erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 1940s posts

Tuesday November 16, 2010

Review: “Notorious” (1946)

WARNING: KEY SPOILERS

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” is the greatest love story ever filmed between a cold bastard and a drunken whore.

That’s a joke and it isn’t. There’s the story we watch and there’s the way Hitchcock undercuts the story we watch. He smuggles all sorts of shit in. He gets America, this puritanical country, to care about these less-than-pure people.

The Hays code helped. In the first five minutes we learn that Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), whose father was recently convicted as a Nazi spy, drinks too much and sleeps around, but we only see her drunk once, and we never see her sleeping around—just flirting with Cary Grant, who, let’s face it, is Cary Grant, the Man from Dream City, etc., so who can blame her. The Hays code, by keeping Alicia’s more notorious activities discreet, keeps her sympathetic. When others bring up her past, it almost seems unfair, as if they were tarnishing her with rumors rather than agreed-upon facts.

As for the cold bastard? We first see Devlin (Grant) as the back of a head and wonder, “Why is Hitchcock filming the back of his head when the front of his head has Cary Grant’s face attached to it?” Answer: This is a man who reveals little. He’s a secret agent, CIA, OSS, or whatever the agency was between World War II and the passage of the National Security Act of 1947. He doesn’t talk much but every third word is sneered. It takes a lot to drain the charm out of Cary Grant but Hitchcock does it masterfully.

The greatest romance of all time!

The linchpin of the film is also masterfully, intricately created. Devlin recruits Alicia, this wanton, daughter-of-a-Nazi-spy, for an assignment in Rio de Janeiro, but before they get the assignment they fall in love. He loosens up and she looks like Ingrid Bergman again. It begins to feel like a traditional Hollywood romance. There’s even a famous two-and-a-half minute kissing scene that, by skirting the Hays’ code’s admonition of kisses longer than three seconds, relies on multiple, nibbling pecks, making it even sexier than if they’d been allowed to slobber all over each other.

Then the assignment arrives. She’s to infiltrate a gang of Nazis by throwing her charms at one of the leaders, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), who once had a crush on her. And by “throwing her charms at,” I mean “sleeping with.” Or “fucking.” All of which is discreetly implied with words like “playmates.” Hays Code to the rescue again.

So Devlin is torn. He’s a professional man but also a man in love. The man in love wants her to say “no” but the professional man knows the job is the job. Which side wins? The side that says nothing. He gets even more tight-lipped. Just when she wants him to talk.

She’s a woman in love but an amateur in this profession, so she goes along with the scheme, one can argue, for Devlin. He wants her to say “no,” but she says “yes” for him. Talk about cross purposes.

That’s how Hitchcock undercuts the traditional Hollywood romance. But “Notorious” is also a thriller, a post-WWII thriller about American agents battling South American Nazis, and the way he undercuts the film’s ostensible patriotism is even more brilliant.

Three scenes stand out.

In the first scene, early in the movie, Devlin recruits Alicia, not by appealing to her patriotism, but by revealing how patriotic she already is. Three months earlier, her father tried to recruit her to the German cause and she’d responded with a speech, straight out of a war-bonds fundraiser, about how much she loves America. Most of us reveal our best face to the world while doing what we do in private. She, apparently, is the opposite.

And how does Devlin remind her how patriotic she is? By playing a recording of that conversation with her father. The very government she’s defending on that recording, in other words, is in fact recording her. It’s spying on her. By showing her that she’s patriotic, he’s also showing her why she shouldn’t be patriotic.

Her secret shame: patriotism.

All of which goes unsaid. The second scene, halfway through the movie, is more overt.

By this point Alicia has infiltrated Sebastian’s sanctum at great risk and personal loss—she loses Devlin—but here she’s about to turn up at agency headquarters, and the man in charge, Capt. Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern), worries. Another one of the higher-ups, Walter Beardsley (Moroni Olsen) adds, “She's had me worried for some time. A woman of that sort.”

During this conversation, Devlin had been showing us the back of his head to the room, but Beardsley’s remark literally turns him around. It forces him to reveal his true face:

Devlin: What sort is that, Mr. Beardsley?
Beardsley: Oh, I don't think any of us have any illusions about her character, have we, Devlin?
Devlin: Not at all. Not in the slightest. Miss Huberman is first, last, and always not a lady. She may be risking her life, but when it comes to being a lady, she doesn't hold a candle to your wife, sir, sitting in Washington, playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue.

Wow.

Hitchcock, of course, grew up in working-class London and maintained working-class suspicions of the oligarchy. There are people who work and people who don’t. There are soldiers and those who order soldiers into battle. Alicia, at this point, is a soldier. These old men and their wives who look down upon the Alicias of the world? Not. They call into question her character but Hitchcock, through Devlin, calls into question their character, and all they can do in response is be affronted:

Beardsley: I think those remarks about my wife are uncalled for.
Devlin (unapologetic): Withdrawn. Apologized, sir.

The men who do little.

The man who reveals little.

His true face. “Withdrawn. Apologized, sir.”

The third scene, near the end of the film, may be the strongest of the lot.

By this point, Alicia has actually married Sebastian and is living in his mansion with his domineering mother, whom he calls “Mother,” prefiguring Norman Bates by 15 years. At a party to introduce Alicia to Rio society, Alicia and Devlin discover the Nazis secret: ore, most likely uranium ore, hidden in wine bottles in Sebastian’s basement. It’s Hitchcock’s McGuffin, but unlike most McGuffins it’s not harmless. It actually anticipates (in the writing and filming) the A-bomb, which will transform the world.

To discover this, Alicia has to steal the wine-cellar key, a Unica key, from hubby’s keyring. Unfortunately, he notices it’s gone, then notices it’s back, and in the wine cellar he finds jig-is-up evidence of Devlin’s clumsy snooping. “I’m married to an American agent,” he tells Mother. But what to do? Killing an American agent can’t make up for having married her in the first place; that won’t sit well with the other Nazis, who, remember, killed poor Emil Hupka (Eberhard Krumschmidt—his only role in movies!) simply for having a lousy poker face.

So Mother concocts a scheme to slowly poison Alicia. It will seem, to the other Nazis and the rest of the world, as if she had an illness and expired. Alicia figures it out, but too late, when she’s too weak to do anything about it, and she’s led, as if in a nightmare, up to her bedroom, where Mother, with her thick German accent, says, “We’ll take the best care of her,” and Sebastian, feigning concern (and with the camera zooming in tight on Alicia’s helpless, stricken face), tells the butler, “Josef, disconnect the telephone, Madame must have absolute quiet. Take it out of the room.”

Creepy.

Then, in rapid succession, we see:

  • Devlin sitting on a park bench, his meeting place with Alicia, looking at his watch.
  • Alicia in bed, dying. Mother off to the side, knitting peacefully.
  • Devlin, at night, pacing before the same park bench.

In our minds we’re going “Hurry! Hurry!” and finally we get a meeting between Devlin and Prescott. Most such meetings took place in Prescott’s office but this one is in Prescott’s hotel room. It indicates how worried Devlin is. He, like us, can’t wait for tomorrow.

The hotel room also allows Hitchcock to juxtapose Alicia, the solider, with Prescott, the general.

Like Alicia, Prescott is lying in bed. Unlike Alicia, he’s a picture of health. In fact, as Devlin reveals his concerns, and as we’re still shouting “Hurry!” in our minds, Prescott nonchalantly, infuriatingly, butters crackers and stuffs them in his face.

“Five days, eh?” he says, unconcerned. “That must be quite a binge she’s on.” Devlin figured the same—Alicia had lied to him about her sickness—but now he’s having second thoughts. Prescott has none. He even warns against Devlin checking up on her since he doesn’t want anything to jeopardize the mission. Then he picks cracker crumbs off his chest.

 

“That must be quite a binge she's on.”

How far will you go for love or country? That’s one of the main dilemmas of the film. Love doesn’t do poorly in this equation, since, in the end, Devlin comes through, despite Alicia’s past, despite Alicia’s assignment. But country? Beardlsey represents the country. He thinks poorly of the workers. Prescott represents the country. He can’t be bothered to get out of bed. While Alicia is dying in hers.

There is, in general, great balance in “Notorious.” In one of the first shots, we see the judges and executioners of Alicia’s father framed in a doorway; and in one of the last shots, we see the judges and executioners of Alicia’s husband framed in a doorway. After Alicia is reintroduced to Sebastian, we see Devlin sitting alone at a restaurant on the left side of the screen. In the next shot, we see Alicia sitting alone at a restaurant on the right side of the screen. Balance.

 

But there is no balance as to our loyalties. The film’s second-most famous shot, after the kissing scene, occurs at the beginning of the party, when the camera, starting from the upper floor, sweeps down to focus on the Unica key in Alicia’s nervous hand. It’s a great shot. One can’t help notice, too, the checkerboard pattern on the floor, and how all of the guests, milling about, look like pieces in a chess game. Which they are. That isn’t a point of contention. Our problem is with the men moving this particular piece. They don't know its value. They see a pawn. We see the queen.

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Posted at 06:45 AM on Nov 16, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  
Saturday June 21, 2008

Movie Review: The Batman (1943)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The chief problem with this 15-episode serial, the second live-action version of a modern superhero, isn’t the low-budget effects (Columbia serials were notoriously cheap), nor its racism (the chief villain is a Japanese spy during WWII), but the form itself, the serial form, which requires cliffhanger endings for its heroes. Since the lives of Batman and Robin (Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft) hang by a thread at the end of every episode, and since the serial wasn’t budgeted for a lot of extras, “America’s greatest crimefighter,” as Batman is called in the narrative intro, isn’t that great a crime fighter. Among the cliffhangers:

  • Two crooks throw Batman, arms and legs thrashing, off a roof.
  • Three crooks toss Batman. arms and legs thrashing, down an elevator shaft.
  • A crook throws a stick at Batman’s head, knocking him unconscious.
  • A gangplank is dropped on him.
  • He drives a car off a bridge.
  • He gets trapped by a fire he sets.

We keep seeing Batman getting outpunched by one or two criminals. I’m talking ordinary guys in suits and fedoras. What’s the point of putting on cape and cowl if you can’t take one guy?

Everything but the kitchen sink
Batman (1943)The serial begins well enough. The credits play over the famous bat logo (human head on bat body), while the ominous theme music (Wagner’s Rienzi Overture?) prefigures Danny Elfman’s from the 1989 version. Even the first shot of the Bat’s Cave, as it’s called here (it was, in fact, introduced here), is cool. Batman sits brooding behind a desk of finely engraved oak while shadows of bats play against the wall.

Then the cheapness. Once the background narration ends, and the story proper begins, we see a plain black Cadillac pull up to a police phone, and out pop...Batman and Robin! So no Batmobile. Batman phones Capt. Arnold (no Comm. Gordon) and tells him, in a vaguely British tone, “I have a nice little package for you. You’ll find it at the corner of First and Maple.” He leaves the crooks handcuffed to a light pole with bat stickers on their foreheads — his version of Zorro’s “Z” — and then he and Robin drive off, Robin behind the wheel, and the two take off their masks and smile.

The plot? Dr. Tito Daka, a Japanese spy whose headquarters lie through a secret panel in the Japanese Cave of Horrors in deserted Little Tokyo, wants to secure enough radium for an “atom-smasher gun” that will bring America to its knees. In this regard he employs disgraced scientists and various hoodlums to carry out his orders. If they balk (“No amount of torture, conceived by your twisted Oriental brain, can change my mind!” says one scientist), he simply turns them into super-strong zombies. It’s part of the “everything but the kitchen sink” quality that, you imagine, everyone hoped would appeal to 10-year-old boys in 1943. Hey, kids! Not just Batman and Robin but spies and zombies and alligators and invisible messages from Washington, D.C.

The writers, poor bastards, do manage to display some postmodern wit by commenting upon the very low quality of their product. Two American mechanics, encountering Daka in the Japanese Cave of Horrors, think he’s part of the program. “Pretty good, Saki,” one says. “Your accent’s a bit off but your makeup’s perfect.”

Better, they slip in a comment about the repetitive nature of the genre itself. Daka’s minions keep trying to steal the necessary radium for the atom-smasher gun and Batman and Robin keep foiling them. So the focus becomes less on acquiring radium and more on getting rid of Batman. Because of the cliffhangers, they assume they do at the end of every episode, which leads to conversations like this at the beginning of every episode: “We didn’t do the job, boss, Batman stopped us.” “Batman? He’s still alive?” “Yeah, but we killed him this time for sure!”

Eventually Daka decides that Batman can’t keep escaping death this way; that there must be many Batmen, “all members of the same organization,” he says. It’s not a bad bit. 

A wise government
But these days Batman '43 is most compelling as historical document — particularly on the subject of race. In one episode, Bruce Wayne says of a friend, “Why, I haven’t seen Ken in a coon’s age!” In another, we get an Indian full of “Him say...” “Me say...” dialogue.

Daka is played by a Caucasian actor, J. Carrol Naish, nominated for an Academy Award that very year for playing the Italian, Giuseppe, in the Humphrey Bogart vehicle Sahara, and who would, during his career, play every conceivable ethnicity — from Sitting Bull in Sitting Bull (1954) to Charlie Chan in the 1950s TV series “The New Adventures of Charlie Chan” — but he’s hardly brilliant here. Those American mechanics were right about the accent. He sounds like Peter Lorre by way of Brooklyn.

Of course given Pearl Harbor, and Hollywood’s track record with stereotypes before Pearl Harbor, one expects the giggling sadism and the unapologetic “So sorry” comments from Daka. One isn’t particularly surprised when a crook, turning against Daka, tells him, “That’s the kind of answer that fits the color of your skin!” One even laughs when Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend, Linda Page (Shirley Patterson), encounters Daka and yelps, “A Jap!”

The eye-opener is what bookends the serial. In the first episode, when we first visit Little Tokyo, the narrator informs us:

This was part of a foreign land, transplanted bodily to America, and known as Little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs it’s become virtually a ghost street...

In the last episode, Batman, pinned in Daka’s lair by his zombies, mentions, out of the blue, “I know who you are. We’ve been searching for you ever since you killed those two agents assigned to your deportation!” Thus the entire serial is painted with the wisdom of deportation and internment camps. See what happens when you don’t round up the shifty-eyed Japs? Decades later, the internment of Japanese-Americans became a source of national shame but at its point of origin it was triumphant enough to include in serials for children.

The original VHS release excised these slurs but they’ve been restored for the DVD version. Good. It's important to know where we've been. Otherwise how can we see how far we've come?

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Posted at 09:21 AM on Jun 21, 2008 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  
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