Saturday, June 28, 2008

I know what you Nazis did last summer

On June 29 at 2:00 PM ET, TCM is airing what is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated movies of all time: Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious.

The story is part love story, part suspense. Ingrid Bergman plays Alicia Hubermann, the American daughter of a prominent Nazi sympathizer sentenced to a lengthy prison term for treason. She's pro-American at heart, and the intelligence officials know this, so they send their man Devlin (played by Cary Grant) to give Alicia an offer: she should go down to Rio de Janeiro with him to infiltrate a ring of Nazi expats living down there and doing something. Along the way, Devlin falls in love with Alicia -- who wouldn't? However, there's a catch for Devlin: the man Alicia is to meet, Alex Sebastian (played by Claude Rains), also falls in love with Alicia. Worse, Alex asks Alicia to marry him. As much as this pains Devlin, he realizes that it's actually a good thing in terms of their mission, as it will better enable Alicia to infiltrate the ring of Nazis. Clearly, though, Devlin is unnerved by it; watch how he treats Alicia in the pictured scene at the race track. Cary Grant is often given short shrift as an actor, on the grounds that he did a lot of light comedy, becoming almost typecast later in his career playing older romantic gentlemen. In Notorious, however, Grant gives one of his finest performances, showing just how good an actor he really was.

As for the suspense in Notorious, the "Macguffin" is that the Nazis are looking in Brazil for uranium sands, presumably with the intention of building an atomic bomb, although the movie never makes this clear, as it doesn't need to for the sake of the story. (As Hitchcock says in a segment that plays on TCM from time to time, the audience doesn't need to care about the Macguffin; it could just as easily have been industrial diamonds as uranium-238.) Alex Sebastian is the front man for the Nazis; it's in his palatial estate that the research is going on. Little does he know, of course, that his wife is spying on him for the Americans; he doesn't find out until after a party he and Alicia throw, planned by her with the express purpose of getting Devlin into the house to look for the Nazi secret. Here, watch for Hitchcock's execution of suspense: the uranium sands are being kept in certain wine bottles in the wine cellar. First, Alicia has to get into the cellar; the key to it is kept separately from the other keys in the house, and Hitchock expertly focuses on that key. Then, there's the problem that Alicia and Devlin might get caught in the wine cellar. Hitchcock builds the tension by showing an ice bucket filled with champagne bottles, and repeatedly returns to it, each time with fewer and fewer bottles left. Of course, Alicia and Devlin eventually do find the uranium sands, while Alex discovers that Alicia is an American agent. Claude Rains is outstanding in Notorious, perhaps even better that Cary Grant. Pay attention to the scene in which Alex tells his mother that he's married to a spy. Rains also gets some excellent facial expressions in the final scene -- and note that it is he, and not Grant or Bergman, who gets the finale.

Alex and his mother (a delightful study in evil played by an actress credited not with her given name, but as "Madame Konstantin") decide to poison Alicia by poisoning her coffee, leading, they hope, to a slow death that will creep up on Alicia before she can suspect anything -- just as she crept up on them. Eventually, Devlin realizes something is wrong when Alicia stops showing up for her contacts with him, and decides to force matters by seeing Alicia at her house to see just what is the matter with her. Will Devlin be able to save Alicia? Or will Alex be able to stop him? The climax is carried out on the grand staircase of the Sebastian house, and has just as much suspense as the party scene earlier in the movie. For a bit of trivia, though, pay attention to the staircase in the final scene. There's far too much action going on in that climax for it all to have taken place during the time it would take to walk down the staircase, so Hitchcock had to film the actors multiple times, with the background wall repeating for a couple of shots before they head further down the staircase. If you count the number of stairs any time one of the actors goes up the staircase during the course of the film, and then count how many steps they take on the way down, you'll notice a big difference.

Notorious is, as I have said, one of Hitchcock's most underrated movies, if not one of the more underrated movies of all time. For whatever reason, it doesn't show up on lists like the AFI's lists of the 100 greatest movies, despite the fact that it's much better than, say, Vertigo. It also didn't get the attention it deserved from the Academy come Oscar time. It only picked up two nominations; one for Rains, who richly deserved a Supporting Actor Oscar for his work but had the great bad luck to be up against Harold Russell in The Best Years Of Our Lives. Ben Hecht was nominated for his screenplay, but lost to The Seventh Veil. Even more sadly, Notorious is not readily available on DVD. It was released several years ago, but is out of print, and fetches a high price. Considering the director and the star power, Notorious would make an exceptionally good candidate for a new DVD release.

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