drunk with her houseguests, trying to forget that she, too, is under suspicion. When she awakens the next morning, one guest is left: T.R. Devlin (Grant), an FBI agent who needs her help. The agency has learned that some of her father’s German compatriots have relocated to Brazil, and they need Huberman to infiltrate the group and find out what they’re planning.

After Devlin says that her service could help her father, Huberman agrees, and they fly to Rio de Janeiro – but during the flight, Devlin tells Huberman that her father died in prison that morning. It’s this kind of manipulation that characterizes the whole film. Devlin and Huberman fall in love while waiting for her assignment to begin, and when her orders come through, Devlin is visibly disgusted, as she has been instructed to get close to one of her father’s friends by seducing him. Knowing her reputation for partying and sleeping around, Devlin turns cool, making snide remarks about how it will be easy for her to draw on past experience to get close to Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains). Sebastian will be easy prey, as he was in love with Huberman years before.

Devlin’s behavior could be a ploy to motivate Huberman into the assignment, or to protect her by pretending he never really cared about her – or he could just be lashing out, frustrated at what’s being asked of her and powerless to do anything about it.

Huberman, with Devlin at her side, meets Sebastian while horseriding, and soon Huberman and Sebastian are a couple. Sebastian is suspicious of Devlin, though, who keeps showing up wherever they go; he’s getting information from Huberman, but she tells Sebastian that he’s an old flame she now detests. Sebastian asks her to prove that he means nothing to her by marrying him.

After the wedding, Huberman reports to Devlin that the only place she hasn’t been able to search for evidence of the German group’s activities is the wine cellar. Only Sebastian has the key, so Devlin tells her to suggest a party, during which they can get into the wine cellar.

The tone of the movie shifts with the party; the romance (and romantic frustrations) of the first half of the movie give way to sheer suspense: First, Huberman must steal the key; then, during the party, they have to slip away to the wine cellar. The pressure escalates as the guests drink champagne faster than expected, which means Sebastian will have to get more bottles from storage.

Rummaging around in the wine cellar, Devlin knocks a bottle from a shelf, revealing that it holds not liquid but what turns out to be uranium ore. With Sebastian coming down the stairs, Devlin and Huberman kiss, then explain that he forced himself on her. Sebastian doesn’t believe him, and when he returns to the cellar for champagne, he finds the remains of the broken bottle – proof enough that Devlin and Huberman are against him.

Concerned that his comrades will kill him if they find out the truth, Sebastian wants to murder his wife, but his elderly mother says it has to be gradual. They begin poisoning Huberman, and when she misses her meeting with Devlin, he becomes concerned. He breaks into Sebastian’s home and finds her in bed, more dead than alive. Sebastian finds Devlin making his way out of the house with his wife, but because his friends are on hand, too, he can’t reveal what really happened. Devlin and Huberman make their escape, leaving Sebastian in the company of his ruthless friends, who have already figured out that there’s something strange about the situation.

The original ending of “Suspicion,” made five years earlier, was supposed to have Joan Fontaine write a detailed letter about Cary Grant’s crimes, then ask him to drop it in the mail. He was then going to kill her and go ahead and post the letter. That didn’t happen in the film, of course, but Hitchcock got to revisit that kind of sophisticated ending, in which the audience has to consider the outcome for the cast, in “Notorious.” We assume that Huberman will be cured, because Devlin said he’d take care of her; we assume that their love wins out, and we assume that Sebastian will be killed by his comrades. By implying all this rather than showing it, Hitchcock creates a more intelligent ending than, say, having the villain fall to his death as in “Saboteur.”

“Notorious” boasts a phenomenal cast, of course. Cary Grant is grim throughout – he almost never cracks a smile, except when he’s putting on an act, making the viewer wonder about his own past. Ingrid Bergman is desperate but determined to do right for her country and herself. The most chilling moment of the movie comes when Devlin finds Huberman sick in bed. Holding her close, he asks what’s wrong, and she whispers, “Oh Dev, they’re poisoning me.”

As a villain, Claude Rains is rather pathetic – he’s manipulated by Bergman and Grant, his friends, and, most of all, his mother. (One of my favorite moments in the film happens when Sebastian starts to tell his mother that he’s been betrayed by his wife. Before the wedding, she had warned him that Huberman was not marriage material; later, when Sebastian starts to explain the situation, his mother smirks at him, expecting him to say that Huberman is cheating on him. When he instead says that he’s married to a U.S. agent, his mother quickly turns off her “I told you so” look and takes control of things.)

Hitchcock tells this story in a sure, simple way, with few of the flourishes that had charaterized his earlier films, other than Huberman’s distorted vision on waking up after a night of drinking, and, later, when she’s succumbing to the poison. Ben Hecht’s script – which was sharpened a bit by Clifford Odets – crackles, although some of the patter might be hard to believe coming from non-American actors less talented than Bergman and Grant.

“Notorious” features a scene that’s famous for working around the production code while subverting it to his own ends. In a scene near the start of the movie, Bergman and Grant are shown in a hotel room, kissing and holding each other. As they continue to kiss – briefly, but continuously – they make their way across the room toward the ringing telephone. The quick kisses were Hitchcock’s way around the production code, which dictated that screen kisses could only last a few second. The finished scene conformed to the guidelines while creating a scene that was far more erotic than the Hays code had anticipated.

The uranium ore found in the wine cellar is among Hitchcock’s most famous McGuffins, one which was only decided upon late in the production. Selznick reportedly didn’t understand its significance, and probably assumed that audiences wouldn’t get it, either, but by the time the film premiered, radiation and atomic bombs were front page news.

This was the second to last film Hitchcock made with producer David O. Selznick, who sold distribution rights to RKO to help him finance his own over-budget “Duel in The Sun.” Although Selznick was distracted by “Duel,” he did have some input, notably making Sebastian’s mother a stronger character.

Hitchcock was credited as producer on “Notorious,” a role he’d play more and more in years to come. Also, as the trailer below shows, he’s now being called “The Master of Suspense,” a nickname that came into use in the late 1940s, which would stay with him for the rest of his career.

Hitchcock would still make one more film with Bergman and two more with Grant. Claude Rains would appear in several episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

Next, we’ll take a look at the “Paradine Case,” starring Gregory Peck, Ann Todd and Charles Laughton.


Alfred Hitchcock Gets Psychological in “Spellbound”

12 09 2010

“It’s just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis. The whole thing’s too complicated, and I found the explanations toward the end very confusing.” — Alfred Hitchcock

If Alfred Hitchcock sounds less than enthusiastic about “Spellbound,” his 1945 film starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, it’s with good reason. It was his first film since “Rebecca” to be released by Selznick International Pictures, and David O. Selznick’s demands resulted in a not very pleasant filmmaking experience for Hitchcock, and a somewhat disjointed and trite movie.

That said, the good qualities of “Spellbound” do outweigh the bad. The story begins at a sanitorium, Green Manors, where Dr. Constance Peterson (Bergman) is fretting over the imminent departure of her boss, Dr. Murchison, played by Leo G. Carroll. Murchison has been asked to leave by the board of directors after he had a breakdown, and his replacement is a Dr. Edwardes, played by Peck.

Peterson’s colleague admires her skills as a psychologist, but says that she’s too cold, and that  she can never be truly effective until she’s known love. Of course, he wants her to fall for him, but she isn’t at all interested. And from the moment she lays eyes on Edwardes, a fire is lit within Peterson. He’s tall, young, good looking, and a bit mysterious, and she can’t resist him. Edwardes arouses suspicion, though, when he blows off his first afternoon at Green Manors to go on a walk with Peterson. (One of the funniest moments of the film occurs when Peck offers Bergman her choice of ham or liverwurst sandwiches during their walk, and she looks away dreamily and says, “Liverwurst.”)

There’s something odd about Edwardes, though. He had a hostile reaction when Peterson traced some lines on a tablecloth with a fork, and nearly freaked out when he saw something strange in a pattern on her dress. Comparing a note he sent her with a signature in a book, Peterson realizes that this is not the real Dr. Edwardes. She confronts him and learns that he is a delusional amnesiac – and that the real Edwardes is missing. The psychological jargon flies fast and furious (it’s almost like the staff at Green Manors never talks about anything but work) as they try to get to the bottom of things, but when they go to confront the phony doctor, they find that he’s gone. Peterson follows him to a New York City hotel, and she starts to work on him in earnest, believing that there’s no way he could have killed anyone.

She’s half in love with him by now, but all they have learned is that his initials are J.B. and that he was a doctor of some kind before he lost his memory. Now calling himself John Brown, he  is caught between his affection for Peterson and his growing irritation at her attempts to unlock his past and clear his name. They travel to Rochester to take refuge from the police with her mentor, an older psychologist played by Michael Checkhov (nephew of Anton Chekhov). To cover their trail, they claim to be newly married; in an odd lapse in logic, Peterson believes that Brulov is so absent-minded that he doesn’t notice their lack of wedding rings or luggage, but Brulov shows how sharp he is soon enough. When Brown awakens in the middle of the night and tries to kill Brulov in his study, the older man keeps his wits about him, talking to Brown while he gives him a glass of milk dosed with a sleeping drug.

(Another lapse in logic occurs when Brown and Peterson arrive at Brulov’s house, only to find that Brulov is not at home – but two members of the police force are waiting for him. The cops barely seem to suspect the duo, even though they’re supposed to be questioning Brulove about Peterson.)

When Brown awakens, he and Peterson explain the situation to Brulov, and Peterson begs him for help. He agrees, and, conveniently, Brown had a symbol-laden dream that night. Brulov and Peterson ignore the fact that Brown’s dream might have been affected by the sleeping drug, and instead plow into a very quick dream analysis.

As Brown recalls the dream, the scene fades from Brulov’s parlor to the dream itself, in a very famous sequence designed by surrealist painter Salvador Dali. Brown explains that he found himself in a gambling house where the walls were decorated with eyes. A scantily clad woman was kissing all the gamblers, and a masked man played blackjack with him. A seven of clubs gives him 21, and then he is running on a barren landscape where the masked man holds a melting wheel.

Slowly, Brulov and Peterson put together Brown’s clues, realizing that he had met Edwardes at a ski resort when sled tracks in the snow outside the house set off a spell of paranoia in Brown. A name from the dream gives them a clue to the name of that resort, and they go there, trying to reconstruct events while the police continue their pursuit. On the slopes, Peterson and Brown ski downhill toward a cliff, seemingly where Brown and Edwardes had been. Brown struggles to remember what happened, and has a breakthough: He remembers a childhood trauma in which he accidentally killed his younger brother.

After tipping off the police, the body of Edwardes is found at the bottom of the cliff, but the body shows that Edwardes had been shot. Brown is arrested, but Peterson, back at Green Manors, realizes what really happened when she talks to Murchison: He killed Edwards himself when he realized that he was going to be replaced. Murchison congratulates her on her “young and agile mind,” which seems to be Hitch’s way of glossing over the fact that she has solved the case with almost no clues.

Murchison pulls a revolver from his desk drawer and tells Peterson that she won’t live to tell the police, but she keeps talking to him in soothing tone, echoing Brulov’s scene with Brown, and he lets her walk out of the room, then turns the gun on himself and shoots.

Now cleared of all charges, Brown – now using his real name, Ballantyne – is released from jail, and he and Peterson are reunited. (Why he adopted Edwardes’ identity is never explained.)

David O. Selznick had pushed “Spellbound” on Hitchcock. Selznick had undergone psychoanalysis and had become a proponent for it, so much so that he also insisted that his own psychiatrist serve as a consultant on the film. The half-baked aspects of the film’s psychology – that an amnesiac could be cured with a few sessions and one dream analysis – don’t help the scenario’s believability, and the dream itself is too on-the-nose to be believed. (The melting wheel symbolizes a revolver, the seven of clubs giving Brown 21 represents New York’s 21 Club, etc.) Hitchcock had little to do with the Dali sequence, and reportedly was not happy with the famed artist’s involvement in the production.

Still, the dream sequence bears at least one distinctive Hitchcock touch, which is the oversized seven of clubs card, a trick to make the card readable on camera and add to the strange quality of the dream in a way that is certainly not Daliesque. Hitchcock’s own touches of filmmaking brilliance show here and there, in the shocking, silent moment when Ballantyne remembers killing his brother, or when Ballantyne and Peterson kiss for the first time and we see an ornate door slowly opening, to show another door that slowly opens, etc., etc. The doors are a more meaningful symbol for Peterson’s awakening sexuality than any of the ham-fisted symbols out of the dream sequence. The final Hitchcock touch is at the climax of the story; when Dr. Murchison holds a gun on his employee, we see his hand holding the gun, with the camera showing his point of view. After Peterson leaves the office, the hand slowly turns until it faces the viewer before it fires. To make the effect work, Hitchcock had a model hand and gun built, so that it could turn smoothly.

Ben Hecht, the prolific screenwriter who had worked on “Gone with the Wind” for Selznick and with Hitchcock on “Watchtower Over Tomorrow,” wrote the screenplay for “Spellbound,” based on a story by Angus McPhail, from a 1927 novel called “The House of Dr. Edwardes.” The film also includes a brief appearance by Norman Lloyd, the saboteur from Hitchcock’s film of the same name.

Although “Spellbound” loses credibility with modern audiences over its hokey psychology, the twist on Hitchcock’s typical wrong man plot, in which the female love interest must unravel the mystery to save the man, makes the picture engaging and, at times, truly gripping. Bergman is particularly brilliant; her turn from icy analyst to a fully rounded person is rather moving. Peck is fairly wooden, although he’s hampered by his character, who spends a lot of screentime rubbing his head and trying to remember who he really is, then passing out. Take a look at the poster, above, and you’ll see the emphasis on Bergman, already an international star, over Peck, who was a relative unknown at this point in his career. Hitchcock would make one more film with Peck, 1947’s “The Paradine Case,” and two more with Bergman, the 1946 classic “Notorious,” as well as the much-maligned 1949 film “Under Capricorn.”

Hitchcock himself makes a memorable cameo in “Spellbound,” exiting an elevator in a New York City hotel, cigarette in hand, looking very pleased with himself. I haven’t been writing that much about Hitch’s cameos because so many of them are not that interesting, but the sly smile on his face here could not be ignored.

For pop music fans, it’s also worth noting that “Spellbound” features early use of the theremin, which would later gain more recognition in The Beach Boys “Good Vibrations.”

Next, we’ll look at one of the true classics of cinema: “Notorious,” starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains.

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