Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Film Review - "Notorious"

A review of "Notorious" (the Hitchcock classic, not the recent biopic about the rapper) coming up after the jump:

As someone who has always believed in the virtues of economical storytelling, it feels odd for me to say that Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious" is perhaps just a little too economical for its own good. The film is slightly over one hundred minutes long, and it feels like it could have used another ten or twenty minutes. As such, its flaws are pretty much the same as other romantic melodramas made during this era: namely, a far-too-rushed feeling and a tendency to cram far too much expository dialogue into certain scenes.

The decision of Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) to spy on a group of Nazis (her jailed father's friends), for instance, is handled in a  extremely clumsy manner. She initially resists T.R. Devlin's (Cary Grant) attempts to convince her, and then basically changes her mind a few minutes later. No reason is given, which is a major problem considering the fact that her choice should be one of the defining events of the movie.

The central love story suffers from similar problems. One minute Devlin is talking down to the hung-over Alicia (whose problems with alcohol abuse become a major plot point later on), but soon enough we're expected to believe that they're madly in love. The dialogue in these scenes is fairly awful as well: it's unsubtle and just doesn't feel natural.To be fair, Grant and Bergman do have great chemistry and somehow make it work better than it should. Nonetheless, these flaws seem destined to ruin the film even before it really gets going.

It says a lot, then, about how good the final hour of "Notorious" is that it's not only able to salvage the film from these initial mistakes, but that it somehow manages to turn the film into a near-masterpiece in spite of itself. And that begins with Hitchcock, who wrings an enormous amount of suspense out of what is truthfully a fairly routine espionage story: utilizing long takes in several key scenes to heighten the sense of danger, and using quite a few close-up shots of the actors' faces to convey an uncomfortable sense of intimacy.

Notable also are the performances, from Bergman in particular. Rather than just playing Alicia as someone pining for the affections of Devlin, she does an outstanding job of making us understand why the character feels the way she does despite Devlin's treatment of her. She's been with many men, but none of them have ever really loved her. The actress does a stellar job of allowing Alicia's wounded soul to shine through in just about every scene, as it drives her into more and more dangerous situations. Grant is strong as well, even if his character's emotional journey isn't nearly as captivating. And Claude Rains turns in a solid supporting performance as the target of Devlin and Alica's investigation.

So while there are definitely some problems with "Notorious" that keep it from rising to the level of "Rear Window" or "North by Northwest" (to name my two favorite Hitchcock films, with "Strangers on a Train" a close third), it's still a terrific piece of suspense filmmaking from the master of the genre.

Grade: A-

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