Spy in the House of Love: Alfred Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS (RKO 1946)

You won’t find a more glamorous pair of spies than Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS… except maybe in other films that feature Cary Grant as a spy! The Master of Suspense once again goes full speed ahead in bringing this exciting espionage caper to the screen loaded with the usual “Hitchcock Touches”, and introducing a few new ones along the way.

Alicia Huberman’s father has just been convicted of treason, and party girl Alicia soon finds herself seduced by suave T.R. Devlin. Awakening the next morning with a massive hangover, Alicia discovers Devlin’s a government agent (ours, of course!) charged with recruiting her to infiltrate a nest of ex-Nazis in Brazil. The target: Alexander Sebastian, a former flame of hers. The wealthy industrialist Sebastian is snack-dab in the middle of a fiendish Nazi plot, and Alicia’s job is to find out what’s going on. Meanwhile, the two fall madly in love.

Alicia gets invited to a dinner party loaded with Sebastian’s co-conspirators, including his suspicious mother. There’s something sinister about those wine bottles, but there’s a fly in the ointment: Sebastian asks her to marry him to prove she’s not in love with Devlin! Devlin, ever the company man, gives her the brush-off, and Alicia continues her mission as Mrs. Alexander Sebastian. Alicia steals the key to the wine cellar and, at a lavish party, she and Devlin investigate, finding bottles full of “some kind of metal ore”. Sebastian discovers the truth about Alicia’s allegiance, and he and his mother decide the only way out is to slowly poison her…

Ingrid’s Alicia Huberman is no Ilsa Lund, that’s for sure! In fact, the implication is she’s a high-priced call girl, but the censors preferred the more demur term “party girl”. Cary Grant is as sophisticated as ever, and he and Bergman make a crackling screen team (the pair would later team again in 1958’s INDISCREET). Speaking of those censors, it seems they had a rule forbidding onscreen kissing longer than three seconds (Good Lord!). Hitchcock, ever the innovator, got around this by having Grant and Bergman embrace in a passionate lip-lock for two-and-a-half seconds, then murmur a few sweet nothings, then kiss again. This went on for two-and-a-half minutes, and though it may sound strange, the scene is actually pretty damn hot! Leave it to Hitch to beat the devil at his own game!

The outstanding supporting cast is headed by Claude Rains as Alexander Sebastian. As usual, Rains commands the screen whenever he’s on it, really tough to do when you’re opposite Grant and Bergman! Veteran Austrian actress Leopoldine Konstantine makes her first (and only) American film appearance as Madame Sebastian, as knee-deep in the conspiracy as her son. Familiar Faces include Bea Benaderet, Wally Brown , Louis Calhern , Gavin Gordon, Donald Kerr , Moroni Olsen, and Ivan Treisault. Bess Flowers can be spotted in the huge party scene, along with Hitchcock in his regular cameo.

That party scene begins with an overhead shot atop the staircase (a favorite Hitchcock motif) that tracks all the way down to Alicia’s hand, which holds the key to the wine cellar and the plot. This and all the other fantastic camerawork come courtesy of DP Ted Tetzlaff, whose cinematography credits include classics MY MAN GODFREY, EASY LIVING, and THE MORE THE MERRIER. Tetzlaff was also a director in his own right, helming the 1949 film noir THE WINDOW . RKO’s music man Roy Webb delivers one of his best scores, and the screenplay by Ben Hecht is downright perfect. With all that talent in front of and behind the camera, it’s no small wonder NOTORIOUS was one of 1946’s biggest hits, ranking #7 at the box office and scoring Oscar nominations for Rains and Hecht. The movie is as glamorous and entertaining today as it was then, with Hitchcock, Grant, Bergman, and Rains all at their best, and makes a good place to start for those few out there (are there any?) who have yet to discover the work of Alfred Hitchcock.

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Here’s Looking at You On The Big Screen, CASABLANCA!

Longtime readers of this blog know CASABLANCA is my all-time favorite film. It’s blend of stars, supporting cast, script, direction, drama, romance, and humor is the perfect example of 1940’s Hollywood storytelling,  when Tinseltown was at the peak of its moviemaking powers . I’ve seen the film at least 80 times in many different formats, from broadcast television to cable and satellite, from VHS to DVD to DVR, but never before on the big screen – until this past Sunday, that is!

Fathom Events, in conjunction with TCM, presents classic films on a monthly basis in theaters across the country. In my area, they’re shown at Regal Cinemas in Swansea, MA, a half hour drive down the highway. I’ve been tempted to make the trip a few times, but never got around to it for one reason or another. But when I heard CASABLANCA was this month’s feature, I knew I had to be there, despite the drive, the multiple personal viewings (hell, I own it in two formats!), and the $12.50 ticket price (not to mention the requisite popcorn and soda!). This was an opportunity to see my favorite movie on a big screen, and I wasn’t about to pass it up!

Even though it was a Sunday afternoon during football season, a three-quarters full crowd gathered to attend the 2:00 showing. The fact that our Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots didn’t play hated rivals the Denver Broncos until 8:30PM certainly didn’t hurt matters (and by the way, we kicked their asses!).  The audience was a good mix of older viewers and, to the delight of my classic movie lovin’ heart, some younger fans, giving up their Sunday afternoon to watch a 75-year-old Black & White movie in a theater. Just goes to show what I’ve known all along – a great film will always draw an audience, no matter how old it may be.

After a filmed introduction and some solid background info from TCM’s own Ben Mankiewicz, it was showtime. Seeing this film up there larger than life was an awesome experience for yours truly, even though I know it by heart and can recite the dialog like singing along to an old song on the local classic rock radio station. Every line on Bogart’s world-weary face was there, all the pain and self-pity indelibly etched in vivid detail when Rick Blaine meets up with his long-lost love Ilsa Lund, now accompanied by Czechoslovakian freedom fighter Victor Laszlo. The scene where Rick, drinking himself to oblivion in the darkened Café Americain, orders his piano playing friend Sam to play “As Time Goes By”, stirring memories of his and Ilsa’s affair in Paris before the Nazis marched in, brought tears to even the most jaded of eyes – including my own. I guess Captain Renault would label me a “sentimentalist”, too!

Ingrid Bergman looked beyond beautiful on the big screen, her dewy-eyed, ethereal face conveying powerful emotions boiling just under the surface. Paul Henreid looked more heroic than ever as Victor Laszlo, especially during the inspirational scene where he leads the patrons of Rick’s in “La Marseillaise”:

Claude Rains  as Captain Renault gets most of the best lines, and got the biggest laughs from the crowd, including that “I’m shocked – shocked to find that gambling is going on here” one. The diminutive Rains dominated every scene he was in, and very nearly steals the picture from the Bogart/Bergman/Henreid triangle with his acting skills. S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as Karl got his share of laughs, too, whether looking at Rick all googly-eyed after the boss allows a young refuge couple to win at roulette, or the charming scene he shares with Mr. and Mrs. Leuchtag (Ludwig Stossel, Ilka Gruning) as they demonstrate their command of the English language – or rather lack of it!

Dooley Wilson has never sounded better, and his musical interludes on “It Had to Be You” and “Knock On Wood” felt like a live concert event, surpassed only by the iconic song “As Time Goes By”. Peter Lorre , Sydney Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt – such an amazing cast! And being the inveterate Familiar Face spotter that I am, it took all my strength not to shout out the names of the character actors who pop up in scene after scene (Frank Lackteen! Dan Seymour! Madeleine LeBeau! Gino Corrado!), many of whom were real-life refugees who escaped the Nazi terror in Europe and came to America to ply their trade.

All in all, celebrating CASABLANCA’s 75th Anniversary on the big screen was a dream come true, and an experience I’ll not soon forget. The perfect film in the perfect venue, surrounded by like-minded fans – I couldn’t ask for a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I could go on and on, but instead I’ll let the great Dooley Wilson take this post home. Play it, Sam:

 

Top Ten Reasons CASABLANCA is The Greatest Movie Ever Made!!

CasablancaPoster-Gold

Seventy three years have passed since CASABLANCA was first released. What can I possibly say about this film that hasn’t been said before, by writers far more skilled than me? Well, since CASABLANCA is my all-time favorite, I feel obliged to put my two cents in. So, here are my top ten reasons why CASABLANCA is the greatest movie ever made:

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  1. Humphrey Bogart as Rick.  While Bogie was already a star thanks to THE MALTESE FALCON, his performance here sent him into the stratosphere. Cynical, self-centered Rick Blaine, bitter over a lost love, sticks his neck out for nobody. His character is multi-layered, and his true nature wins out in the end. Without Bogie in the role, CASABLANCA wouldn’t be half as good.
  2. Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa.  Beautiful Bergman underplays her part in what should have been an Oscar winning turn (sorry, Greer Garson). Ilsa’s feelings are torn between Rick and husband Victor Laszlo, and the depth of those feelings come right through the screen.rains
  3. Claude Rains as Captain Renault. Corrupt, cagey Renault is one of Rains’ best roles. Playing a man who claims to have “no convictions”, Rains shows why he was one of cinema’s best character actors. His banter with Bogart throughout the film is priceless.
  4. The Dialogue.  Every line is a gem, with many of them becoming part of the lexicon (“I’m shocked, shocked…”, “Here’s looking at you, kid”, “Round up the usual suspects”). Writers Howard Koch and Julius and Phillip Epstein came up with a perfect script. (And Phillip became grandfather to a boy named Theo Epstein, who guided my beloved Boston Red Sox to World Series title in 2004, ending an eighty-six year drought!!)

    'Casablanca' Film - 1942...No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features (1082971b) 'Casablanca' - Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson and Sydney Greenstreet 'Casablanca' Film - 1942
    ‘Casablanca’ Film – 1942…No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage
    Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features (1082971b)
    ‘Casablanca’ – Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson and Sydney Greenstreet
    ‘Casablanca’ Film – 1942
  5. Dooley Wilson as Sam.  African-American Sam is written and played as a friend and confidant to white Rick ,rather than a servant.  The two men are equals, a rarity for a 1942 film. Besides the heart wrenching “As Time Goes By”, Wilson also sings “It Had to Be You” and “Knock On Wood”, which brings me to….
  6. The Music. Max Steiner’s score hits all the right notes, setting the mood for the drama. Speaking of music, the duel between the Germans singing “Watch on the Rhine” and Laszlo leading the patrons of Rick’s in “La Marseillaise” is one of Hollywood’s finest moments. supp
  7. The Supporting Cast. Without a doubt, the greatest supporting cast ever assembled. Paul Henreid is the moral core as Victor Laszlo, Peter Lorre’s brief bit as weaselly Ugarte is pivotal to the plot,  Conrad Veidt the epitome of Nazi oppression. CASABLANCA is fun for movie fans who love to play Spot the Stars: look, there’s S.Z. Sakall, Dan Seymore, Sydney Greenstreet, Lenoid Kinskey, John Qualen, Gino Corrado, Madeline LeBeau, Frank Puglia, Marcel Dalio, Joy Page, Hemlut Dantine, Torbin Meyer….
  8. Emotional Manipulation. Any good movie knows how to play its patrons, but none better than CASABLANCA. It’s an emotional roller coaster ride, and no matter how many times I see it, I still get caught up in it. I know what’s coming, but I cry at the end anyway.
  9. Michael Curtiz. The man simply does not get enough credit for being one of the all-time great directors. You can’t make a film like CASABLANCA without a top director at the helm. Just look at his resume… soul

   10. CASABLANCA Can Never Be Duplicated!  Anyone out there have fond memories of the 1955       TV version with Charles McGraw? Or the 1983 one starring David Soul? Didn’t think so.

So there you have it! A one of a kind movie, still as powerful as when it first hit the screen. CASABLANCA is the greatest movie ever made, and remains my favorite. I could watch it over and over, like listening to a favorite song. If you’ve never seen it….what are you waiting for???