Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)

(An old post reposted, just because)

Saw this for the umpteenth time and for the umpteenth time was blown away. Poor Alicia (Bergman), with her nymphomanic appetites--which, it's suggested, stem from a deep inner conflict with her father; poor Devlin (Grant), who shies away from women because of painful experiences in the past with women like Alicia; poor Alex (Rains), the, strange to say, most innocent of the three (strange because he's the villain), insecure because she's so beautiful and he's so old. Three unhappy people talking at cross purposes with each other, lying to each other, yearning that the other open up to him or her. It's about as painfully funny a portrait of an unhappy love triangle as any I can think of, and that there's an espionage plot seamlessly grafted on to the affair giving it a breathless urgency makes the film all the more remarkable.

Everyone points to the famous scene early in the picture where Hitchcock circumvents the Production Code about the permissible length of kisses (about three seconds) by having Alicia and Devlin pleasure each other with a series of shorter kisses, all the while locked in a casual yet carnal embrace, giving what is unmistakeably meant to be foreplay (it could as easily be postcoital but Hitchcock possibly to placate the censors pointedly shows them arriving at the apartment beforehand)--a brief buss, a nuzzle, an earlobe caressed, a nibble, the languorous sound of the waves cascading leisurely down the beach. Lovely scene, but really a prelude to the hot sizzle Hitchcock delivers later at Alex's house party, where in the official story Devlin has to think up a quick excuse for him and Alicia to be near the fateful basement (storehouse of the film's official MacGuffin: powdered uranium in wine bottles) and grabs Alicia, giving her a hard kiss. The allure of forbidden fruit (she's married to Alex), the added spice of exhibitionism (she's revealing her infidelity to her husband) flavors the thousand-watt charge of her frustrated feelings for Devlin unexpectedly given chance to vent: she gets into it (the way only Bergman with her astonishing intimacy with the camera can), she abandons herself to the moment, her whispers to Devlin are hoarse with lust and hopeless love.

And while Devlin and Alicia's romance/hatred for each other dominates the audience's attention, you can't help but point out another just-as-crucial couple onscreen, tearing each others hearts out: Alex and his mother Madame Sebastian (Leopoldine), who Alex loves and hates in equal measure and who loves and suffocates him in turn, heartbroken when her son chooses Alicia over her, to the point that she takes to bed (presumably to die). Then the magnificent moment when Alex comes to her bedroom, and admits failure (of his marriage, of his manhood); and Madame Anna--rising from her bed, putting a penis (sorry, cigarette) in her mouth--nonchalantly lighting it (symbolizing, in effect, the rekindling of her virility).

Then the ending, the slow glide down the stairways, the dread and terror one feels for Alicia that so neatly turns about with the simple slamming of a car door and settles unshakeably on Alex's shoulders. Alicia's glowing expression as she looks at the man she truly loves, while the man who truly loves her (and he does; he only turns malignant when he learns of her betrayal, of the danger she has put him in--whereas Devlin's regard for Alicia is never similarly tested) is left behind to face his destiny. Hitchcock has passed judgment and we're stunned, unsure at the justice of the verdict--but that could be part of Hitchcock's point: that in the genre of romantic thrillers (and life itself if you want to go in that direction) conclusions are rarely fair, happy endings not always deserving, beauty is its own (if unwarranted, even unwanted) reward. C'est la mort.



Anonymous said...

I don't say this just to shmooze you, but you may be the most insightful film critic around.

That is brilliant, even deep.

Noel Vera said...

Missed this. Thanks.