Friday, March 14, 2014

Donald Spoto on Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS

Donald Spoto is a film critic and Hitchcock biographer who also wrote one of the best books on Hitchcock's films. Here he looks at my favorite Hitchcock film, NOTORIOUS, and talks about a couple of things I use in my class...

1) The use of "Echo Scenes" (from Michael Hauge's screenwriting book) - where the same location is used for different scenes creating a film version of those puzzle where you look for the differences between two pictures. In my class I use the multiple scenes on the park bench from NOTORIOUS to show the way their relationship changes as the mission continues. Here Spoto looks at the two scenes on the balcony which use the same background to highlight the difference in the foreground. The earlier scene was the two coming together, here we have the two coming apart.

2) Also the use of dialogie as complete counterpoint to action. This is one of those basic screenwriting things - what they say needs to be different than what they do or you have a redundancy. Because "a picture is worth a thousand words" and "don't do what I say do what I do" and "actions speak louder than words", dialogue is usually less important that the actions of the characters. When action and dialogue are at odds, you can create subtext and depth in a scene - the actions telling us the truth and the dialogue as what the characters want to believe or even a complete lie. I use a scene from NOTORIOUS in class to show that what characters *say* in a movie means far less than what they do. This is why skipping the action to read the dialogue is the biggest mistake you could ever make - if anything, do the opposite!



He also talks about the casting of Bergman, but I think that is part of a couple of larger, screenwriting related elements...

1) Interesting characters. One of the things I talk about in the 2 day class is contradiction *within* character - this creates depth. Here we have a patriotic whore and a shy spy. Bergman's character (written by Ben Hecht) is created as a daring contradiction - this is the female lead, the *romantic* lead... and she is a usually drunk party girl who is sent on a mission to screw an ugly Nazi in order to find information. Um, how many whore leads are there in film *today*? (BTW - not my moral judgement, here: women can have a love life equal to a man's... but that is *today*, in the mid-40s this was shocking stuff, and I suspect that if you wrote a rom-com about a woman who had slept with a handful of men on screen, someone would want you to change that *today*. There is a double standard for female leads on screen.) So we have this shocking character... in a love story. Hey, it might have been a big deal to cast Bergman because she'd just played a nun, but casting *any* female movie star in this role would have been a big deal. It's the character created by the screenwriter that makes it interesting no matter who you cast.

And Cary Grant's character is equally complex - he must order the woman he loves to sleep with another man... Complete love vs. duty conflict, and he screws up and picks "duty".

2) Edgy and Dramatic Concept. If I said: "In a war, a woman is forced into prostitution by the government", you would think the enemy country was doing that... not *our side*! The story concept - that a CIA Agent must order the woman he loves to sleep with the enemy - creates the characters that all three leads play. Again, Bergman is brilliant as are Grant and Raines, but the situation is so juicy that the film would have worked with other stars in the leads... maybe not worked as well, but still worked. When a screenwriter creates a dramatic situation like this, it really gives the stars something to work with. Cary Grant starred in a bunch of movies that relied on his wit and charm and good looks - here he is completely dialed down. This films is driven by story rather than star power. I think the casting of Bergman and Grant is genius - because there is a huge contrast between their usual screen personas and these characters. This is not a "Cary Grant role" at all - this guy is shy and quiet and introverted. The story concept itself is shocking and filled with drama, allowing the actors to show great emotions by doing very little. Is your concept this dramatic?

Fridays With Hitchcock will return soon! Next up with either be NOTORIOUS or LIFEBOAT.

- Bill

2 comments:

Richard J. McKenzie said...

The CIA was started in 1947. Unspecified US spies in South America during WW II ('41-45) could be FBI.
The subject of jurisdiction never comes into play, if I remember correctly. FBI agent Grant has no problem about spying in a neutral country, he just hates the emotionally painful moments when he runs into his lover/whore.

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