Thursday, June 30, 2016

Notorious (July 2 at 5 p.m. and July 3 at 6:30 p.m. at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

Yes, what the chances that most of the internet-educated kids who show up for this Alfred Hitchcock revival wind up rioting in the streets because they thought it was that rap movie about the Notorious B.I.G.? It’s okay; bottles being thrown and cars overturned will be good practice for the upcoming Notorious R.N.C.
As for this NOTORIOUS, know that it’s classic Alfred Hitchcock, a crackerjack spy thriller on the surface that hints at all sorts of perverse desire and undercurrents of psychological aberrations
beneath its glossy 1946 Hollywood surface.

Setting is the midst of WW2. Devlin (Cary Grant) is an Allied spy who gets close to Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), the “notorious” femme of the title. As the wealthy daughter of a known Nazi turncoat, she’s regarded by upper crust as an amoral, lascivious playgirl (in today’s terms, think “reality-TV star”). But she’s really a good girl at heart, Devlin learns.

The turning point in their relationship comes with a legendary steamy kissing scene, lasting a full three minutes. It shows nothing explicit, yet is somehow hotter than a lot of what goes on in R-rated movies. Hitchcock supposedly had a merry time getting that past the censors, chiefly by tweaking the script and dialogue to make it seem like all they’re doing is talking about chicken dinner.

Devlin convinces Alicia to connive herself closer to Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a South American Nazi operative in Rio running an industrial works that is somehow key to the German war machine. Alicia goes even further than expected by marrying Sebastian (which, in a weird way, makes her just as bad as her reputation warrants). Her household espionage reveals the world-shattering secret project in which her husband is engaged, but it also arouses dangerous suspicions from her spouse and grim mother-in-law.

The film climaxes with a simple walk down a staircase – hardly anything more than that – but you’re biting your fingernails practically down to nothing.  

Quite a bit of Hollywood lore surrounds NOTORIOUS; again, I wonder if you internet kids (who think Hitchcock is the title of a romantic comedy starring Will Smith) will even appreciate that not long after it hit big, Swedish-import starlet Ingrid Bergman had a high-profile scandal in real life over leaving her doctor husband for a top Italian art-house director. She was denounced even on the floor of Congress by the Ohio representative (is this a proud state to live in or what?) for adultery, and thus in a way fulfilled the image of her tainted character here.

It is also said (but I wonder how true it is) that the plot’s big “reveal,” that the creepy-sad, mother-dominated Claude Rains villain is working on a super-bomb project with heavy water and the element Uranium, got insinuated into the plot by Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht only through guesswork and chance. They just wanted some exotic substance to be the fulcrum of the plot, and by accident relayed the key components that US scientists at Los Alamos had formulated, in utmost secrecy, for the atom bomb. Thus the FBI put a tail on the filmmakers for a time. Again, truth or movie-publicity malarkey?  

Hard to determine, and really hard to care, as NOTORIOUS has enough to offer on its own terms, as sleek, sinister and slightly subversive entertainment, a showcase piece of Hollywood’s Golden Age. (4 out of 4 stars)

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