Bitchiness, Oedipus, and Maya Deren in Hitchcock’s Notorious

I’ve been going back to the basics lately by sitting in on Ashley’s intro-level film studies class. And last night, after a lecture about “the shot” sprinkled with examples from GoodFellas, we were treated to a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). It’s a fun, sexy thriller from the top tier of Hitch’s oeuvre, and while it’s ostensibly about American spies battling former Nazis in postwar Brazil, that’s really just the delivery mechanism for a steamy love triangle and some dazzling camera tricks. It’s a fine exemplar of mid-career Hitchcock in peak form; as such, it’s ripe for picking apart. So for your reading delight, here are a few observations I made.

  • Cary Grant is a bitch.

The film is fundamentally about the misunderstandings and repartee that define the relationship between Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), who must go undercover to learn the Nazis’ secrets, and Devlin (Cary Grant), her handler/lover. However, when Alicia must marry Nazi socialite Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) for the sake of the mission, Devlin gets all pissy. He passive-aggressively clams up and refuses to talk things out; he also makes snide comments basically implying that she’s a total drunken whore. He even does it to her face toward the end of the movie, when she’s being slowly poisoned into a stupor.

So our debonair hero, played by the icon of Hollywood classiness, is also a self-centered, pouting bitch. This actually isn’t too surprising, especially when you consider that Grant had recently starred in Hitchcock’s Suspicion – wherein he plays an even less likeable, more selfish cad. Hitchcock just had a knack for twisting around actors’ usual personas (see: all his collaborations with Jimmy Stewart), as well as the viewers’ sympathies. Thus, Devlin is frustratingly single-minded to the point that it turned Ashley and I off of him somewhat, while Sebastian is pathetic enough to garner some audience pity – especially in the film’s final moments, which becomes a very dark joke at his expense. Which brings us to our next point…

  • Sebastian has some mommy issues.

OK, this isn’t really a clever observation on my part; it’s part of the film’s storyline. But it does bear some examination. Like many of Hitchcock’s other villains, Sebastian is cultured, even elitist, and surrounded by a network of equally high-class friends. But despite being wealthy and sophisticated, he’s also strangely immature. He’s very emotionally dependent on his mother, played by the authoritative Madame Konstantin, and rarely makes decisions without her. Except when it comes to marrying Alicia.

Here, we see shades of Hitchcock films yet to come: Strangers on a Train with Bruno Anthony’s domineering mother; Psycho, which copies a scene from Notorious almost verbatim (specifically, Sebastian and his mother arguing over keys behind a closed door); and The Birds, which has a similar oedipal crisis between Mitch and Lydia, and a similar female interloper in Melanie. It’s patterns like these that make auteurist analyses of Hitchcock especially rewarding. Sebastian’s relationship with his mother is certainly a secondary conflict, but it nonetheless plays a crucial role in determining the narrative’s overall emotional dynamics.

I won’t go into psychoanalytic detail about this strand of inquiry, especially since Robin Wood, Tania Modleski, or some such theorist probably has already. I just wanted to note the resemblance to other Hitchcock characters and the curious place that Sebastian’s developmental hang-ups occupy in Notorious. (I could make similar comments about the whole social makeup of the Nazi circle; Hitchcock was at home when representing widespread perversion.)

  • Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht stole the key motif from Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon.

OK, maybe “stole” is a harsh word, since I can’t say for sure whether Hitchcock ever actually saw Meshes. But I think it’s extremely likely that the dream images of symbolic keys in Meshes had an influence on how Hitchcock filmed the MacGuffin-revealing key to Sebastian’s wine cellar in Notorious. Consider the following: Meshes was released in 1943, Notorious in 1946; both films indulge in some extreme subjective camera techniques; and Meshes literalized many of the psychoanalytical themes that Hitchcock dealt with throughout his career. (Of course, these speculations could always be confirmed or disproved through some historical/biographical research.)

So, since I really like this theory, I’ve assembled a little collection of visual evidence. Click to enlarge:

At the very least, these are some fascinating parallels. I hope you’ve enjoyed my little insights into Notorious. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend that you go check it out. Sure, much of the plot and dialogue verge on the absurd, but Grant and Bergman have such strong chemistry that they threaten to blow a hole in the screen, and that more than makes up for the film’s flaws. Their combined hotness really makes Notorious a movie you just can’t miss.

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema

2 responses to “Bitchiness, Oedipus, and Maya Deren in Hitchcock’s Notorious

  1. Cary Grant is always a bitch. I think it’s supposed to be part of his charm.

  2. Dan

    I love this film and you make some very illuminating points. Interesting stuff. For me, Notorious remains one of Hitchcock’s best films.

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