Friday, August 16, 2013

Fridays With Hitchcock:
Notorious (1946)

Because Yesterday was Hitchcock's Birthday, here is my favorite Hitchcock film...

Screenplay by Ben Hecht.

This is my favorite Hitchcock movie. The one that gets me every time I see it. Hey, REAR WINDOW is great and NORTH BY NORTHWEST is fun... but this is the one that hurts me to watch - because it makes me feel painful things. Here’s the thing about Hitchcock - he was a master of cinematic language. But just like a novelist who is a master of language, you still need to use that language in the service of a story. I believe that even the worst of Hitchcock’s movies (and we are passed most of those) contain some great scenes and interesting visual or narrative experiments. They movies may not work, but *parts* of them are amazing. And that’s the problem with all movies - a film is a combination of dozens of different arts (or 7 if you’re a fan of old Warner Bros releases) and getting all of those aspects to work at the same time, and then work together, requires a miracle. Usually some things work and some things don’t work. For me, NOTORIOUS is the Hitchcock movie that gets almost everything right at the same time, and all of that begins with the screenplay by Ben Hecht.

A film has all of those arts (or 7) that must come together, and a screenplay also has many different elements that must each work, and then work together. Your characters, your dialogue, your actions, your pacing... there are maybe a hundred different elements, and the odds of them all working on the same scripts are millions to one - which is why there are very few movies that you wouldn’t want to change a word. As screenwriters, we try to get as many elements right as we can.

Hecht was a legendary screenwriter - he wrote *fast* and also wrote great stuff. He worked on other Hitchcock screenplays, but this is the one where everything fell together perfectly... and then Hitchcock’s master of cinematic language brought that screenplay alive. Every time I watch this film (and I know the dialogue by heart) it almost brings me to tears. I get swept up in the story and forget that these are actors speaking lines - they are real people to me with some very real and messy emotional problems. All of Hitchcock’s techniques make this film *more* emotional and *more* personal. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman - movie stars - manage to play roles that make you forget they are movie stars. Both are so tragic, so sad, so unglamorous...

Nutshell: During World War 2, unemotional CIA Agent Devlin (Cary Grant) drafts party girl Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) to go to Rio De Janerio where Nazis are up to something. Alicia is the daughter of a traitor, and a childhood friend, Alex Sebastian (Claude Raines), is one of the Nazis in Brazil. Devlin and Alicia are two people with permanent broken hearts... but while waiting for their mission in Rio they fall in love. The mission? Alicia is supposed to screw Sebastian and find out what the Nazis are up to. So Devlin has to order the woman he loves to screw some other man! And then stick around - practically watching them screw - to get information from Alicia. Folks, this film was made in the 1940s and is shocking even today. What amazes me is how they got this thing past the censors, because the plot is: she screws a Nazi. She’s a whore for Uncle Sam. Sure, they use some euphemisms, but they make it clear that she is screwing the guy. And she discovers that they are working on an atomic bomb (which had not been invented when this film was made - which got Hitchcock in some trouble) and that’s when things go really really wrong. (Grant is actually an OSS Agent - the predecessor of the CIA - but I’m de-complicating it for this blog entry... which is not a history of USA espionage agencies.)

Experiment: Not much in the way of *story* experiments in this film, though Hitchcock did some ground-breaking shots - an amazing shot from high overhead a crowded party slowly cranes down to a close up of a key in Ingrid Bergman’s hand. All in focus, by the way. I don’t know how many recent films I’ve seen where the camera moves just a little and is out of focus. Here we get a complicated moving crane shot and it’s perfect. This shot, by the way, is a great illustration of Hitchcock’s Biggest To Smallest Theory - which we will talk about when we get to YOUNG AND INNOCENT. The film is filled with beautiful moving camera shots on difficult terrain like stairways (it was a crane shot mimicking a dolly) and none of it is showy - all of the camera movement is used to enhance the emotional experience of the story.

There's also a great subjective shot from Ingrid Bergman's character, who is in bed with a hangover, as Cary Grant enters the room and stands over her... ending up upside down from her point of view. It's a great shot because it's boozy like Bergman's character and is *exactly* what you would see if you were her.

Hitch Appearance: A guest at the big party at Sebastian’s house, gulping champagne.

Great Scenes: This is another one of those films that is all great scenes, so we are going to look at some of the elements that makes those scenes great.

Opening Scenes: NOTORIOUS opens with a title card with date and time, setting this story is reality. Inside a criminal court building, reporters wait outside and one opens the doors to the courtroom so that we can evesdrop on the end of the trial... Just in time for the defendant, Huberman, to rant about how the worst is yet to come... and then be found guilty for *treason* as an agent of the Nazis. Like in REAR WINDOW, the audience becomes voyeurs. Seeing this through a cracked open courtroom door makes it seem more real. Then Alicia Huberman exits the courtroom, running the gauntlet between reporters, and we get some of the smoothest exposition I’ve ever seen on film. Conflict is the key, here - as the reporters hammer her with questions, we get information about who she is. Alicia gives no information.

Next scene is Alicia at home having a party, drunk off her ass. Everyone is drinking and dancing except one man, back to us, who sits quietly on a chair watching. Alicia tries flirting with him, gets nowhere... but that only makes her want him more. She kicks out everyone but the stranger, and it’s only after they are alone together do we get to see his face - Devlin (Cary Grant). This back-towards-us introduction was also used in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK with Indiana Jones. It’s a great way to introduce a character using mystery - hey, who is that guy who is at the party and just sitting there? Why aren’t they showing us his face?

Then Alicia wants to go on a picnic (in the middle of the night) and insists on driving (hammered to the point where she can barely walk) and Devlin goes with her. Sitting in the passenger seat, hand ready to grab the wheel, he watches as she swerves all over the road. Hitchcock uses the same POV concept he’ll use in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, putting the audience behind the wheel. It’s a great, tense, scene - because Devlin needs to allow her to drive like a maniac in order to win her trust. Hey, he might die in the process! His love for his continued existence vs. his duty to the CIA to win her trust.

Scene DNA: Back in the March 2000 issue of Script Magazine I had an article called Making A Scene that contained this theory of mine about your screenplay’s DNA. Every scene in your screenplay should also be a microcosm of the story and should contain the DNA necessary to clone the script. You should be able to read any scene from your script and have some idea of what the whole script is about. This usually comes down to your script’s central conflict and theme - those two elements should be present in every single scene of your screenplay. The Central Conflict is where your *emotional conflict* and your *physical conflict* (the plot) intersect. You can usually find the theme through the central conflict, or find the central conflict through the theme. In NOTORIOUS the central conflict is Love vs. Duty - and that can be found in almost every scene in the film. This is part of what I call Organic Screenwriting - Each scene has to be integral to the story not just filler material. Each scene should expose character, move the story forward, and deal with the central conflict and theme of the screenplay... the script's DNA.

Our very first scene has Alicia at her father’s treason trial - she loves her father but did not testify on his behalf. This is a question from one of the reporters - and is not answered for over 15 minutes, in a scene where Devlin plays a recording of Alicia arguing with her father about being a Nazi spy. Every scene in between has been about Alicia and her father - her love for him vs. her duty as a patriotic American to be against the Nazis. How can you hate the enemy when your father is one of them? After hearing the recording she tells Devlin that she did not turn him in, and he says that they did not expect her to - she’s his daughter. A line of dialogue full of that Love vs. Duty central conflict! If you only had that one line of dialogue, you could “clone” the movie.

Most of the characters in NOTORIOUS end up in pairs, with the Love vs. Duty conflict between them. There’s Alicia and her father. Alicia and Devlin. Alicia and Sebastian. Sebastian and his mother. Each pair (and several others in the film) deal with the Love vs. Duty central conflict in scene after scene. The *plot scenes* are all about this central conflict - and we will look at some examples in a moment.

The *emotional scenes* are all about the Love vs. Duty question *within* every character. These are characters at war with themselves - they have an internal Love vs. Duty dilemma which is externalized through the situations in the story. In NOTORIOUS all of the characters are at war with themselves over "love" and "duty". Devlin is a man who says he is afraid of women - a lonely man who is all about his job (CIA Agent - actually OSS, but this isn't an espionage history lesson). When we meet him, he is defined by his loneliness - he is alone at a party, interacting with no one. For a while, the focus is on creating situations that point out that he is lonely - and one interesting way to do that is to put him in a bunch of scenes with Alicia who is a hot, seductive woman... and he is constantly pushing her away. She throws herself at him, he rejects her. Though at this point you may not think that is Love vs. Duty - it actually is the *fear of love* vs. duty - the scenes are all about potential romance that Devlin is rejecting because he needs to focus on his work... only we see Devlin looking at her. He desires this woman. The situation in the story puts them *together*, and we know when the leading man and leading woman are together in scene after scene, romance is somewhere on the horizon. Devlin *wants her* but pushes her away.

In order to show him *rejecting* his love for her, we must find a way to show the love exists. Show that Devlin desires her. There’s a great bit on the plane to Rio De Janeiro where they look out the plane window on Alicia’s side at Rio, then Alicia bends over Devlin to look out the window on the other side of the plane - and her face and lips are maybe an inch from his. It’s a “kiss moment” but he does not kiss her. But the *situation* shows us that he wants to kiss her... but is afraid. This is supposed to be a professional relationship, not a personal one. Duty, not love.

There is absolutely no backstory that says Devlin has had his heart seriously broken - but his actions show this, so we understand it. It's all about what characters do, not what they say... and we’ll talk about the subtext in NOTORIOUS in a minute. We also learn about Alicia through her actions - just as Devlin pushes love away, Alicia is jumping into the arms of anyone who will give her love. She's a slut (tramp is the word they use in the film). Now, what does this tell us about Alicia? Hey - we have two people who *need* love, and each is going about it in the wrong way. So, let's create a situation by putting them together! A situation where they are supposed to be working together, *not* falling in love. That situation brings the whole love vs. duty central conflict to the surface.

About 5:45 minutes into the movie, Alicia says there’s nothing like a love song to give you a good laugh.

About 20:00 minutes into the movie, Devlin says he’s always been afraid of women.

Once they get to romantic Rio, their actions at odds with each other - Alicia throwing herself at Devlin and Devlin deflecting her. But here's the depth part - not deflecting her because he isn't interested, deflecting her because he *is* interested. He is at war with himself. We have established that he is lonely, we have established that he is afraid of love - those two things would remain internal if not for Alicia. The key to screenwriting is to take what is internal and make it external - which is how it is completely different than novels. We have only two senses in screenplays - sight and sound. We have to find ways to show Devlin’s emotional conflict through *situations* and *actions*... and sometimes the absence of expected actions. We also have the location working for us - this is romantic Rio, the perfect place to fall in love, and they are together almost 24/7. So Alicia is everything he wants *and* everything he fears. The situations - the scenes - are designed to force Devlin to deal with this again and again. His *duty* is to be with her in Rio while they wait for their assignment, but that means he must be constantly fighting his love for her.

But he loses that fight. In a scene similar to the plane “non-kiss”, Devlin and Alicia are sight seeing while waiting for their assignment, and she looks at the view - placing her face an inch from his. This time, he kisses her... and she kisses him back... and they become a couple. The most dysfunctional romantic pair ever put on film.

Devlin and Alicia are two wounded people who fall in love. Devlin lets down his armor and falls in love with her. That means our story must do something to poke a stick at the fear inside him... the fear that she will break his heart. So we get a great dilemma - Love vs. Duty, our central conflict - the CIA tells Devlin what Alicia's job will be... she has to sleep with a Nazi (Alex Sebastian) and find out what he is up to. Now we get two scenes back-to-back: Devlin tells the CIA guys she won't do it, she's not that kind of woman, she's reformed. They laugh this off - she's a slut. Next scene - Devlin has to tell Alicia what the mission is. And, because he's afraid that she doesn't really love him (heartbreak fear) he sets it up to be *her* decision. That way, in that game playing method of rocky relationships, by refusing the job she will be professing her love for him. But it takes two to play games, and she decides to say "yes" and see if he tells her she shouldn't do it. Guess what? This screws up everything, and each thinks the other doesn't truly love them, and now she's gonna go screw some Nazi and report back to Devlin about it. Can you imagine a worse situation for either of them? A more painful situation for Devlin? And the big problem is - his job, his *duty*, is to have the woman he loves screw some other guy. That's the concept of the film - the basic situation of the story. It's the logline. And that love vs. duty aspect is in almost every scene of the film. Since the *story* is about a man who must order the woman he loves to sleep with some other guy, that central conflict is part of all of the plot scenes *and* part of all of the emotional scenes. The big emotional conflict is having characters do the thing they would never do... the thing that hurts them most.

For Devlin to be a good CIA Agent, he must make sure Alicia screws that Nazi like crazy! But, for Devlin to be a happy person, she can not screw the Nazi. He is at war with himself - love vs duty. Every scene becomes *emotional* and every scene has his character in conflict with himself.

And, because this is a movie - about things that happen rather than about thoughts and feelings - Alicia SCREWS THE NAZI. AND KEEPS SCREWING HIM! AND TO NOT BE SUSPICIOUS, MUST PRACTICALLY SCREW HIM IN FRONT OF DEVLIN. Scene after scene, situation after situation, she must seem to select Alex Sebastian over Devlin - and Devlin must WATCH this and even participate in it. These situations are created so that Devlin, who loves Alicia, must practically push her into another man's arms (and bed) because it is his *duty*.

There is a great scene where Alicia *reports* to Devlin that she has added Sebastian to her list of “playmates”. That’s one of those scenes where you wonder how the censors let that slip past. You don’t need a decoder ring to figure out what she means - she screwed him. They aren’t married, there is no talk of marriage at this point... but she screwed him. And Devlin, trying to act businesslike, tells her “good job”. But you know that isn’t what he’s thinking... or feeling.

Later, after Alicia and Sebastian have been screwing for a while, she goes to see the CIA boss and Devlin for advice - Sebastian has asked to marry her. Hey, one thing to push the woman you love into the bed of another man... a bigger thing to says she should *marry* him. That takes her off the market. That’s permanent. But that’s what the situation forces Devlin to do. It’s a great scene, because Devlin ends up trying to find some *business* (duty) reasons why they should not get married... but ends up finding the solution to every objection he comes up with. He’s the one who realizes their marriage may be bad for his heart, but it’s good for the mission.

Because the marriage creates an excuse to throw a big party... where Devlin and Alicia can search the wine cellar and find out what the Nazis are up to. At that big party there are numerous scenes and bits where Devlin and Alicia desperately want to be together... but he must hand her over to Sebastian. There are 3 or 4 scenes in that sequence where this happens - the big one where Alicia and Devlin have gone to the wine cellar together, discovered that the Nazis are working with uranium, and are almost discovered spying (duty) by Sebastian, but they pretend to be kissing (love) so that he wioll not suspect. Only problem - they both really want to kiss each other and do not want to stop.

And every time Devlin must push her into the arms of Sebastian, we feel awful for him. How can a man do that? How can he live with that? How can he stand there and watch the woman he loves with someone else? How can he be the one who forced her to be with that other person - and in scene after scene keep forcing her to be with him. But that is his *job*, his *duty*. Scene after scene deals with this central conflict - you could pick any random scene and find that central conflict and use it to clone the rest of the script. Once you have that central conflict, that war within the character that is also the plot, you have to create scenes that externalize it into a series of battles.


And all of the other characters are different aspects of that Love vs. Duty conflict *illustrated*. We’ve looked at Devlin and Alicia's *love vs. duty* aspects, let's look at the other characters: The Nazi, Alex Sebastian (Claude Raines), is a great character - a sad little man in love with a hottie. To give us the love vs. duty thing - he discovers that Alicia (woman he loves) is really a CIA agent - what does he do? He goes to his smothering mother (Madame Konstantin) for advice, “Mother, I have married an America agent” - love and duty in the same sentence *again*! When Sebastian tells her that Alicia is a spy, she has to pit her love for her son (which is kinda creepy) against her duty as an evil Nazi - if she exposes Alicia as a spy to the other Nazis, she may get rid of the woman who is coming between her and her son... but also putting her son in danger - the other Nazis will probably kill him.

So they decide to slowly poison her, and tell the other Nazis that she is ill. And that’s as far as I’m going to go with the plot, in case you haven’t seen the movie. I don’t want to spoil all of it. But when you watch the film, look at scenes like the one with Poor Emil, who freaks out in front of Alicia when he thinks the wine they are serving with dinner might be Uranium. All of the Nazis love Emil, he’s a very sweet guy, but they decide he’s let his emotions get in the way of business by freaking out like that, and the only way to resolve it is to kill him. This is a great scene because it does so many different things at once - it is “love and duty” and shows just how evil the Nazis are (they are killing their friend) and telling us the wine bottle is the MacGuffin and - what we don’t know at the time - completely setting up the end of the movie!

You can take any scene in NOTORIOUS and find a Love vs. Duty decision in the center of it - the DNA of the story - and use that DNA to clone the rest of the story. Each scene, each line, each character is a *part* of the whole. Nothing tacked on from the outside. Nothing that does not belong.

Subtext: The great thing about these Love vs. Duty situations is that they are overflowing with subtext. NOTORIOUS is one of those films where every line of dialogue has multiple meanings - usually the “duty” line that has a “love” second meaning. This allows the dialogue to be subtle - the situations are so emotionally charged there’s no need for big dramatic dialogue.

One of the scenes I use whenever I teach my 2 day class is the one where they finally take a chance on love, and Alicia plans on cooking him dinner (even though in a previous scene she said she hates to cook - so this is a big thing for her) and she talks about marriage... hinting that she would not be opposed to a long term relationship with Devlin (again, this is a party girl who is used to one night stands and no permanent romantic attachments)... except the conversation is all about preparing chicken. When she talks about the domestic act of making dinner, she’s really talking about *their* domestic future. Oh, and I guess I should mention that this conversation takes place during what was the record for the longest kiss in screen history! Couldn’t be a single sustained kiss, the censors would not allow that, so it is a liplock and a line of dialogue and a liplock and a line of dialogue with the two of them tangled in each other’s arms the whole time. Sexy as hell!

Focus Objects: I have a Script Tip on suspense “focus objects” that uses NOTORIOUS as an example. A “focus object” is an item that creates suspense - like the unraveling rope bridge support in adventure films. The wine bottles are great focus objects in the film, first in the scene where Emil freaks at the bottle being served with dinner - you wonder what’s in it? When they pour it and it is only wine, the question becomes - the why did Emil freak? When Devlin and Alicia search the wine cellar - they are looking for a similar bottle... and find a bunch of them. Devlin accidentally breaks one, exposing Uranium ore. Now he must clean it up against the clock - with Sebastian climbing down the stairs! They find a similar bottle, empty the wine and fill it with the ore, and replace it on the shelf. When Sebastian searches the wine cellar later, looking for something out of place, he looks from vintage year label to vintage year label on the shelf of “uranium bottles” - and one year is not like the others... the one Devlin replaced. The bottle out of place is what creates the suspense in the scene.

And the wine cellar key is the focus of the big party scene and the scenes before and after. Alicia, as Mrs. Sebastian, has access to the keys to every room... except the wine cellar. Since Emil freaked at a wine bottle, Devlin is sure that is the key to whatever those pesky Nazis are up to... and orders Alicia to steal the key. There is a great scene where she steals the key from Sebastian’s key ring while he is dressing for the party only a few feet away. She gets the key - it is in her hand - when Sebastian approaches her, grabs both of her hands! He tells her how much he loves her (as she is stealing the key as part of her spy duties) and lifts one of her hands, opens it... (the empty one, close call) and kisses her palm. Then goes to kiss the other hand... but Alicia pulls him into her arms so that he’ll forget about the hand with the key in it. Distracts him with some lovin’ so he won’t find the stolen key. That’s *before* the party, where the key is the focus as Alicia palms it off to Devlin and eventually Sebastian realizes the key is missing from his ring when he and the butler go down to get some more champagne. That key is the center of about 15 minutes of the film!

There’s also a great “twitch” in the story - an object that has a symbolic and emotional meaning. When Alicia wants to go on that midnight picnic at the beginning of the film she is wearing and outfit with a bear midriff, and Devlin jokes that she might catch cold and ties his handkerchief around her waist. That handkerchief becomes a symbol of their relationship, and there’s a heart breaking scene where she returns it to him... because she’s now screwing that Nazi morning, noon and night. Whenever you can take an object and give it an additional meaning, you can tell your story without words.

Ticking Clock Also whenever I do the two day class I sometimes use the champagne at the party as an example of unusual ticking clocks. Those big red LEDs on the sides of bombs are a complete cliche, and not every film is about a bomb. But there are a million other things that can be used as a “ticking clock” to create suspense. In NOTORIOUS at that big party there is a huge ice bucket full of champagne bottles - and everyone at the party is drinking champagne. Devlin and Alicia will be breaking into the wine cellar, where the rest of the champagne is, to search for the freakout wine. If the champagne in the bucket runs low, Sebastian will need to go down to the wine cellar to get more... except he can’t because Alicia has stolen his key. So, every time they pull another bottle of champagne from that bucket, it’s like minutes ticking away on the clock. This is a great device - and when Alicia or Devlin is offered a glass of champagne and they turn it down, it’s strange and suspect. Hey, it’s a party!

Sound Track: Big, lush, romantic music from Roy Webb, who scored CAT PEOPLE and LEOPARD MAN and MURDER MY SWEET and many other noir films. If the NOTORIOUS score sounds familiar to you, it’s because it gets nicked all the time for parody films with big soapy romantic scenes.

NOTORIOUS is one of those films that doesn’t seem to age - sure it’s in black and white (cinematography by the great Ted Tetzlaff) and is about Nazis and World War 2, but the raw emotions that run through every scene and the sophisticated story about a woman who screws for her country (still amazing that they let them make the film!) seem more modern than half of the films made today. Romance, suspense, drama... all in one great film!

NEXT FRIDAY: THE PARADINE CASE... the movie Hitchcock quit!

- Bill


The other Fridays With Hitchcock.


Brett said...

Brilliant film. Fantastic analysis.

That every moviemaker -- writer, director, producer, honey wagon driver -- is not intimately familiar with this movie is just criminal.

Will likely have to again toss it into the DVD tonight.


martinb said...

I confess I've never seen it. Obviously a big gap in my film education I'll have to fill pronto.

To echo Brett -- brilliant analysis. You squeezed a lot of screenwriter wisdom from this movie.

mernitman said...

Bill: This has always been my personal favorite of the Hitchcock canon as well, and I gotta say you nailed all I might've thought to analyze and more - beautiful piece.

Martin_B said...

The top YouTube link no longer works.

bigmouth said...

That's my favorite Hitchcock, too!

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