Notorious: Hitchcock, Claude Rains, Cary Grant, and Ingrid Bergman (Hooray!)



Notorious (1946)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

RKO Radio Pictures, 101 minutes, Not-rated (made before ratings system)





Alfred Hitchcock, Claude Rains, Cary Grant, and Ingrid Bergman…. What could go wrong? Not a blessed thing, though I am prejudiced. If all Ingrid Bergman did in a movie was sit by a tree and eat a sandwich, I’d watch it.


Notorious is more than that. First, it’s a period piece; in the days during and immediately after World War Two, Hollywood made numerous movies with Nazis or ex-Nazis cast as villains. Notorious was one of them. (Bergman also made one in 1942. You might have heard of it: Casablanca.) Second, it’s everything we expect in a film from Hollywood’s Golden Age: glamour, attractive leads, exotic locations, intrigue, and snappy dialogue. These make it easier to overlook contrivances.


Bergman is Alicia Huberman, the daughter of an unreconstructed Nazi arrested for espionage in the film’s opening scene. On the surface, Alicia is a world-weary, snarky, and apolitical. Is she? Can she be trusted? That’s a question T. R. Devlin (Grant) needs to assess. He works with the Secret Service* and reports to Captain Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern), with whom he is working on rumors a Nazi enclave in Brazil is working on something “big.” All that is known for certain is that Alicia’s dead father–he committed suicide in prison–had contact with them. Devlin’s job is to recruit Alicia to help crack the case. “Dev” meets Alicia at a party and quickly falls in love with her–how not? –though she warns him she’s not exactly been a Girl Scout in her past. This, not the Nazis, is the source of the film’s title because: (a) It’s 1946, a time in which sexual mores were more restrictive, and (b) It builds tension for what happens next.


It’s off to Rio, where Alicia makes contact with Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a former lover. As Alicia does her job, Dev becomes increasingly jealous and cool toward her. He even gives his go ahead when Alicia tells him and Prescott that Alex has proposed, and ignores her pained expression. If you think that’s where matters end, you really need to watch more classic films!


The script for Notorious was written by Ben Hecht, one of Hollywood’s most celebrated writers. He was nominated for six Oscars and won two, including one at the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1927. Check out his Wikipedia page and you’ll be stunned by the titles with his name on them. You can thus assume that Notorious has good dialogue, frisson, and twists. It is often called film noir in style and there are elements of that, though I’d call it a noir/spy thriller hybrid. Because it’s a Hitchcock film, you can anticipate there will be skewed perspectives, psychological tension, and things that happen in shadows. For novices, Hitchcock always appears as a split-second cameo in his own films. (I’ll help you this time. Watch the party scene in Alex’s Rio mansion. Hitchcock comes to the table, tosses back a glass of champagne, and walks off camera.)

Hecht was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar for Notorious, but didn’t win. That was just, as without top-shelf acting, the film wouldn’t have worked. Hitchcock famously said that in each of his films there were parts that made no logical sense but, when he made them well, no one noticed. It’s child’s play to find logical inconsistencies in Notorious, most notably the failure of Alex or his Nazi friends to draw conclusions about why Dev is always hanging around when Alicia claimed only to have met on the flight to Rio. Or Alicia’s claim she was forced to kiss Dev when her smooch was obviously not coerced.


One watches Notorious because its eye candy is irresistible. Grant and Bergman were beautiful people, and Hitchcock and cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff knew their way around cameras. Notorious is in black and white, but their work helps make the case for those (including me) who argue that it’s often more emotionally impactful than color, especially when one wishes to bathe shots in shadows. The rear projections of Rio suggest another way the world has changed: Notice how relatively empty it was.


Notorious is a pas de deux between Grant and Bergman–a ritual of attract-repeal-attract. At several junctures, minor characters remark on what a lovely couple they make. Yes, they do. Rains, though, deserved his Best supporting Actor nomination, as his was the harder part to play. We know he is wrong for Alicia, but Rains has to thread the needle between ruthless Nazi, lovesick husband, and mother’s boy. On that score, Austrian actress Leopoldine Konstantin–better known for silent films– was terrific as Madame Anna Sebastian, Alex’s mother. She turns on a dime from imperious and unapproving mother to Nazi panther.


Notorious is usually ranked among the top 100 best films in English. One might argue there are more than 99 better ones, but not I. Because. Ingrid Bergman.


Rob Weir


* If you wonder why the Central Intelligence Agency wasn’t on the case, it wasn’t founded until 1947.










Double Indemnity a Hollywood Classic

Double Indemnity (1944)

Directed by Billy Wilder

Paramount, 107 minutes, Not-rated (pre-ratings system)





It was 1944, and the studio system whereby actors were bound to a particular employer for the life of their contracts was waning but remained in place. Paramount Studios wanted to expand Fred MacMurray’s bankability by casting him as an amoral character.  What better way to sully his nice guy image than to give him top dog billing in a gritty film noir movie? Edward G. Robinson reportedly balked when Paramount asked him to play a supporting role. He need not have worried, as he stole the film!


Director Billy Wilder brought MacMurray and Robinson together with Hollywood legend Barbara Stanwyck for a film that earned seven Oscar nominations. It didn’t win any, but it’s now listed by the American Film Institute (AFI) as the 29th greatest American film of all time. That’s debatably too high, but it’s certainly a gem. The idea came a book written by James Cain of an actual 1927 murder, and the screenplay was handed off to Raymond Chandler. He knew a few things about gritty tones and was responsible for the film’s hardboiled language.


Walter Neff (MacMurray) is a Los Angeles insurance salesman and the protégé of Barton Keyes (Robinson), who ferrets out fraud for the firm. On his rounds, Neff swings by a well-appointed home to remind Dietrichson (Tom Powers), a rich client, that his auto insurance has lapsed. Dietrichson isn’t home, but Neff instead meets his younger, second wife, Phyllis (Stanwyck). Sexual frisson begins the moment Neff spies her ankle bracelet as descends the staircase wearing a dressing gown. Insurance gives way to open flirtation and before you can say “murder!” Walter and Phyllis are lovers plotting the demise of her husband. A can’t-be-bothered husband, a little salesmanship, and a dollop of chicanery results in Dietrichson’s unknowing signature on a $50,000 life insurance policy with a “double indemnity clause” that pays out $100,000–more than $1.8 million in 2019 dollars–should he die an accidental death. All Walter and Phyllis have to do is plan that “accident,” execute it, and lie low until the money is paid out. Like that ever happens!  


There is a subplot involving Lola (Jean Heather), Dietrichson’s daughter from his deceased first wife. She is naïve and good-hearted, but also a spoiled and willful young woman involved with a man named Nino Zachetti (Bryon Barr), who can’t make up his mind if he’s a suitor, a chauvinist pig, or an empty-headed punk. Frankly, neither actor is very good, and Heather is actively horrible. (She had one previous movie credit and never had another after Double Indemnity.) Porter Hall appears in a semi-comedic role as an unexpected witness (of sorts). His performance comes close to being over the top, though he does provide a ray of sunshine amidst the noir. Those three roles lead me to dispute the AFI ranking, although Double Indemnity is essentially a three-person movie.


MacMurray played against type with enough aplomb that occasional meaty dramatic roles later came his way. Some may recall his stint as Tom Keefer in The Caine Mutiny, though he settled back into easy-going roles such as widower TV dad in My Three Sons. Stanwyck was already a Hollywood legend by 1944, and would remain so for the remaining 20 years of her movie career. She played the scheming Phyllis Dietrichson with antiseptic calm and icy cruelty. Few, however, could have predicted that Robinson would be the member of the troika with the smallest but most memorable part. He is such a bundle of neurotic energy that when he complains of pains in his gut, we first suspect ulcers. It’s not; it’s the gnawing intuition that gets under his skin when he suspects a scam but hasn’t yet figured out the angle. Robinson grabs us long before we find out his role in the mystery. Thus, when he tells Walter he suspects Phyllis had her husband bumped off, but people who think they can get away with murder are on a one-way trolley ride that ends at the cemetery, our hearts jump before Neff’s does.


Okay, so maybe Double Indemnity is slightly overrated. Still, acting like that of MacMurray, Stanwyck, and Robinson elevate even lousy movies. Double Indemnity is not one of the latter. It is a genuine American classic.


Rob Weir






Le Quattro Volte a Perplexing Tone Poem

Le Quattro Volte (2010)

Directed by Michelangelo Frammartino

Venture Films, 88 minutes, Not-rated





In symphonic music, a tone poem is a work that invokes writing, art, or something else non-musical. The film Le Quattro Volte has been described as a tone poem to one of Pythagoras’ lesser known theories. Describing the film is akin to asking how one would make a movie about music. I don’t mean a musician; I mean the music itself. Italian director Michelangelo Frammartino made such an attempt back in 2010. Le Quattro Volte garnered great praise from film buffs and intellectuals. Based on its worldwide box office of just $255,000, they were probably the sum total of its audience.


First things first. You don’t need to speak a single word of Italian, because no one else does either. It is not a silent film per se–we hear goat bells, barking dogs, the huff of an underpowered truck climbing steep Calabrian hills, wind, and background human voices–­but there is no dialogue of any sort. So, what’s it about? That’s not so easy to describe either. It translates as “the four times,” and this is where Pythagoras comes into play.  


Pythagoras (570-495 BCE) is remembered mostly for his mathematical theorems, especially the one relating to the area of right triangles. He was also a philosopher of what today we’d call an esoteric bent. He thought that he had lived multiple lives, but not in the way one associates with Hindu reincarnation. His view was related to what is sometimes called the transmigration of souls–though it has a fancy name, metempsychosis–but he did not think the soul’s fate could be altered by any force such as karma. His four “times,” or migrations, go from human to animal to plant to mineral. Okay, try putting that in a movie.


Maybe an easier way to comprehend Frammartino’s film is to view it as a circle of existence representation in four acts. This helps make sense of an unexplained opening scene in which men with shovels flatten steaming holes in what looks to be a miniature volcano. The true first act, though, involves an elderly shepherd. He is wracked by a persistent cough and is clearly dying, but he and his dog faithfully shuttle a large flock of goats between their tin-and-wood pen and tufted pasture lands each day. He also peddles snails to local villagers for their cooking pots, but mainly he’s so frail he can hardly be bothered to brush away the ants that crawl over his face as he rests beside a tree. At night, he treats his cough by drinking dust from the church floor mixed with water.


Act two, after the goatherd’s death and an eerie religious procession that looks like a colorized scene from a Bergman film, involves the birth of a goat kid, its weaning, and its separation from the flock. It rests beside a tree before night falls and the screen goes black. We next see a wintery landscape and a tall fir swaying in the breeze. At this juncture, the fate of the tree takes over. Call it act three. Act four moves us to the mineral realm.


Each act ends with blackness, and each is also a metaphor for other things. The tree, for example, stands for cultural remembrance. I will not pretend that this film is for everyone. There is no true narrative of any sort, it’s often open-ended perplexing, and the pace is deliberately slow. How else to represent the passage of time? The languid pacing, though, provides cinematographer Andrea Locatelli with a rich canvas upon which he paints the languorous rhythms of life in a poor Calabrian village. Although human souls toil largely without machines and sometimes work hard, no one seems rushed. Maybe no one is in a hurry to become a mineral!


At times Le Quattro Volte reminded me of Terence Malik’s The Tree of Life, but mostly it’s simply unlike anything else. Is it profound, or intellectual posturing? That’s really up to the viewer to decide but, to come full circle, it helps to imagine it as a tone poem, not a conventional film. Think of its silences as meditative and its sweeping pan shots as immersion within nature and its transformations. If you give it a try, be patient. You could even watch it in individual segments, walk away, and repeat. But I must emphasize that if you like movies with wall-to-wall action, steer well clear of this film.


Rob Weir