Week 40: Notorious, Crane Shots, and Mother Figures

Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

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“This is a very strange love affair.”

It really is. Notorious is an anti-romance, starring two of the most beautiful people in the world, kept apart because of a top-secret job and an inability to give up preconceptions.

The film begins as a man is being found guilty of treason. Outside, the paparazzi wait to hound his daughter, Ingrid Bergman. Bergman is next seen during a boozy party making plans to escape when a mystery man stays behind. That man is Cary Grant, and he works for the government. Grant persuades Bergman to make up for her father’s treason (it’s never said what happened, but it’s 1946 and they’re looking for Germans in Brazil so you figure it out) by going to Rio and “befriending” an old acquaintance who’s harboring Nazi fugitives. The film unfolds as a game of cat and mouse as Bergman tries to keep Claude Rains from finding out why she’s pretending to be attracted to him, while also discovering what he’s up with with a group of former scientists in his mansion.

It’s a marvelous film, Hitchcock firing on all cylinders with a great, witty script by Ben Hecht. Hecht deftly weaves together all the various jealousies and double identities to end with a climax that’s one of Hitchcock’s best. The opening scenes showing Bergman’s drunken, party-girl character have a boozy, bleary realness to them that’s rare for a time in Hollywood when drinking was usually a punchline. The film even works in a winking reference to Suspicion when Bergman wakes up with a hangover and Grant is looming in the doorway with a glass of milk. 

Notorious perfectly encapsulates Hitchcock’s conflicted attitude towards women. On the one hand, the film has Grant literally punching and knocking out Bergman in the car when she’s too drunk to drive. If I’m being charitable, I’d say that scene doesn’t age well.

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Grant, upset at Bergman for doing what he asked her to do.

Yet for the rest of the film, Bergman is constantly being judged by men for her loose ways, as government agents winkingly ask “What experience does she lack,” or claim that “She’s good at making friends with gentlemen,” insinuating that she’s nothing less than a whore. Grant initially goes along with this line of thinking, but as he falls in love with her, it becomes clear that he can’t stand it either. Finally after Bergman has placed her life on the line and done everything the agency has asked of her, we see that she’s the heroic one. It’s up to Grant to swallow his pride and apologize, saying “I was a fatheaded guy full of pain” as he admits that he loves her.

In 2016 we’d call the men’s behavior “slut-shaming;” even though this phrase didn’t in 1946, the intent is clear. Hitchcock (perhaps persuaded by his wife Alma) created a film that is remarkably sympathetic to the double standards that women find themselves placed in. This isn’t Grant’s story; it’s Bergman’s, and her eventual triumph is in solving the Nazi scientist mystery and having Grant realize that he loves her despite her past.

And it’s also worth noting that these men place all their confidence in Bergman. The men are sitting in their office comfortably smoking cigars, while sending civilian Bergman into harrowing spy danger,with only her feminine wiles to keep her safe.

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“You’re okay infiltrating this nest of Nazis with no training, right? Cool, thanks.”

The entire film is constructed almost entirely from Bergman’s point-of-view, with Hitchcock using some of the lessons about identification that he took from Selznick. Notorious places the camera in Bergman’s eyes as she’s hungover in bed, driving drunk with her hair in her eyes, observing an argument over a wine bottle, or in a crucial moment, seeing the panic in Rains’ face as one of his colleagues almost drinks from her poisoned coffee cup.

Notorious also contains two of Hitchcock’s most spectacular long takes. First there’s a scene of Grant and Bergman kissing on their balcony in Rio. Censors limited the amount of time that a couple could spend kissing onscreen. So Instead of showing the couple kissing passionately, Hitchcock skirts the issue by staging one long shot where Grant & Bergman kiss, then talk, then whisper in each other’s ear, then kiss again, caress each other, even walk to the phone together all in tight closeup. The end result is unbearably sexual, a thousand times more intimate and charged than any prolonged kiss would have been.

But the true show-stopper in Notorious is one for the ages. It’s Hitchcock’s single best version of macro-to-micro, a shot that establishes a scene, sets a tone, builds suspense and communicates plot all in one moment. Bergman has been charged with stealing a key from Rains in order to sneak into the wine cellar and find out the secret he’s been hiding. We see Bergman barely get away with the key off Rains’ key ring, and then we cut to a gigantic overhead shot of the mansion’s foyer. Guests stream up and down the gigantic staircase to the left as the camera starts to move.

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Slowly, the camera pushes down from the ceiling. Our eyes find Bergman talking to Rains in the center of the frame, small figures in the giant floor. But the camera keeps closer, isolating Bergman, placing her in the center of this gigantic party, moving closer and closer until she fills the frame. And then, still not good enough, even closer, as the camera lands on a tight closeup of her fingering the cellar key in her hand (Watch it here)

Over the course of this 40 second shot, Hitchcock shows this gigantic party and then draws out attention to the one thing matters. The key is literally everything. It’s maybe the best example of his attention to fine detail in any film, rivaled only by the ballroom-to-eyes-of-a-drummer shot in Young and Innocent.

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Hitchcock and Bergman with the crane apparatus on set used to film the shot.

It’s also a textbook use a crane shot (even though it was accomplished with a wooden track instead of a crane). Any shot that starts at a wide angle and ends at a low one (or vice versa) while also combining a change in the physical altitude of the camera is a crane shot.

The crane shot was spectacularly invented by director and engineer Allan Dwan in 1916. D.W. Griffith was making Intolerance and turned to the technically-minded Dwan for help. Dwan, speaking to Peter Bogdanovich, described the problem:

“Well, Griffith’s problem was how to photograph the big set with a moving camera — because there was no such thing as a boom. The camera platform had to be steady and it had to carry the director and the cameraman and it had to have a very steady flow of movement from a gigantic long shot down to a real intimate closeup of some people. The question was how do you produce a parabolic movement with a lens?”

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The enormity of the “Intolerance” set, still probably the largest ever constructed in Hollywood

Bogdanovich asks, “And you figured out how to do it?”

And Dwan, a man who started in silent film when being an engineer was more important than being an artist, answers with charm and modest candor:

Sure. Put an elevator on a railroad track. Go backward and upward at the same time. And there was the parabolic movement.” (Watch his solution here)

Goddamnit I love the early days of silent film. This was an insane time, when producers moved to California not just for the weather & sun, but also to escape Thomas Edison’s attempt to patent the Latham Loop, a piece of every moving film camera that Edison tried to claim he owned. Rogue operators roamed into the wilds of California, dodging private detectives out to smash their operations, with instructions to shoot not the crew but the cameras themselves as they were more valuable.

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Dwan (on rim) horsing around with pal Doug Fairbanks on the rim of the goddamned Grand Canyon

Once that business was settled, Hollywood became a place where engineers and technically minded people like Dwan rebelled against the stagey, filmed-photoplay efforts of the East Coast. Many of the movies that helped establish the literal language of filmmaking were one reel westerns, films shot in the hills with cowboys real and fake. Dwan would also do things like create the first tracking shot for David Harum in 1915, in a scene where he needed to show a character walking down the street and talking to everyone he sees. Dwan’s solution was to put the camera on the back of a pickup truck and followed the actor down Main street. The shot would anger his producers, who felt that the camera should never move and that actors always needed to be filmed in a full body shot, otherwise it would look like a bunch of torsos walking around by themselves.

My god, what a time. And look, I understand that romanticizing the past is inherently problematic, not to mention that it was an exclusively male, 99% white scene and that women and people of color were still openly oppressed on a daily basis. But what a thrill to be present and working when the actual tools of a new art form are being developed right in front of you. And to not feel the burden of art, just the demand to make a new cowboy movie every week. By all accounts it was an exhausting, exhilarating time and I can’t imagine anything more exciting.

And with his trick for Griffith, the innovative Dwan had created a new camera move, one with its own language and feeling. The macro-to-micro crane shot (as Hitchcock used to perfection in Notorious) has the effect of making a scene more intimate and highlighting the inherent drama within a scene. The inverse (going from a close angle up to a wide shot) literally takes us out of the drama; it’s good to use for the ending of a film or a scene as the audience is lifted up and out of the action. Which is why, watching Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix, I was so surprised to see crane shots being used so inappropriately.

To be clear, any show or movie can film however it wants to. And it’s interesting to give Luke Cage such a sweeping, elegaic look when the obvious antecedent would be the hand-held grit of blaxploitation films or the whirling camera of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. But still, we’re talking about the basic language of filmmaking here.

Starting a shot on a closeup of Cage crossing the street and then pulling out and up to a wide shot of the city shows how much money you spent on the series, but in the middle of a scene is takes us out of the show. Cage is a brooding antihero; the camera should stay close to him at all times, instead of constantly spinning up into the air. In a club scene the camera starts small and goes big, showing us patrons at a club then pulling up into the rafters to show us…what? The set design? We’re literally taken out of this scene for no reason.

The way shots are constructed, edited, and filmed communicates with us on a subconscious level. When we watch the shot in Notorious, we’re aware of the tension and importance surrounding that key. When we watch the long take in Goodfellas where Ray Liotta leads Lorraine Bracco through the labyrinth of the Copacabana, it conveys how overwhelmed she is at his wealth & power. The language of filmmaking matters, and it’s not just there to impress us. Many of Hitchcock’s best shots barely stand out on first viewing; it’s only later you can take the time to marvel at their ingenuity.

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Notorious was a dream cast for Hitchcock; it was his second film with both Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, and he would have been happy to keep making films with just the two of them. But while Hitch and Bergman got along famously, her personal life and affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini would mean an exile from Hollywood; she would appear in only one more Hitchcock film, Under Capricorn (1949). It’s a shame because she’s brilliant here, playing drunk and weary of men yet still longing for a better life.

Grant would turn in career-best performances in To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest 1959) for Hitchcock. Yet his prickliness and steep asking price meant that he’d never be a part of Hitchcock’s inner circle, even though the two always worked well together. Grant in Notorious is one of his best performances, as he digs deeper and darker than most of his roles. While in the 1950s Hitchcock would use Grant as the perfect Wrong Man who uses his charm to escape from difficult situations, here and in Suspicion we see a different version of one of Hollywood’s most handsome leading men. There’s a darkness always underneath the surface. With Jimmy Stewart, Hitchcock would push even further in this deconstruction of the Hollywood Leading Man, mainly because Grant grew more protective of his Movie Star persona in later years.

Claude Rains rounds out Notorious as the love-struck Nazi sympathizer that Bergman must seduce and marry. He’s excellent, balancing his natural charm with a raging jealousy and desire for secrecy. Rains also gets the dubious honor of playing what I think is Hitchcock’s first character who is menaced by an overbearing mother. As I was watching the film with my girlfriend, she noticed the unusual dynamic between Claude Rains’ character and his mother, and asked if Hitchcock movies always featured this distinctive Freudian mother theme.

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A lot of critics want to present the case that Hitchcock always had issues with his own mother, which he projected onto his work, his wife, etc. I don’t know about his personal life (few do) but an analysis of his work doesn’t support this. Prior to Notorious, there’s no evidence of this type of character: the mother with a tight psychological hold over her son. Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca has elements of psychological control, but she’s clearly aligned with Rebecca as a lover; anyone ascribing maternal qualities to her is trying too hard. As near as I can tell, the character doesn’t exist in Hitchcock before Notorious.

Rather than a lifelong infatuation with the idea, as many have asserted, what could be true is that something in the production of the psychological thriller Spellbound stirred the idea in Hitch. Or perhaps it was the popularity of Freud and psychotherapy in the post-war years that resonated with Hitchcock. However it happened, the character of the domineering mother does appear in other Hitchcock films, although not as many as you’d think. Most notably Mrs. Crane in Psycho, but the trope also pops up in North by Northwest, The Birds, Marnie, and to a lesser extent in Strangers on a Train.

These characters then are notable not because of their frequency but because of their power; Hitchcock recognizes the queasiness and relatability of a domineering mother figure and uses it it to great advantage for both male and female characters. As Norman Bates is tortured by his mother, so is Marnie tortured by hers, and Claude Rains is taunted by his own Lady Macbeth-style mother in Notorious.

In 1946 this was undoubtedly the more titillating aspect of the film, the way Rains is bossed around by his own mother. Yet looking back from 2016, as that “mama’s boy” trope has become a tired and stereotypical shorthand for psychological problems, it’s the examination of the dual standards around Bergman that stand out. I’m finishing this on Sunday, before the second presidential debates, two days after audio came out of Donald Trump talking about grabbing pussy. Sadly, the chauvinistic world of 1946 isn’t as far behind us as we’d like to think.

Sidenote: Notorious is bafflingly unavailable on any video platform, not even for rental or purchase. I had to buy a used DVD copy, but it’s probably available from some libraries.

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