Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Notorious - scene breakdown

[I wrote this about a year ago. I had a longer version that I felt was more fully realized, but the professor was strict on keeping it to three pages, even though we had to cite three outside sources, which I'll include in the notes.]

In 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. In the pivotal sequence in which Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) realizes that his new bride Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) is an American agent, the style is too egregious to possibly work as a metaphor for the breaking of the deceitful veneers of the characters.

Following the action centerpiece of Notorious – the champagne party with its famous shot of the camera descending from 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. A clock in a bedroom chimes, the face divided at 6:00am. Alexander awakens in a slight panic and looks over at the separate bed as Alicia sleeps soundly, her back to him: her bed is prominent in the foreground, a chair in the background. (This set design and framing will be duplicated in the subsequent sequence, in the bedroom of his mother Anna [Madame Konstantin], alluding to a strange dynamic between the two.)  He rises as the camera dollies out from the medium, slight high angle shot, the scope of the frame widening as he begins to wonder what he will find; Rains plays this quick moment very well, fear and a trace of confusion are written across his face as he briefly looms over Alicia. The musical score by composer Roy Webb quickly takes a deeper, ominous tone as Alexander puts on his robe and makes his way to the vanity where he left the keys, the camera tracking behind him – here the audience’s knowledge gives a voyeuristic quality to the filmic apparatus – the fluid camerawork seems predetermined, almost stalking Alexander. There is a rapid point-of-view zoom to an extreme close up of the now full keychain, to make apparent that something is amiss, though a reaction from Rains would have been sufficient and perhaps more dramatic. John Russell Taylor writes in his book Cinema Eye, Cinema Ear that if Notorious “still fails to reach the highest class of Hitchcock, it is only by a certain deadness in the execution, a fatal heaviness which makes it, for all its brilliance, just a tiny bit boring.”  It is these techniques of needless, emphatic confirmation that dominate the next scene.

The shot of the keys dissolves to a wide shot of Alexander opening the cellar, and as he walks over to the wine rack he nears the camera, appearing larger in the frame. He sees nothing out of the ordinary, and crosses back to the middle of the cellar. Still within the same take, and framed in a medium shot, he surveys the room once more and notices the wine in the drain, supported by an insert shot. Here the score picks up in pace – Alexander returns to the rack and there is a cut to an extreme close up, point-of-view tracking shot of his fingertip methodically pointing to the date on each bottle: 1934, 1934, 1934, 1940. This can only be for the sake of the audience, yet they are fully aware of what he is about to discover. The music marks each of these beats, swelling with the acts of discovery. Alexander then holds up the 1940 bottle, in a close up insert shot, and then with his arm fully extended, the bottle in the extreme foreground. He picks off the loose foil top – supported by another insert close up – and reacts in bewilderment at the uranium ore resettling in the bottle. There is such a deliberate “to-do” about this moment, including the frenetic orchestra score, that it undercuts the intensity of the scene and mistakenly approaches comedy. The camera lowers as Alexander crouches near the wine rack, the shot hovering above the floor as he reaches under the rack, at first tracing ore, then sliding out shards of the broken bottle, and finally picking up the piece with the original label – this is brought closer to the frame as the focus racks on the date, and the score allows a Timpani roll. Where screenwriter Ben Hecht might have briefly outlined this scene, Hitchcock takes no chances and accentuates every possible moment. 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.”  What might have served as flashes of the moments in which the story turns and all is brought to the surface instead is mishandled, with Rains forced to pantomime the “clues.”  Filmmaker and critic Lindsay Anderson states in his article “Alfred Hitchcock” that Notorious is among those of the director’s films that belie “a tendency to overplay, to inflate,” where “technique – lighting, ability to maneuver the camera in hitherto unimaginable ways, angles – ceases to be a means and becomes an end in itself.”

There is a dissolve from the 1934 label to an overhead angle, from relatively the same position as the famous party shot mentioned above, on Alexander walking out of the doorway. He advances, even his gait dejected, his shadow lengthening dramatically from the light of the cellar, and only now does the floor’s checkered marble pattern resemble a chessboard. He takes the stairs as the shot continues until the camera pans and pushes in on him as he reaches the second floor, framed in a profile close up, the score again swelling to a conclusive note. This shot is certainly masterful, with Alexander realizing why he has been used, that his life is in jeopardy, and that he must kill his wife; Rains is entrusted to deliver all of this without speaking. If Hitchcock had toned down the maximum stylization earlier, this coda might have been even more effective. Unfortunately what was hinted at in the bedroom just a few moments prior through camerawork and editing of a slight voyeuristic flair – before such films as Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho developed this further – is muted by inexplicable pandering to the audience.

1 comment:

  1. Anderson, Lindsay, “Alfred Hitchcock,” Focus on Hitchcock, Albert J. LaValley, ed., Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972.

    Rohmer, Eric and Claude Chabrol, Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1979.

    Taylor, John Russell, Cinema Eye, Cinema Ear: Some Key Film-makers of the Sixties, New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.