U.S. Intellectual History Blog


[Note: This is the fourth USIH post in relation to “For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III.” Please see the introduction to Ben Alpers’ 2012 USIH blogathaon entry for more information. Click HERE to make a donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation.]

I inherited Hitchcock films through my father.  He gave them to me in a way that might sound familiar to others who grew-up in the general New York City area and who, in those pre-cable days, would flip between channels 9, 11, and 13 on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon or evening.  I would come across a black and white film and my father, reading a newspaper on the couch or fixing something on the coffee table, would reflexively, excitedly say, “oh, wait, I think that’s…”  It would be To Catch a Thief or North by Northwest or even sometimes The Birds (pace Zizek!).  But the movie that my dad always implored me to watch was Notorious.  

I grew up remembering the ending before I understood there was a storyline between the two ridiculously attractive stars, Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant.  It was the ending, (you can see a shot of it is above) that would make its way into our conversation for the next few weeks.  My dad and I would find occasion (of course apropo of nothing) to say in terrible German-like accents: “Alex, will you come in please? I wish to talk to you.”

The ending is just a killer: the build up with a long tracking scene down a staircase, the tension-filled close-ups of the characters speaking to each other in tones just out of earshot of the suspicious character who will speak that great last line.  The final, wonderful, terrifying moment leaves Ivan Triesault, a character actor from the postwar era, standing in a backlit doorway, a dark figure in the background, who asks the question that under other circumstances might be innocent but now signals the certain death of Alex.

Triesault was like many character actors of that era, he had a great face, and one or two looks that when shot in certain ways could fill-up a scene and create an ominous visual cue to the audience.  Triesault plays Eric Mathis, a German financier who as part of a ring of postwar Nazis in Rio seeks to identify and process uranium ore in the mountains of Brazil.  That aspect of the film, while curious, is left undeveloped by Hitchcock.  But such details don’t matter when there are other, quite well-known and attractive faces to fill-up the screen.  Hitchcock had Bergman and Grant; he didn’t really need much in the way of plot. 

As he done in other films, Hitchcock had fun with his characters–in this case playing off tensions between Bergman and Grant and their commitment to each other and their commitment to their country.  Grant is an intelligence agent assigned to convince Bergman to ingratiate herself into the family at the center of the uranium ore scheme.  Bergman and Grant build great chemistry through a script that is at turns cheeky, romantic, and biting.  And as I returned to watch Notorious in college and graduate school, I grew to adore Bergman’s beauty and admire her selfless acting.  Here was a genuine movie star from the golden age of Hollywood, but she could be somewhat goofy in the way she acts drunk or how she fawns over Grant.  As for Grant, after years of watching actors from Paul Newman to Brad Pitt, I decided no one since the late 1960s could be so self-effacing and elegant as Grant could be at the same time.  Grant was the first metro-sexual, and, at the same time, not–he was not that pretentious or precious.

The Grant-Bergman romance drives the movie.  Grant falls in love with Bergman (of course) and she with him, but they both have to make decisions independent of each other that will gravely effect the American effort to stop the nefarious Nazi project.  The catch is this: Bergman will have to convince Alex Sebastian (Claude Raines) the head of the Nazi-Rio ring, that she (this luminous beauty) loves him (not a Cary Grant stand-in) enough to marry him.  Raines falls for the bluff (a fatal fall, it turns out) and Bergman is in–and out, for now she has lost Grant.  Grant makes plans to leave Rio thinking that such heartbreak is part of the job.  However, after Bergman fails to show up for a scheduled briefing, Grant decides to check on her one last time, suspecting that she wouldn’t forsake the mission even though she seems to have forsaken him.

It’s a great part for Grant because he gets to play both debonair government agent and the love-sick suitor to Bergman’s beautifully sincere melancholy soul.  Yet, as I became enamored with film critics and their development as artists alongside directors such as Hitchcock, I came to discover an intriguing aspect to the magic I thought I saw in Grant’s acting.  In a long essay in 1975 on Cary Grant for the New Yorker, Pauline Kael contended that Alfred Hitchcock rescued Cary Grant from himself, and in doing so, helped create, perhaps more than any other single director, the Cary Grant that I admire so much.  Kael argues, convincingly, that Grant’s best work had pretty much been over by 1940–the screwball comedies that made him a box office idol had ended by World War II.  Hitchcock had him for three films of the postwar era that established Grant as perhaps the surest box office draw in movie history: Notorious in 1946, To Catch a Thief in 1955, and North by Northwest in 1959.  Those films set him up to play one of his most endearing roles in Stanley Donen’s Charade in 1963.  Taken together, the Hitchcock films made Cary Grant, as Kael writes, the man other men wanted to be.  “Men as far apart as John F. Kennedy and Lucky Luciano thought that he should star in their life story. Who but Cary Grant could be a fantasy self-image for a President and a gangster chief?  Who else could demonstrate that sophistication didn’t have to be a sign of weakness–that it could be the polished, fun-loving style of those were basically tough?  Cary Grant has said that even he wanted to be Cary Grant.”*

I still don’t have cable and I now live pretty far away from the New York City area–and it wouldn’t matter anyway, those great three channels don’t offer much Hitchcock any more.  Now I troll the web for movies, but every once in a while, I still like to call my dad and say in a terrible German accent, “Alex….

*Pauline Kael, “The Man from Dream City–Cary Grant,” in For Keeps, (1994), 621.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Supposedly when Warner Bros was planning a bio film of Cole Porter, they asked the still-living composer who he wanted to be portrayed by onscreen; to which Porter flippantly answered, “Cary Grant.” The studio took him at his word, hence ‘Night and Day,’ starring … Sometimes you do get your fantasy fulfilled!

  2. For what little it’s worth, I feel exactly the same way about Notorious…and Cary Grant. And I’ve long thought Ingrid Bergman one of the most beautiful and intelligent actors to have ever graced the screen. I’m astounded that apparently so few people have even seen these movies today (we get ‘basic cable,’ so we view them when we can on TCM). Several Hitchcock films, including Rear Window, rank among the absolute best of all time (Lawrence of Arabia, ‘orientalism’ be damned, is right up there), although I would not include The Birds among his best. Contemporary films are vastly disappointing by comparison.

  3. I hadn’t read the Kael essay, and you’re making me think about her argument (I don’t know yet whether I concur or not!). Nice essay; I like the personal touch about you and your father. It’s true that the ending is masterful; it really makes one feel a lot less happy about Bergman’s escape since Rains is so very sympathetic.

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