The first part of the analysis -- the cellar scene -- can be seen here, starting at the 6:09 mark (though I recommend watching from the beginning).
The second part of the analysis -- the bedroom scene -- can be seen here, ending at the 2:13 mark.
The Unspoken Truth: Villains as Communicators, Hitchcock as Showman
In the widely acclaimed Notorious (1946), Alfred Hitchcock at times burdens the film with flourishes of camerawork that threaten to distract from the more assured and subtle direction in other significant moments of the story. Hitchcock and his director of photography Ted Tetzlaff create suspense through some gorgeous set pieces, yet other scenes feel didactic, the exposition unnecessary. However, an important turning point – and one of the most psychologically rich sequences in the film – was directed with restrained precision: when Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) realizes that his new wife Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) is an American agent, and seeks advice from his mother Anna (Madame Konstantin).
John Russell Taylor distills the nature of Notorious in his book Cinema Eye, Cinema Ear: “the whole story, in fact, is […] based on the importance of an explicit avowal, a confession if you like, as liberating factor: the action turns entirely on the unwillingness of either party to say the necessary word.” Devlin (Cary Grant) and Alicia struggle through the majority of the film by not disclosing their true desires; this affects not only their romance, but jeopardizes their mission and ultimately Alicia’s life. It is significant then that the first real, direct, and emotional conversation between two characters (and that rapidly advances the plot) comes in the dialogue that Alexander and his mother share when they plan to kill Alicia. Prior to this sequence in the last act of the film, conversations were either ruled by committee (the Americans plotting their espionage mission, the Nazis plotting to do away with an untrustworthy member) or, in the scenes between Devlin and Alicia, motivations were couched because of their limitations.
In the six-minute sequence that follows the action centerpiece of Notorious – the champagne party which features the remarkable moment of the camera descending from a wide shot high above the foyer to an extreme close up of the cellar key in Alicia’s hand – Hitchcock and Tetzlaff stage some shots that go beyond serving the plot and call attention to themselves in an overt manner, yet the remainder of the sequence is expertly crafted. The clock in the bedroom chimes, the face divided at 6:00am. Alexander awakens in a slight panic and looks over at the separate bed, Alicia’s back to him, sleeping soundly; her bed is prominent in the foreground, a chair in the background: this set design will be duplicated soon. As the camera tracks behind Alexander, he rises, puts on his robe, and heads to the nightstand. There is a rapid zoom to an extreme close-up of the now full keychain, to make apparent that something is amiss, even though a reaction from Rains would have been sufficient and perhaps more dramatic.
This dissolves to Alexander opening the cellar and walking over to the wine rack, at first seeing nothing. His discovery of the break-in is then exhaustively and needlessly detailed with insert shots: the spilled wine in the drain; an extreme close up, point-of-view of his fingertip tracking methodically along each bottle; a close-up of the loose foil on the 1940 bottle; a dramatic full-frame zoom on the shard with the 1934 label. Where screenwriter Ben Hecht might have outlined all this briefly, Hitchcock takes no chances and over-accentuates the moments. Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol allude to this in Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films when they cite “Notorious, with its explanatory camera movements, its ‘subjective’ shots.”
There is a dissolve from the 1934 label to an overhead angle on Sebastian walking out of the doorway. This is from relatively the same position as the famous party shot mentioned above, yet only now does the checkered marble pattern on the main floor resemble a chess board, as Alexander advances, his shadow lengthening dramatically from the light of the doorway. He takes the stairs as the shot continues until finally the camera pans and pushes in on him as he reaches the second floor, framed in a profile close up. This shot is certainly masterful, with Alexander (who has until now been a somewhat sympathetic character) realizing why he has been used, that his life is in jeopardy, and that he must kill his wife.
The next scene introduces some new stylistic elements but they are fitting to the film and the state of Alexander. Sebastian sits in his mother’s room, appearing rather small, while his sleeping mother dominates the foreground: this is the same design and blocking as the shot in his bedroom, mentioned above. He calls out “Mother,” and is then shown in a medium profile, his framed picture on his mother’s table in the foreground, himself in the middle ground, a large mirror reflecting him in the background: he is fractured between who he was and who he is about to become. He invokes again, “Mother.” She wakes and wonders why he is up, but almost immediately seems pleased that something is the matter – when he nods and says “a great deal, Alicia,” she cracks a smile and sits up: “I have expected it. I knew, I knew. What is it? Mr. Devlin?” The next shot of Alexander is quite striking, and is different than any close-up in a movie filled with them: a high-angle just above his brow, a shadow tracing down his face – “No,” he says, and looks up, his eyes coming into frame – “I am married to an American agent.” The lighting is both menacing and tragic. The next moment of Madame Sebastian is chilling and is finely detailed by Donald Spoto in his The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures: “she reaches for a case and puts a cigarette between her lips, letting it hang loosely with crass vulgarity, then lighting it with the crudeness of a gun moll. The action illuminates her character in one masterful stroke.” Here it might be assumed that Hecht and Hitchcock worked together to develop a proper sense of character and atmosphere, as there is no dialogue. After a dissolve to Alicia in bed, still sleeping, there is an immediate dissolve back to the mother, who is now fully sitting up. Sebastian is now sitting at the end of the couch, lost in the size of the room, distraught. His mother snaps, “stop wallowing in your foul memories.” He responds like an unsure, anxious child: “Well what do I do?! There’s nothing to do. I’m done, finished.” He sits on the edge of his mother’s bed for the rest of the scene, at first facing the camera in a medium shot, in essence being sized up again. The next several lines of dialogue are about him being worried about what will happen, with Madame Sebastian not quite consoling him; as she leans back, further away from both her son and the camera, she is disappointed, disparaging: “We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity… for a time.” Alexander knows he has to kill Alicia in order to protect himself, but his mother is the one who takes control. She gets up and slowly crosses in front of him, devising a plan by the time she takes her seat again. She concludes “She must go,” – here the film cuts back to Alexander, in a very slight low-angle – “but it must happen slowly. If she could become ill, and remain ill for a time until…” As her voice trails off Alexander looks to her, then beyond the camera, and the scene fades to black.
The scene in the bedroom is astounding for two main reasons. First, it is the only scene before the climax in which characters move the plot forward, without talking around an issue with witticisms, or skirting their feelings to some degree: everything is laid out in the open, as murderous as the resolve is. That this should happen between the antagonists, and that it highlights that Alexander has even less power than his mother than we may have previously suspected, speaks to something about the possible intent of the filmmakers. Second, it is part of the last act of the film, when tension and style are elevated, and takes place between two sequences that depend on camera showmanship – the party, and the slow killing of Alicia. Filmmaker and critic Lindsay Anderson is one of the few not taken with Notorious, or, seemingly, with Hitchcock in general: he states in his article “Alfred Hitchcock” that the film is among those of the director’s that belie “a tendency to overplay, to inflate,” that Hitchcock’s “technique – lighting, ability to maneuver the camera in hitherto unimaginable ways, angles – ceases to be a means and becomes an end in itself.” Once the Sebastians start their plot against Alicia, the scenes where the poisoned cups are featured are no doubt what Anderson had in mind – there is no subtlety, everything moves beyond even exposition or clarity and descends almost into parody, with the dramatic close-ups, via tracking, zooms, or short-focused foregrounding, of the poisoned cups. The private plot between Alexander and his mother, to keep the secret of Devlin and Alicia safe so that Alexander might be spared, is the one last vestige of substance over style in Notorious, but the scene works on its own in an expert fashion. It is unfortunate that Hitchcock and the other filmmakers involved could not impart this level of technique and trust in the audience with the protagonists for the majority of the film.