Sunday, April 17, 2022

Don't Make a Scene: Notorious

The Story: I love spy movies. But, most of them frustrate me. Why? Because they cast stars as spies. Stars who have that special glow the camera loves and that your eye follows whenever they're on the screen, so strong is their magnetism.

And that's exactly why they'd be lousy as "secret agents"—you want someone who doesn't make an entrance and is instantly noticeable. You WANT someone who fades into the wall-paper as a nobody—nobody special, anyway, certainly not someone you'd think as a "special agent."

Which is why one of my favorite secret agents is Cary Grant's Devlin in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious. Cary Grant? One of the biggest stars ever? (He's number 0000026* on the IMDb list!) He's certainly noticeable! What's up with that?

Well, it's because of the way Grant plays it. We know him as charming, witty, self-effacing and expressive. But, Grant tamps all that down in Notorious, playing Devlin on an eternally even keel. The voice measured, the tone conversational but never expressive, wit becomes irony (lest it provoke a noticeable response), the face blank, a cypher. A man who never calls attention to himself. Even the direction of "Devlin slaps the table with his hand" is light at best, it's hardly a tap—that it exists at all is the only evidence that Devlin is upset, more than that...livid at the task that has been put to him by his "betters."
No, Devlin is a master spy. He turns his back lest he betray his feelings. But, they're the infinitesimal flash of an eye, a quick fire that is quickly doused. It's a great performance of subtlety and discipline from an actor who threw away his usual "bag of tricks" that could be counted on to win an audience to play this most enigmatic of figures.
And talk about discipline. Look at Hecht's dialogue. There's a game going on here. Devlin's lines are all negative—"I don't think" "I don't know" "she has no..." "she's never..." until the morally questionable "Beardsley" turns the tactic back on him with "I don't see why we're arguing about petty things like this..." ripping Devlin's negatives out from under him. Petty things like using a woman as a sexual pawn. Dismissing her because of reputation (which Devlin assumes at the beginning, until he's told of the connection between Huberman and Sebastian). Devlin is left with no replies, other than a lack of objections. "Nothing, sir" is all he can say. Nothing. The ultimate negative.
It's funny, but David O. Selznick, wanting to make a mark on the picture, hired Clifford Odets to re-write Hecht's script over Hitchcock's objections. When it was read, Odets' efforts were tossed (Hecht said of Odets' script "This is really loose crap") and they returned to Hecht's original, more disciplined draft.
The Set-Up: T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) has been recruited to recruit a fellow traveler, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), a socialite drinking to drown her disappointment with her fascist father who is aiding the Nazi's. Her connections might prove useful in information-gathering, but Devlin and Alicia begin a clandestine relationship in more ways than one. So, it's...unnerving to Devlin when he finds out what the "mission" is.

Devlin arrives at the EMBASSY, carrying a champagne bottle. 
The champagne BOTTLE sits on a table in the office, a few minutes later.
Devlin slaps the table with his hand and rises from his chair, 
...much to the confusion of Prescott and another American official, BEARDSLEY. 
What is it, Devlin? What's the matter? 
I don't know if she'll do it.
What do you mean you don't think she'd -- You haven't discussed it with her, have you? 
DEVLIN: No, I didn't know what the job was until this moment.
Well, what do you mean she wouldn't do it? 
DEVLIN: Well, I don't think she's that type of woman. She strikes me as being rather-- 
PRESCOTT: I don't understand your attitude. 
PRESCOTT: Why do you think she won't do it? 
Well, she's had no experience. 
Oh, come now. 
What experience does she lack, do you think? 
She's never been trained for that kind of work, 
...they'll see through her. 
Miss Huberman was chosen not only because her father gives her an ideal background but because Sebastian knows her. 
This is news to Devlin. 
PRESCOTT: Oh, yes. He was once in love with her. 
DEVLIN: (ironic) Oh, I didn't know that. 
I don't see why we're arguing about petty things like this. 
We've got important work to do. Sebastian's house is a cover-up for whatever this Farben group's up to here in Rio. 
We've got to get Miss Huberman inside that house and find out what's going on there.
Yes, that's right. 
(to Devlin) So I think you'd better go back to Miss Huberman and explain to her what she has to do. 
I, er... 
PRESCOTT: Well, what is it? 
Nothing, sir. 
I thought you were going to say something. 
How is the meeting to be arranged? 
Oh, well, we've discussed that. 
I think the riding club would be the best place. 
PRESCOTT: Sebastian usually rides there in the mornings. So the rest is up to you and Miss Huberman. 
(after an awkward pause) Okay, Devlin, that's all. 

All right. 
Devlin walks out of the room 
...while a mildly confused Prescott eyes the CHAMPAGNE BOTTLE that Devlin leaves behind.
Words by Ben Hecht and Alfred Hitchcock

Notorious is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection.

 Today's scene begins at 25:55

* Quintuple-0 26? Think double-0 7 would be jealous?

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