Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Fat-headed Guy Full of Pain

What's the best film ever made? With over a century of filmmaking behind us, there are a lot of contenders (and that's not a reference to On the Waterfront). Alfred Hitchock's Notorious from 1946 comes close. It has everything: star-crossed lovers, espionage, scary Nazis, an exotic South American setting, a scheming German mother who rolls her own cigarets and would put Oedipus' mom to shame, and two extremely attractive stars at the peak of their careers.

Right from the start, when the titles come up over the comically quaint skyline of Miami, you know you're in for a rich glimpse into a time gone by. Yet the film is amazingly adult. Ingrid Bergman, at the height of her luminous beauty, is portrayed as a "playgirl." What exactly did that mean in 1946? Well, she certainly likes her highballs, but her father has just been convicted of treason against the U.S., so maybe she drinks to mask the pain. And before she is recruited by Cary Grant to go to Rio to find out what the expatriot Nazis are up to she's about to go on a cruise with an elderly "friend." As arm candy/good time girl or more? The action moves too quickly for us to dwell on that.

Living as we do in the 21st century, where our most mundane tasks are performed by chip-driven technology, I love the scene early in the film where Grant demonstrates to Bergman that he knows she's a patriot and has refused to work against the U.S. with her father, proclaiming to him her love for America. Her house has been bugged, and to play the recording for her he puts a vinyl record on the phonograph. And CGI-trained eyes will spot a lot of back-projection technical issues here in the location settings, but it hardly matters when you have two such believable performers suffering so beautifully on the screen. The scene of Bergman's -- or rather Alicia's -- hangover was itself a technical milestone at the time. When Grant offers her a tumbler of orange juice, it serves as the glowing focal point of the frame because Hitchcock managed to immerse a lightbulb inside the glass.

I can't think of another film of the period that confronts us so directly with the heroine's sexual fate. Sent to Rio to spy on a family friend and perturbed over her cooling relationship with Grant, Bergman announces to him at one of their clandestine meetings, "Well, you can add me to Sebastian's list of playmates." Grant looks crestfallen at the news that she's sleeping with the gnome-ish Claude Raines, yet she's doing exactly what she's been asked to do: take one for the home team.

There are many wonderful moments in Notorious. There's the scene where Raines has to tell his mother that he's married to an American spy. She's played by the wonderful Austrian silent film veteran Leopoldine Konstantin in her first and only American film role. She was just four years older than Raines, but as his possessive mother she exults in the news that her suspicions about his wife were right, and triumphantly rolls herself a cigaret in her bed. And at the Miami party early on, when a drunken Alicia says she wants to go for a drive, Grant places his empty glass on the sternum of a snoozing socialite as they leave. But the best is the moment when Bergman is complaining to her new husband and mother-in-law about her ongoing headaches and dizziness. A guest accidentally picks up her coffee cup, and the other two cry out in alarm that it's Alicia's cup. The camera closes in on the cup and then frames Bergman's realization that she's being poisoned because the Germans are onto her. It's a dizzying, hugely impactful moment.

I've always said that if you're a man and find yourself in an uncomfortable social setting, all you have to do is ask yourself, "What would Cary Grant do?" The emotions that play across his face, the subtle shifts of amusement, and that acrobatic walk across a ballroom -- there will never again be such a suave, agile actor, and certainly not one who maintained his grace and physicality across so many decades of celluloid. In the scene where the two lovers reconcile, after Grant finally learns that Alicia is poisoned, not on an alcoholic bender as he had thought, he places his head on the pillow next to her and talks gently to keep her awake. The long series of passionate kisses in this scene was devised to get around the censor's rule that filmatic kisses of the day could not exceed three seconds, but the viewer can only see it as a couple's completely credible reuniting. Of the misunderstanding that separated them, Grant says by way of explanation, "I was a fat-headed guy full of pain." It's a nice finishing touch that when he's hustling her out of the Nazi-infested mansion to get her to a hospital, the coat he throws over her nightgown is a luxurious full-length mink.

I shudder to think of what contemporary Hollywood would do to this story as a remake. It would probably star the icy Nicole Kidman in the Bergman role, trying her best to unfreeze her forehead enough to look passionately at -- who? George Clooney comes easily to mind, but that's about it. More than likely it would end up being Seth Rogan or Adam Sandler. And then you can bet I would be the fat-headed guy full of pain.

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