Consider this post a place holder for a better more exciting post to come-
“Madam, you have done me wrong,
–Malvolio, Twelfth night
Notorious (Hitchcock 1946) is an excellent film- I recommend it. Although (or because) I won’t be providing an exposition of the plot exactly I suggest you watch it before reading this (maybe by then I will have really written the post). Please not that I am writing this before reading any criticism- I make no doubt that much of what I will suggest resembles much that has been said before.
Notorious’ reputation is interesting.
On the one hand it is very highly thought of in a general way, but on the other most of the people I’ve actually talked to about it seem to feel slightly underwhelmed. I think- reductively- that it boils down to this- they don’t know what to make of the seeming simplicity of Notorious’ end. They expect the eerie, the uncanny, the shocking. Their view seems to be that, while it is an excellent old time suspense movie, it lacks the characteristic Hitchcock twist-Instead the end feels rushed and anti-climatic.
Needless to say I think these impressions are intentional.
I will argue that Notorious does something unusual- it does not build a single strong narrative and satisfy its audience with an all out shocking denouement or turn that shakes the audience in a way that they can easily get hold of, instead it splits itself at the end. While the main narrative hurries somewhat mechanically to conclusion it develops a kind of negative image, a counter point, that increasingly demands out attention until, in the final frame, where we should see the mother of all kissing scenes (to top the earlier famous one) what do we see but a closed door. A closed door behind which lurks- not the long-awaited-hanky panky but the villains pitiable fate.
Part One- Skeptical Love
The dynamic between Devlin and Alicia in Notorious is a familiar one. Each party loves (or wants to love) the other but cannot trust themselves with reading the others intentions. They can’t really be blamed for this because they are both so afraid of being caught out in the act of un-reciprocated love that they obsessively maintain the barrier of obscuration that gives rise to their anxiety.
For both parties the other’s true feeling remain mystery within an inaccessible system the external actions of which cannot be treated as indicative.
This description is inadequate. Of course the lovers not only fear being mistaken in their investment- being caught out and left hanging they also fear being swallowed up losing their agency.
The dynamic between the two of them is the central engine of the plot- the tension in events follows from the tension between them. All of the character’s external difficulties are at base internal ones- or an internal one… the characters (and in particular the male character) have to awake their faith- risk investment- and the world will be transformed. In this sense (as will become clearer) the film displays what can be called the logic of utopia- a world of perfect harmony exists underneath the present one… accessible through a simple but fundamental shift achievable in a moment.
The tension (and enjoyment) we experience as audience members in their division from one another is in large part a result of this Utopian structure- the condition of bliss at once perfectly remote and incredibly near- so easily achievable.
Before I go any further I should probably say something about what I mean by Narrative Logic. Implicit in my thinking here is that narrative trades on a kind of inevitability- or, rather more simply it trades on the fact that it IS (it has come to pass). In other words it is not so much that narrative needs to convince us that it could have happened no other way (indeed, clearly chance can be good for narrative… fuel for its sorcery… these ideas are not at cross purposes… I will try to come back to that) the point is that most strong narrative does not even deign to have the argument… it presents us with the fact of itself…. The argument of narrative is not that Devlin must get the girl- it is simpler- it is that Devlin got the girl. At the same time it relies on setting up compelling relationships within itself so that Devlin’s final choice to make his priorities explicit is powerfully tied to the result.
(Wittgenstein says that logic cannot be described only be displayed…. I think that is helpful here…. )
Before we get to the resolution, look at this of Hitchcock talking about the kissing scene, it is the highly exemplary. As Hitchcock reflects, the lover’s physical attachment to one another reflects a fear that love can only remain if physically held- they need to pin it down and hold it static.
Their paranoid passion is summed up by Alicia’s comment “This is a strange love affair… (in that) you don’t love me”. The other’s final inaccessibility means that they are only in love in so far as they are in the act (kissing).
The above clip seems to make a great deal of Cary Grant’s response- “Actions speak louder than words” (it repeats it at the end). ‘After all’, it seems to say ‘Hitchcock calls this clinging true love and what could be a better motto for movie making, particularly in Hitchcock’s style than “actions speak louder than words”?’
Actions, or more precisely things (and their motions) do speak loudly in this movie, but one can’t help wondering if the makers of the clip failed to notice the obvious inadequacy of Grant’s response.
The actions speak yes but is it intelligible? (Is it really speech) Neither party is able to trust the message of the other’s actions and each becomes increasingly non-communicative as a result. However physically close to one another in this scene the fundamental separation between them remains the same.
It will take a monumental effort on the part of plot to get them to reach across this gap……
next time “Utopia and its Shadow”