09 June 2006

101. notorious

well, i can see why this is on the list. its weird, because i remember watching this one a few years back and not liking it for some reason. i think i probably just wasn't paying attention, because its really good, and its good in all the ways that we extol classical hollywood films for: it has movie stars acting well and acting cool and looking great, it is visually inventive, and it is written cleverly and well.

here one of the things that's genuinely missing from modern movies: glamour. these old movies had lots of soft-lit close-ups, and the black and white had some texture that you don't get with color. as a result, you fall in love with faces of movie stars long dead. and why not, when they act like this? everyone smokes, because no one knew what lung cancer was yet. everyone drinks and drinks, and ingrid bergman drinks drunk, and no one says a word. they wear beautiful edith head costumes, they get great reveals (like the reveal of cary grant in the beginning), they get one-liners like "want my coat?" "you'll do?". and they get a three minute kiss in a long take that involves discussing dinner and a telephone call.

and we wonder why people are nostaglic for classical hollywood?

hitchcock deserves his reputation, i think. some of the things he did with the camera in this movie are amazing. using canted framing to show a drunk person's pov, the aforementioned reveal of cary grant, the use of steps as a symbol (particularly at the end, with grant and bergman walking down steps to freedom and claude rains walking up steps to certain death), the rigging that must have been done for the long shot at the party that ends in bergman's reveal of the key in her hand, and all those close-ups! you need close-ups!

that leaves us with the real meat: the writing. this movie is written extraordinarily well, and on several different levels. the first is that the structure is almost flawless. in the beginning moments we understand what the context is and the setting, and we are introduced to the two main characters in the second scene, with an emphasis on bergman's "notorious" nature and grant's always-in-control personality. she is given her assignment and off we go somewhere exotic: rio. 1st act sets up bergman and grant's relationship and the conflict: that they have to abandon what they feel for each other so that she can use her "reputation" for spying. 2nd act is her hooking up with claude rains and furthering the conflict between her and grant, with the 2nd half of the second act being the brilliant party scene, with the great tension device of champagne bottle in lieu of a ticking clock. rains finds out something fishy, which sets up the 3rd act of he and his mother slowly poisoning bergman and grant coming in to save the day.

bare bones, i know, but watch closely and you'll see how this plot structure allows for all kinds of commentary on human nature (immaturity of men, mostly) and commentary on war. in addition, so much of the movie runs on clever subtext. this is not a minor point: this movie is better because of the hays code. it allows the movie to hint at the fact that bergman is a floozy without ever saying it outright. "add sebastian to my playmates" is a good example, although there are many others. this movie, based on the censorship code and ben hecht using it as a placebo for high-society at that time, gives everyone so much subtext in all their dialogue, most of it centering on bergman. and in a way what i think hecht was really getting at -- either consciously or subconsciously -- was that age old dilemma about woman: that men want them to be whores when we meet, but virgins at heart.

probably that's why hitchcock decided to do the movie.