Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 spy film noir Notorious is considered a classic within his oeuvre as one of his seminal works that helped to establish the conventions of the spy thriller genre, as well as being one of his most emotionally effective romantic romps. The story follows the anti-terrorism activity of FBI agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant in his second role in a Hitchcock film, the first being 1941’s Suspicion. He would go on to collaborate with Hitch on two more occasions after this film in 1955’s To Catch a Thief and the 1959 classic North By Northwest) who is tracking a group of Nazi conspirators. The ringleader of this group and the key to nabbing all of the others is Alexander Sebastien (played to great effect, highly sympathetically by Claude Rains who would later work with Hitch on many an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents). The cast is rounded out by Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman in her second role for Hitch after Spellbound the previous year. She would later collaborate with Hitch once more on 1949’s Under Capricorn), the daughter of a convicted Nazi conspirator and collaborator who is, herself, a patriotic person who finds herself at home in America and works with Devlin to implicate Rains.
As the film begins, Alicia’s father’s trial is underway and he is convicted guilty of treason against the United States of America. She is naturally sad to hear this news, but is quickly drawn away from the event through the presence of an FBI man who has begun to tail her: one Mr. Devlin. As Alicia falls for Devlin, he uses his charms to convince her to help him in an anti-terrorism sweep against an old friend of her family: Sebastien. She agrees, the two fly to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where the Nazi cabal lives in the lap of luxury, and along the way Devlin and Alicia become closer than ever, even developing plans to one day marry.
However, whilst in Rio, Devlin gets the news that Alicia’s assignment is to be more than merely entering into the social scene of the Nazi cabal, she is to develop a romantic attachment to Sebastien in an effort to get as close as possible to him and his secrets. This new development puts an obvious damper on the budding relationship between her and Devlin, which is made all the worse when Sebastien proposes to her. Devlin and Alicia must still work together clandestinely to achieve their goal whilst not alerting Sebastien to their affiliation with the United States government and the F.B.I. The plan will ultimately backfire, Alicia will be found out for what she is, and Sebastien will retaliate- upon his mother’s advice (the first of many neurotic mother-son relationships in Hitch’s filmography)- by poisoning Alicia and keeping her bedridden in the hopes that she will die without suspicions arising about Sebastien’s involvement, and as a way to keep the feds from getting any closer to nabbing him as they would presumably be at a loss without their informant.
The film is taut and condensed in a manner in which many of Hitch’s spy thrillers are not. It walks a fine line between simplicity that reduces all figures and moves into symbols, and a simplicity in which each character is devoid of individual aspect as a person, but is redeemed in this latter degree through the force of our central personages on-screen presences. And that seems to be what a movie star really was in those days: an individual with a recognizable face that has become a mask onto which audiences project themselves, and thereby obtain compelling individual figures that are universally relatable. However, at the same time these masks are socially conditioned by the kinds of roles the star typically performs, and in that sense, have become something akin to symbols for a whole nexus of ideas. Cary Grant, the leading man, suave, debonair, a little snarky, often unthinking and manipulative, but ultimately a decent guy, the type of man all men want to be. Ingrid Bergman, beautiful, foreign, alluring, vulnerable, a bit of a damsel a bit of a femme, something middling, but more than most women can ascend to be: an icon.
While being its greatest strength, the presence of star actors is also the film’s greatest weakness. For those of us who prefer Ray Milland, ‘the existential Cary Grant’, or Ingrid’s daughter Isabella Rossellini, something of a mistress of the dark, of surrealism, and of art film, we find in the faces of Grant and Bergman something monstrous, something representative of the Hollywood system that has crushed our favorite directors and artists time and again. We can respect these two actors, and believe you me that I do so, whilst also being unable to connect with them and queue in to their masks as the average filmgoer might. Without this audience identification with the protagonists of the film, the film falls apart and errs on the side of too little complexity, too little plot, and ends up being a lesser film than say Strangers on a Train or Saboteur that had smaller names, but better stories.
One last note on the film is the screenwriter Ben Hecht who was considered at the time to be quite possibly the greatest living screenwriter of films. Prior to Notorious he has worked with Hitchcock on numerous films including Foreign Correspondent, Lifeboat, Spellbound, and the documentary Watchtower Over Tomorrow. After his work on Notorious , he penned three more Hitch scripts: The Paradine Case, Rope, and Strangers on a Train. 1941-1951, a ten year period of collaboration that yielded many great Hitchcock scripts.
Hecht is also known for writing the scripts or providing the initial stories for many film noir and proto-noir masterpieces including Underworld, Scarface, Journey Into Fear, Gilda, Kiss of Death, and Ride the Pink Horse.
Ciao for now,
[Next up: Quicksand]
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 psychological thriller film noir Strangers on a Train really begins the classic period of American Hitchcock filmography from the early 50s to the mid-60s when he directed his greatest works. The transformative potential of this film in particular is notable due to Hitch’s cinematographic collaborator on the film, a Hollywood staple named Robert Burks. Strangers on a Train would be Burks’ first film for Hitchcock in what would become a 14-year working relationship during which Burks provided cinematography on I Confess, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble with Harry, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North By Northwest, The Birds, and finally, Marnie in 1964.
Their close working relationship during this time, which included every Hitchcock film from 1950-1964 except for Psycho, developed an iconography of signs and metaphors, of visual cues and expressions that produced Hitch’s most symbolically-laden imagery to date. And practically every film they worked on together are either classics of Hitch’s film output (e.g. Rear Window, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and The Birds) or critical classics that showed Hitch similarly at the height of his powers.
On the production end of things, Strangers on a Train is important for another interesting reason: it’s script process. The film is an adaptation of the first novel by Patricia Highsmith who was put on the map by it’s adaptation as a major film by Hitchcock and through the Hollywood system. She would later become known as something of a mistress of the dark for her ability to write great thrillers from existentialist and psychoanalytic angles, low-brow fiction from a high-brow perspective that was unafraid to broach the evil at the heart of all people and its latent potential for brimming over from the unconscious locus of possibility into the light of the day, into reality. She was later given the moniker of ‘the poet of apprehension’ by Graham Greene for her ability to construct a taut thriller akin to the level, at least, of Hitch’s own renowned ability in film, to create complex stories that could keep the average reader on the edge of his/her seat.
After acquiring rights to the book’s film adaptation (for a low-ball $7,500 USD, which Hitch managed to swing by keeping his name out of negotiations, as the knowledge of his attachment to the project would have run up the cost significantly), Hitch hired Whitfield Cook to create a treatment. Cook’s major contribution was the heightening of the latent homosexuality of the book’s protagonist Bruno Antony, which managed to make it into the film in a veiled manner. After Cook’s job was finished, the production began searching for a ‘name’ writer to attach to the project in the role of principal screenwriter.
An extensive search began in which the offer was flatly rejected by John Steinbeck and Thornton Wilder along with five others,. Dashiell Hammett was in talks for a time to do the job before he too pulled out. Finally, the acclaimed hard-boiled author Raymond Chandler was broached by the production and accepted their offer to adapt the screenplay alongside Hitchcock. But the two famously butted heads regarding method as Hitch enjoyed talking about themes and motifs ancillary to the job of actually writing the script, often taking hours to do so. Chandler was as hard-boiled and straight-forward as the protagonists in his own works and as such, rebelled openly against Hitch’s methods and wanted nothing more than to get down to the nitty gritty of writing, and of finishing the script. After making a crack about Hitch’s weight and spending some weeks unable to accomplish anything on the script, Chandler was fired from the production.
A search for a new screenwriter began and was quickly found as the studio recommended Czenzi Ormonde. She proved up to the task and began work on the script just at the same moment that Hitch began shooting scenes in Washington D.C. Alongside the associate producer Barbara Keon and Hitch’s wife Alma Reville, Ormond worked on the script, only finishing the final scenes days before they were shot. In the end, much of the film was shot off the cuff and the ending sequence wasn’t decided upon until the very last minute. All of which, I believe, adds a certain kinetic force to the filmmaking. Hitch couldn’t, as he was characteristically won’t to do, storyboard every last sequence, and as such, Robert Burks had more power of creative input. As a result, the film is more traditionally expressionist than the typical Hitchcock film and incorporates more techniques with experimental force than on almost anything since his breakthrough film, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, in 1927.
The film is the story of a pair of men who are, in a sense, doubles or doppelgangers of one another. It opens with two men leaving two separate taxis, both men wear nice suits and carry briefcases, they both enter the same train, the same passenger car, and sit across from one another. The light character in this play of opposite doubles is Guy Haines, a rising tennis star (tennis being a common Hitchcockian trope) on the amateur circuit with designs on a new woman, a new wife named Anne Morton, the daughter of a Senator who could catapult the young man into a future career as a politician. His shadow, Bruno Antony, a psychotic man with a flamboyant demeanor who suffers from a complex derived, no doubt in large part, to an overbearing and overly protective mother (as is so common in the cast of characters within a Hitchcock film).
Bruno hates his rich father who, quite logically and rightly, wants his son to work to gain his keep and build his own fortune. The old man refuses to give Bruno a large stipend with which to while away his time and insists that the middle-aged man work for a living and develop himself in the process. Bruno wants to bump off the old man, but he wants to do so without being caught. So he has tracked down Haines in an attempt to make him an offer. Bruno will knock off Haines’ current wife if Haines kills Bruno’s father. This way, Bruno reasons, both of them will have an alibi as they can arrange to be elsewhere when the murders are committed. Second, since the two of them have no connection to one another, the real murderer in each case cannot be identified as the suspect by the police (unless someone makes a grave mistake in the process and leaves themselves open to being caught on grounds of some strong material evidence). In a few words: the perfect murder (another trope common to Hitchcock’s films).
Haines views the offer with suspicion and pegs Bruno from what he is: an insane man. He leaves the train and stops off in his hometown of Metcalf to arrange his divorce from his wife Miriam. We find that not only is she an extremely promiscuous harlot who has pushed Guy into moving on to Anne Morton by seeing another man and becoming pregnant by him, but Miriam has also found out about Guy’s D.C. aspirations (which hinge on his marriage to Anne) and has decided to make him into an even bigger cuckold. She blackmails Guy into not filing for a divorce with the information that she will claim the child is his and that he is unjustly leaving her, which will damage his reputation and his chances in Washington. She wants Guy to bring her to D.C. with her and continue their marriage, though she has no plans on aborting the child, or becoming faithful to him once they move.
Guy is incensed, as he should be. Miriam had been asking him for a divorce for months and finally, once he has gained the funds to go through with the paperwork to do so, she is now blackmailing him. Miriam deserves to die. Guy shows his anger in public against her, handling her physically and trying to coerce her into signing the divorce papers she had agreed upon, indeed insisted upon, mere days prior by telephone. Later, on the phone with Anne, he tells her that he could just strangle Miriam. So, when Bruno goes through with his side of what he thought was an agreement and strangles Miriam to death at a local fair in a secluded spot known as ‘Magic Isle’, Guy is an immediate suspect.
But he has an alibi, he thinks. When returning to D.C. from Metcalf, he met a man on the train who was a professor. The man spoke with Guy about mathematics and told him where he taught. However, the man was drunk and when called upon the next day for verification that he met Guy on the train at the time the murder took place elsewhere, he doesn’t remember Guy at all. Guy is under suspicion of the crime and will be followed by undercover officers for the remainder of the film as the psychotic Bruno increasingly impedes upon Guy’s private life and promises to ruin Guy if he doesn’t kill Bruno’s father.
We have here a classic Hitchcockian set-up with Guy as the Wrong Man (who also happens to be an ordinary person: another Hitchcockian trope), all evidence pointing to him as the murderer in a crime he didn’t commit, but is nevertheless ideologically guilty for as he would have committed it if he had a stronger will. The cultured villain appears as the upper-class, well-read, and eminently moral (though psychotic) Bruno. Bruno gains an item of Guy’s while on the train with him: Guy’s lighter, engraved From A to G (From Anne to Guy). Bruno also fits the trope of charming sociopath, which is connected to the concept of the cultured villain. This serves as a playing chip in Bruno’s leverage over Guy, but is also a MacGuffin that reappears throughout the film: first in Bruno’s lifting of the object, later in his dropping of the object at the crime scene and his return to grab it, and finally in his attempt to place it back at the place of the murder to incriminate Guy with hard evidence.
The Lighter MacGuffin functions to drive the plot forward as an item with power over circumstances, which incites desire in both Guy’s and the police department’s wish to acquire it within the right context (Guy’s context of owning it once again to prevent Bruno from incriminating him any further and the police’s context of finding it on ‘Magic Isle’ as a tool to incriminate Guy and call to a close the case). Also crucial to the definition of a MacGuffin is the innocuousness of the item and relative unimportance of its particular characteristics. The lighter could have been another existing object that linked the crime scene to Guy like a piece of identification in a wallet, or a piece of clothing belonging to Guy, for example.
In the novel, the parallel between Guy and Bruno as doubles, and of Bruno as Guy’s dark eternal opposite, is even stronger as Guy goes through on his end of the bargain. Hitchcock establishes them as doubles only through mutual guilt. Bruno has the guilt of killing Miriam, while Guy has a different guilt through his association with Bruno after the fact, their many back-alley dealings that make them, at least seemingly, accomplices, and Guy’s real desire to kill his wife. All of these things produce a guilt in Guy not associated with Christian morality (as is so often common in Hitch’s narratives), but more strongly with the Freudian psychoanalytic concept of transference of guilt that Guy gains through collaborating in the secret of how the murder was accomplished.
This secret is what draws the ordinary person qua wrong man into the domain of ideological collaboration with the cultured villain/charming sociopath, which illustrates the point of Highsmith’s original novel: that within each person lies the ability to become monstrous, to come to terms with the abyss that is the primal Ground of Being by accepting it. That anyone can become horrible through understanding the Real of traumatic experience always on the threshold, the Real of total freedom ceded us in the postmodern age through the death of god. The total freedom that at once opens up new vistas of action it calls upon moral creatures to recognize and respect. The domains of action today’s cultural conservatives believe each person too stupid and corrupt to properly negotiate. Except for themselves that is.
[Next up: The Chase]
(Check out my previous film noir essay here: Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent)
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 thriller, Foreign Correspondent, was his second American film, but his first truly Hitchcockian film for that market. He arrived in the U.S. in 1939 at the request of Hollywood producer David O. Selznick and almost immediately jumped into work adapting Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca. Also released in 1940, the two films battled it out at the 1940 Academy Awards with Rebecca receiving 11 nods to Foreign Correspondent‘s 6. Between the two pictures, only Rebecca won any, Best Picture (then known as ‘Outstanding Production’) and Best Cinematography Black and White, both of which it won by beating stiff competition (Foreign Correspondent among that competition on both counts).
The cinematography in Rebecca was definitely deserving of the best cinematography nod as George Barnes’ work on that film was ethereal and gothic, and supremely affecting artistically and viscerally. However, the cinematography on Foreign Correspondent is top-form as well, with an even tone throughout what seems to span dozens of locations or sets. The cinematographer of that film, Rudolph Mate, was to become a film noir staple in the coming years though he began his career in Europe working on the classical films of Carl Dreyer like Vampyr and Le Passion de Jean d’Arc, and Fritz Lang’s fantasy film Liliom, before making his way to the American scene where he would direct the classics Gilda and The Lady From Shanghai before moving on to direct his own picture, including the film noir staple D.O.A. Mate’s Academy nod would be the first in a five-year run of five consecutive years for work on films by both Korda’s King Vidor, and one Sam Wood (with who I am unfamiliar).
In the film, Joel McCrea plays our American Everyman John Jones, a rough and tumble crime reporter in New York known for altercations with cops and the Underworld crowd alike. His boss has too many academics and soothsayers in his employ in Europe and Great Britain in a crucial time when war seems eminent. They find it difficult to find the facts and send them back to HQ, so the boss decides to send an average Joe (or John) type to do the job and settles on John after finding that he actually assaulted a cop the previous week (Hitchcock never liked cops and was always afraid of them throughout his life after a curious incident in his youth when his father sent him with a note to the local police station. There they followed the note and put the young boy in a prison cell for five minutes and left him there, making certain he knew the real potential downfall of committing crimes and stepping away from the straight and narrow.). John Jones gets his effects together, his tickets and passport, has a going away party, and arrives in Great Britain to begin work as a foreign correspondent, soon to turn war correspondent.
Once there, Jones goes to press meetings for Peace Organizations, one of which is headed by Stephen Fisher and his daughter Carol Fisher. Jones and Fisher develop a rapport and her friend Scott ffolliott (yes, I spelled it correctly) and Jones develop a working relationship as well. When Jones goes on his first assignment to the Netherlands, the Dutch politician and peace advocate Mr. Van Meer is Jones’ next assignment. But before he can get an interview with the man, he is assassinated by a photographer with a gun on the steps outside of the meeting hall. Jones, Carol Fisher, and ffolliott track the killer and discover a network of spies, eventually connecting the event to Carol’s father.
War is announced as Germany begins air raids above British soil and London, and the principal characters depart for America aboard a light passenger jet. Stephen Fisher and his daughter Carol make amends, and even Jones and ffolliott are admirably well-disposed to the man they will have to arrest for treason once they touch down. But as they fly over the Atlantic, an American warship mistakes them as a German bomber and shoots them down, only learning too late in the process that they are Brits and Americans onboard a commercial airplane (how they screwed that up I have no clue, but in some things on celluloid we must suspend our disbelief). Lives are lost and sacrifices made, but eventually the ship picks them up and brings them back to London (they had traveled less than two hundred miles across the Ocean thus far) where John Jones becomes a real war correspondent, and in the film’s final moments gives a great propaganda oration, ala Edward R. Murrow, on radio as the city is bombarded by enemy incendiaries.
The film is an extremely effective spy and political thriller, as well as being a powerful piece of propaganda for the war effort. Even Nazi Germany’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels called it a great work of propaganda that will likely boost the esteem and strengthen the wills of his own regime’s enemies. Besides being a powerful political document of sorts, it an auteur work of at least three great artists within the medium of cinema, including the greatest maker of thrillers who has ever graced the screen in Alfred Hitchcock, one of the greatest cameramen and cinematographers of the period in Rudolph Mate, and production design work from the great art director William Cameron Menzies (whose other works include designs on The Wizard of Oz, For Whom The Bell Tolls, Things To Come, The Thief of Baghdad, and Duel in the Sun).
It was Hitchcock’s first true Hitchcock film in the states as Rebecca was a gothic affair with thriller elements, but with few of the elements that constitute a the Hitchcock brand: spies, the wrong man, doubles, the macguffin, and humor alongside drama. Foreign Correspondent by contrast is about spies and political intrigue, the man who is assassinated as Van Meer turns out to have been a double of Van Meer killed to make it appear as if Van Meer were dead, the peace treaty secret clause (Clause 27) is the macguffin, and the characteristic humor is sprinkled effectively throughout but especially in the scenes when Carol and John first meet, as well as in the moments when he first escapes his would-be murderers in the Hotel Europe. And in the sense that it is the first characteristically Hitchcockian film in Hollywood (as opposed to the much more Clouzotian Rebecca) it is an achievement worth celebrating and looking back upon fondly.
[Next up: To Have and Have Not]
[And a later Hitchcock film essay here: Strangers on a Train]
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1972 film Frenzy would be his second to last picture (the final film being 76’s Family Plot) and his final return to top form in the thriller genre he helped to pioneer, establish, codify, and develop from the earliest years of his career as a filmmaker. It was also the first time he returned to his country of England to direct a picture for almost twenty years, and it would be his last time as well. Frenzy is Hitch’s first film with a nude scene (no actual nudity is present in Psycho, rather he shot the infamous shower sequence strategically to suggest more violence and risque material than was really shown in the frames themselves). Due to the nudity and the graphic nature of the murders that take place on this film, it was also his first film to secure an ‘R’ rating.
The film is a classic Hitchcockian tale of a man in the wrong places at the wrong times under all of the worst circumstances: the Wrong Man. In London, a serial killer and rapist is on the loose and is causing quite a stir in the local papers and local imagination, especially after one of his victims washes up on the shore of the Thames during a high-profile political speech from the Mayor of London. The body is nude except for a necktie wound around her neck, the Necktie Murderer’s modus operandi, macguffin, and strangulation tool of choice.
Richard Blaney is drunk who has just been fired from his job as a bar attendant for drinking on the job. The waitress of the seedy pub is his girlfriend Babs, and the two live fast lives of occasional reckless abandon and unseemly soirees in between their longer spells of quiet desperation and under employment. Blaney’s ex-wife Brenda runs a match-making service for Londoners finding difficulty in the marriage market. they separated years prior, but still remain somewhat affectionate, so Blaney visits her to complain about being fired and to have someone to talk to about how down and out he currently feels. During the meeting at her office, he is originally quite agitated and punches her desk as he takes out his frustrations, prompting Brenda’s assistant to regard Blaney as a potentially dangerous man.
Blaney and Brenda end up going out to eat dinner together for old time’s sake, and on Brenda’s dime (she offers to take him out), where he gets drunk and rants and raves about the conditions of his life. Brenda offers to give Blaney some money, but he refuses. However, as they depart each other’s company, she sneaks some money into his pocket without him knowing.
Blaney meets his friend, the fruit merchant Robert Rusk, that same day and relates to him the account of his firing. Rusk, it turns out, is the necktie murderer, and he has just found his fall guy. Robert will later visit Brenda, then Babs, in a turn of events that has Blaney pinned on multiple murder charges and locked up ultimately as a serial killer. His behavior the prior night at Brenda’s office, his drunkenness and inability to hold down a job, and the Brenda’s money found on his person all tie Blaney to the crimes, but some odds and ends don’t add up fully to the chief police inspector Oxford. He investigates further and the rest of the story unfolds as Oxford zeroes in on the right man, Blaney injures himself purposefully in jail in order to get a hospital stay, escapes, and also works to track down Rusk to exact his revenge.
The whole exercise is an example of what was called Hitchcock’s movie, his plot, his themes, and his stagings, which he revisited again and again over the years in many of his greatest films. I think it was Bogdanovich who said that Hitchcock made the same picture over and over (he did this literally in his 1956 remake of his early 1934 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much), and it is true of Frenzy that if you have seen The 39 Steps, The Wrong Man, or North By Northwest, then you’ve practically seen this film as well. But the manner of execution is more deft than ever before as he experimented with more extreme expressions of violence and sexuality in his later years.
And I know it was Bogdanovich who said that Frenzy is a young man’s film, full of stylistic experimentation, panoramic helicopter shots of the Thames, complicated dolly shots of the interior of Rusk’s home, the camera retreating from the apartment to the exterior market, allowing viewers to assume what happens inside rather than showing everything. Hitch experiments with sound and in particularly dramatic moments like when Babs exits the bar before her fated meeting with Rusk, and when the guilty verdict is later handed down to Blaney, the soundtrack cuts out completely and all that’s left is utter and complete silence. His use of color is muted, almost like the championed goal of all practitioners who got their starts in film noir to create a sepia, almost black and white color film through strategic uses of palette. While no masterpiece, Frenzy is a work head and shoulders above the majority of thrillers released then and now, and deserves a critical re-appreciation and re-visit, which I am happy to say it has been receiving over the past decade or so.