Tonight is Week 2 of Bill McBride's Six Week Film School at the Normal Theater. Professor McBride hosted a Film Noir series last fall, but this time he's focusing on Alfred Hitchcock. It doesn't get any better for film students than Hitchcock, the master of suspense who was also a master of "the stylized language of cinema." You'll find Hitchcock movies on almost every film school syllabus because he employed so many different cinematic techniques to create suspense and keep his audience connected as well as recoiling.
I'm sorry I'm a week late to talk about Shadow of a Doubt, the creepy "Merry Widow Murderer" movie that centers on a family in a small town and how young Charlie (played by Teresa Wright) unravels the mystery of her charming Uncle Charlie (the reason she got her name) and just why he's come to visit after so long. Joseph Cotten, a warm, appealing actor, creates a portrait of Uncle Charles that's all the more creepy because he seems like such a regular guy. Hitchcock casts evil into the midst of an apple-pie sort of town, with a Little Charlie/Big Charlie duality that makes all of us feel guilty.
|Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman steam up the screen in Notorious.|
The sexual politics in the film are definitely dicey -- let's just say in today's world it could've been called "Slut Shaming" just as easily as "Notorious" -- and Devlin is a rat if ever there was one. Because of her father's crimes and her own reputation as a party girl, Alicia is a pawn in a game created by a whole lot of controlling, judgmental, cruel men. It doesn't matter to Devlin if he punches her or pimps her out or almost kills her. He's handsome. He's cynical. His important big-guy spy stuff is much more important than any woman. And, in fact, the notion that all the punishment Alicia gets may just be what she deserves to clean away the "spots" of her sexuality is definitely present.
Hitchcock was often creepy about his female characters and the way he treats Alicia Huberman is no exception, even as she does show a certain agency as a sleuth and we are given some focus on her point of view. Bergman's big-screen persona and charisma function to give her character both sensuality and virtue, to make her seem like a real, three-dimensional human being, no mere victim or paper doll to be cut to size. We know she's good and honorable, no matter how notorious she is or how many smutty comments a roomful of American agents toss her way. In the end, the fact that she has been known to drink to excess and have sex, including with Devlin and Sebastian, makes her more sympathetic and attractive, not less.
It doesn't hurt that Cary Grant has his own big-screen persona and charisma working on all cylinders and the sparks Bergman and Grant create together make Notorious work really, really well.
The famous sweeping shot to a key in Bergman's hand, a huge coffee cup, smoke and mirrors, the use of light and shadow, off-kilter angles, flipping point-of-view, a staircase of doom, the MacGuffin in a wine cellar... And the sexual politics. All fodder for a ripping good discussion of Hitchcock as a cinematic artist.
Notorious will be screened tonight at 7 pm at the Normal Theater. The movies included in the Six Week Film School are offered free of charge, and the program includes a post-show discussion with Professor McBride. Click here for McBride's notes on the film, including links to some excellent reading material.
Next week: Strangers on a Train. After that, McBride's schedule includes Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds.