Day 363: ‘Notoriety and Sacrifice’ 2018

Day 363
Thursday 28 June 2018   11.35pm
‘Notoriety and Sacrifice’  2018

Notorious  (1946)
An Alfred Hitchcock Film

Top 100 Films –
Appears on TIME Magazine’s 100 Greatest Films list along with Psycho (1960).
Absent from the Top 100 2012 BFI Critics and Directors Poll (although 10 critics and 2 directors put it in their Top Ten list).

Today I finished reading Dan Auiler’s book, The Making of Vertigo. It’s exceptionally well researched and contains a lot of fascinating material on how the film was received initially, and then when it was re-released in 1983 or 1984, and how it was restored to the 2006 version which is the one I watched. It made me want to see the film again before this project is over. But it also made me want to see a film which I rate as highly as Vertigo, if not moreso, Notorious.

Growing up, Notorious, starred one of my favourite actors, Cary Grant, and because it was directed by my favourite director, Alfred Hitchcock, I watched it regularly on television. At some point in time, I got it on DVD, and it’s been a film that I’ve seen more often than any other Hitchcock film. When I was kid it was just a spy thriller that I thought was really interested. I watched it over and over, becoming more and more sympathetic for Alicia Huberman, each time I watched it as a more mature person. Finally, I started to realise, probably in my late twenties, that she is treated appallingly by the men in the film, including Devlin (Cary Grant). The person who treats her best and most lovingly is one of the people that we know is going to be one of the villains, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), but even he becomes controlling and unfeeling. Her entire experience of men for the length of the film is one of being treated like she’s a piece of luggage, to be thrown around, knocked around, needed only because it’s a useful thing to have.

I saw my blu-ray of the film a few years ago and felt afterwards that it was a masterpiece. Then I recalled that when TIME Magazine (Schickel and Corliss) published their list of the 100 Greatest Films, they include Psycho and Notorious. Not Vertigo. Notorious. Not Rear Window or North by Northwest. So, I decided to fit it into my schedule of films for the project because I know it’s a marvellous film and I want to compare it with Vertigo because I regard it as a film that is almost as dark in the treatment of women as the obvious choice, Vertigo.

Tonight’s viewing was a revelation. I have learned to watch films much more closely than I ever have before. I’ve learned to watch film over the last year because they’re important for this or that reason, and not for enjoyment. Enjoyment may be a byproduct, but I’ve come to understand that if you love film, entertainment shouldn’t be the foremost reason. Learning and education and appreciation of art, should be the reason, or at least my reason.

Notorious is now in my mind one of the five greatest Hitchcock films. If I had to choose the best 100 films on 1 July 2018, and I was going to include two or three Hitchcock films, Notorious would be a real contender, far above North by Northwest (#53 and #107) and Rear Window (#53 and #48), both of which ended up in the Critics Top 100, which are much lighter in subject manner and execution. They’re fun to watch and nothing’s taken too seriously. They’re not films where a major movie star (male) treats another major movie star (female) with such a lack of respect. They’re not films where one of the main characters treats an equally important character so shamefully.

In Vertigo, Scottie’s reason for putting Judy through the wringer is because of his obsession with Madeleine. It’s unknowing, to the extent that he’s allow his emotion to drive his behaviour. In Notorious, Devlin makes a mindful decision to allow Alicia to be manipulated by the government, an agency that’s on the lookout for other conspiracies Germans might be concocting, because it’s part of his job, and his allegiance is to his job, not his emotions. He puts an unbearable pressure on Alicia, already beaten down by the weight of her notoriety, the daughter of an American traitor, to accept the job. What’s clever in Ben Hecht’s script is that he does it without even asking her to do it. He withholds information from her – his feelings for her – and tells her that she has to decide what to do. He acts as if it doesn’t matter to him either way.  She desperately wants him to give her permission not to accept this job, because it calls for her to be treated callously, and for their sexual pleasure, by the kind of man who brought Europe to its knees in World War II.

When spies had to do this kind of thing in other films I’ve seen or books I’ve read a phrase came to be popularly used when someone, particularly a woman, had to sleep with the enemy to get information. I don’t know who coined it, but it was an expectation by the superiors in government agencies of their agent. If the man pressures the woman to have sex with him and she can get closer to him by submitting to this, “Lie back and think of England.” The none-too-subtle reference is to put your country first. Ironically that’s what Devlin and Alicia end up doing, Devlin because he’s weak and won’t stand up for her. Alicia because she thinks of herself as damaged goods, a certain kind of woman, for whom men have only contempt.

The acting by Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman is amongst the most subtle of their performances, the direction is tight and thrilling by Hitchcock, the script by Ben Hecht draws real people out of several characters which in most films are stock characters, with no hidden shades, no other dimensions of which allow the characters to be believable. Together, Hecht, Hitchcock, Grant, Bergman and Rains, make something tangible about the conflicts that circumstances can arouse which can result in people concealing – even to themselves – what they’re feeling and experience. Cary Grant’s character keeps from saying what he should have said to her, while Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia, bares her soul, her heart, her mind, to Devlin, in one of the most fragile, vulnerable moments of any film I’ve seen. Like Judy in Vertigo, she goes along with the person who has the control or the power, and allows herself to be manipulated.

Unlike Vertigo, one of Hitchcock’s boldest endings, Notorious has a climax which isn’t tragic. What Alicia has been forced to endure is terrible, and will no doubt always haunt her, but there is a sense of hope.