Sunday, April 12, 2009

Notorious: Part 1

After my last post, I was presented with a task: To reveal my review and opinion on my favorite movie Notorious.

Part of a comment I received, from Emily, was:
"Alexis: Have you ever written a review of Notorious, anywhere? I'd love to read your thoughts on it, as it's my favourite film!"

I know that on one of my blogs, I had discussed my love of Notorious, but I think it was on Seriously? and not here.

This 1946 Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece is my favorite piece of cinema ever created. The film truly won me over, for me to narrow this down, is a feat in itself. I love that someone mentioned it because not 4 minutes ago, I switched on the DVD player and sure enough, I'm watching the movie right now. Ingrid Bergman is WASTED and they're about to go for a drive. I love that she says "My car is outside." Then Cary Grant replies, "Naturally." Beautiful. I could probably pick this movie apart second by second. I could devote myself to every frame, every emotion, the actors, the writers, directors, footage, etc. So now I will take you on a ride, a joy ride through my love of Notorious. "I'm going to take it to 80 and wipe that grin off your face."

The first thing I would like to share with you is my paper I wrote for an application to Chapman University. The objective was to express why a certain film is your favorite film in 2 pages or less. I cheated and didn't double space, and tried to include whatever I could. This was probably the most difficult paper I have ever written. To try and make something that is 102 minutes and part of your heart, soul, and mind, and put it into two pages of 8.5"x11", not an easy task.

The second thing I would like to do would be to section off different parts of Notorious and really break them down. I'm going to analyze the movie... in the way that I was talking about in a previous paragraph. Maybe not moment by moment, but important moment by moment (we'll see how it goes and there's a chance you will learn every possible thought I have about each frame).

The 3rd thing, if I still have your attention, is I would LOVE to have everyone's input during these blogs. I want to know if you know different elements about Notorious, if you have a favorite part, if maybe a scene I mention brings feelings to your life, or whatever...if you totally hate it, tell me, I may stop, I may not... please, no curses (lets pretend the M.P.P.A.A. would be on you, like the would in 1946).

Hope you're still with me here... let's get started! :)

Here is the paper:

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 film, Notorious, is my favorite movie because it combines several elements that I admire. The film encompasses the essence of post-war era film, stars Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, director Alfred Hitchcock, and a clever resistance to the production codes of the time.

In Notorious, Ingrid Bergman plays the part of Alicia Huberman, a woman with loose morals who we first see as promiscuous, drunk, and cynical. Whether it is for her ravishing looks, outlandish partying, or deceitful father, Alicia is the center of attention. This character is a prime example of the female Gothic character (a victim as well as victimizing woman) found within post-war film noir. She is wronged by men (particularly her romantic partners in the movie, T.R. Devlin played by Cary Grant, and Alexander Sebastian, played by Claude Raines) and society (the United States C.I.A. as well as the Germans in Rio) but she also makes them her prey. Alicia is, as she puts it, “the Mata Hari— she makes love for the papers.” She is powerful when she uses her sexuality, street smarts, and looks, but she lives outside of her designated gender role, seeking power and freedom that is not rightfully hers (with in the guidelines of the time). She drinks too much, parties too hard, and yet Bergman portrays her with a sensitivity that makes her loveable and believable. She wants Devlin’s love as well as a normal life that is disassociated with her father’s Nazism and her less than perfect track record. This character is complex. She is funny, hard boiled, sensitive and has feminist qualities. Alicia Huberman is a main character, though not credited as such, without her, there is no conflict and no picture and as far as I am concerned, the same can be said about Ingrid Bergman. She is my favorite film character in perfected by my favorite actress.

Cary Grant depicts T.R. Devlin, a mysterious, handsome C.I.A. agent whose first name is never revealed. He brings a sense of humor to the picture that is not at all flighty; it is dark and sometimes shrewd. Devlin acts as the perfect juxtaposition to Alicia’s character. He is supposed to be a man of high morals, a government worker, who follows and uses the rules to their full potential. He is smart and uptight but a romantic when the mood calls for it. His character appears at first, in a film noir fashion, as a black silhouette. He does not reveal his name for quite a while and he is very quiet. I fall in love with this character every time I watch the film. He says most of my favorite lines, including “Dry your eyes baby, it’s out of character.” and when Alicia tells Devlin, “My car is outside,” he simply responds with “Naturally.” Devlin is statuesque in contrast to Alicia’s fluidity. He says so little yet says exactly what he means and exactly what she wants to hear. Devlin is Alicia’s “dream man” and though he (and the audience) has to wait to take her away from her old life, he ends up satisfying her dream of a life of “daisies and buttercups.”

Notorious finds a new genre of drama and humor for Cary Grant, outside of his classic screwball comedy films such as Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and Arsenic and Old Lace. Both Grant and Ingrid Bergman played characters that were contrary to their public images at the time. In 1946 Cary Grant was seen as a happy-go-lucky kind of guy and the life of every party. in her early career, Bergman was seen as “saint-like” (at the time) due to her previous work in The Bells of Saint Mary’s, Casablanca, and Spellbound. They brought a new authenticity to their acting abilities as well as to Notorious when they starred as Alicia Huberman and T.R. Devlin. Their acting in this film and willingness to break expectations are two of my favorite elements within this classic.

Hitchcock presents several shots which I especially admire. When Alicia is in bed nursing a nasty hangover there is a camera angle that throws off equilibrium with a rotating, first person point of view shot. It attains empathetic, claustrophobic, and nauseating feelings, provided by the character and for the audience. There is a shot on the plane, when Devlin says “…we’re coming into Rio.” Alicia leans over his lap to look out of the opposite side of the plane. He looks directly at her and we see him fall in love in that instant. The shot sets two characters in completely separate worlds: she is focused on the future that lies ahead and he is focused on her. This shot is quick, simple, and perfect. Many transitions in this film are achieved with quick dissolves and fades. My favorite transition of all time is found in this film. The two characters dine at a street café, sitting opposite one another. This is where they discuss love, hate, and all that lies in between. When the mission is set and their bond is put into jeopardy, Devlin is sitting in his chair sipping coffee and Alicia is absent from her chair. The shot then dissolves into a scene at a restaurant where Alicia is sitting on her side of the table, but in a different locale. For a split second, the dissolve looks like the two are sitting together, but as it clears, Alexander Sebastian takes Devlin’s place and the plot ensues. This message is loud and clear but can be missed at first glance. The attention to detail is beautiful. There is one series of shots (though I could go through all of them, if given the chance) that is worth noting. The first is a lengthy shot of Alicia and the tea cup that carries the poisoned coffee. Hitchcock wanted both the cup and Ingrid Bergman to be in sharp focus so he had props make a tea cup three times the size of the original. The tea cup takes on personification that cannot be ignored. The cup’s haunting, human-like presence creates a new suspense that is only enhanced further by what happens next. When Alicia realizes that she is being poisoned and that Alex and his mother know who she is, she becomes panicked and her vision blurs. Alex and his mother become disfigured silhouettes and the sound as well as the lighting becomes distorted. There is nowhere for Alicia or the audience to go and the psychological thriller is fully developed; there is only hope for a rescue. Hitchcock’s resourceful nature comes through in with my last favorite shot. He used a lift that would take his camera, a focus man, and himself to the top of Sebastian’s ballroom for a long shot of the party and would take him down for an extreme close up of Bergman’s hand clenching the wine cellar key. This shot, though elaborately staged, is essential to finding out the weight that this key has for the plot. The key is symbolic of relationships between Devlin and Alicia, the Allies and the Germans, Alex and Alicia as well as others. The ingenuity is amazing and the shot is beautifully accomplished.

Hitchcock’s cunning manipulation of the production code is something I consider very admirable. He found loopholes everywhere regarding morality codes and post-war sentiment, and most famously a kissing scene. The film writer, Ben Hecht, and he created lines that subtly questioned the pro-American ideals of the time such as: “No thank you. I don’t go for patriotism…waving the flag with one hand and picking pockets with the other. That’s your patriotism.” They cleverly created a movie completely about Nazism and international affairs without ever uttering the word “Nazi.” Also, they defied moral standards by working their way around the rules. The three-second kissing standard made by the Production Code Administration was contrived into a three-minute scene where Bergman and Grant nuzzled and cuddled with a kiss here and there. The kiss was awkward for the actors to shoot, but beautiful to watch. All of these elements combine for a cinematic masterpiece and my favorite film of all time.


Emily said...

Interesting and thoughtful essay! I enjoyed it; thanks for posting :)

You brought up the concept of the "female Gothic character" which I am actually not familiar with, and it does seem appropriate to label Alicia as such, although she was much more the victim in this film...after all, her victim Sebastian ended up turning the tables on her!
Also, would you consider Notorious to be a film noir?

I also do love how IB and CG were willing to play against type.

Ingrid is so sensual in this role, it's amazing. I personally watched Notorious after seeing her in Spellbound, so the contrast in how she played the two characters was impressive (to me at least).

I often think about CG in Suspicion when I watch him in Notorious, because although Devlin isn't being suspected of murder as Johnny Aysgarth is, in both films, Cary conveys a sense of having built a wall to hide the truth from his leading lady. It's almost shady, and you know that there is a lot going through Devlin's mind, but he hoods his face so that Alicia can't read it. Sometimes you can see the split second where his face betrays him and for a moment there's a hint of his true feelings, before he can recover to make his face unreadable once again. It's very controlled acting, in my humble opinion (but what do I know?).

That amazing dissolve transition was actually something I hadn't ever caught on my own. I read about it in someone's review somewhere online. For shame! I know. I still shake my head at myself. I realize now just how incredibly powerful it is.

Alexis said...

First of all--don't discount your knowledge-- everyone knows things and you never know what you're sharing--so far it's been beneficial and right on the mark!

As far as the Gothic Female Character-- There is a great book that I feel explains this type of character-- It's called "The Women Who Knew Too Much" and it is found here on

Here is an initial working definition as well:
"When Ellen Moers first used the term ‘Female Gothic’ in Literary Women (1976),
she thought that it was easily defined as ‘the work that women writers have done
in the literary mode that, since the eighteenth century, we have called “the
Gothic.”’1 A definition of ‘the Gothic’ was, she admitted, less easily stated, ‘except
that it has to do with fear’ (90).Moers’ analysis of Female Gothic texts as a coded
expression of women’s fears of entrapment within the domestic and within the
female body, most terrifyingly experienced in childbirth, was extremely influential.
It not only engendered a body of critical work which focused on the ways in which
the Female Gothic articulated women’s dissatisfactions with patriarchal society
and addressed the problematic position of the maternal within that society, but
placed the Gothic at the centre of the female tradition."
This is from When Ellen Moers first used the term ‘Female Gothic’ in Literary Women (1976),
she thought that it was easily defined as ‘the work that women writers have done
in the literary mode that, since the eighteenth century, we have called “the
Gothic.”’1 A definition of ‘the Gothic’ was, she admitted, less easily stated, ‘except
that it has to do with fear’ (90).Moers’ analysis of Female Gothic texts as a coded
expression of women’s fears of entrapment within the domestic and within the
female body, most terrifyingly experienced in childbirth, was extremely influential.
It not only engendered a body of critical work which focused on the ways in which
the Female Gothic articulated women’s dissatisfactions with patriarchal society
and addressed the problematic position of the maternal within that society, but
placed the Gothic at the centre of the female tradition. By the 1990s, however,
partly as a result of poststructuralism’s destabilising of the categories of gender, the
term was increasingly being qualified and there has been an ongoing debate as to
whether the Female Gothic constitutes a separate literary genre. Today, over 25
years later, the terms being offered – ‘women’s Gothic’, ‘feminine Gothic’, ‘lesbian
Gothic’, even ‘Gothic feminism’ – appear to suggest that Moers’ definition is too
much an umbrella term, and, possibly, too essentialising.
In his introduction to the special number of Women’s Writing on Female Gothic
Writing in 1994 Robert Miles suggested that the term Female Gothic had ‘hardened
into a literary category’,2 arguing that the early feminist criticism had reached
an ‘impasse’ (132). The essays in that number were invited explicitly to explore,
extend or challenge the critical validity of the term, and it was particularly suggested
that essays might investigate materialist directions, re-assess the use of psychoanalysis,
or use the ‘Male Gothic’ to contextualise their discussion. In
retrospect, these essays, which do all these things as well as, in Miles’ words, ‘challenging
. . . the concept of gender itself ’(134), offered a state-of-the-art snapshot
which indicated some of the most important directions in which criticism of the
Female Gothic would move in the ensuing decade.
Miles’ own Ann Radcliffe: The Great Enchantress (1995) the following year offered
not merely a comprehensive account of this central figure but also, in his reading of
The Female Gothic
Then and Now
Andrew Smith and Diana Wallace University of Glamorgan

which you can find at

These are all interesting reads if you're into theory or trying to really dig deep into the heart of character types and historical content.

Also--they can be skimmed to find stuff too, if you're not interested in digging so much! haha.

Hope this helps to give a definition of a Female Gothic character. I didn't want to tell you what I think because I know what the character is--but I'm not good at putting it into so many words (

Great question!! :)

Joe Frank said...

I just stumbled on your blog after searching for reviews on Notorious. I have often told people that Notorious is my favorite film. Usually, I get a blank look in response. Even people familiar with Hitchcock are often not familiar with the film.

I first saw Notorious a few days before Cary Grant died. I was stunned. Classic films aren't necessarily known for deep character development. My prior favorite Hitchcock films, North by Northwest and Rear Window, were driven mainly by story. Notorious is very different. The three main characters are very messed up people. You could spend hours discussing Alicia and Devlin. One question, why does Alicia fall in love with Devlin? Is it for the superficial reason that he is tall dark and handsome? After all, he treats her poorly through most of the film. As a man who has stuggled to understand women,I would like to hear a woman's persective.

About Me

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An avid Ingrid Bergman fan, I am a student of her life and work as well as film, filmmaking and Classic Film in general. I have my M.F.A. in TV/Film Production from USC School of Cinematic Arts and have been making a living in the business they call show. Feel free to follow me on Twitter @alexis_morrell