Friday, February 22, 2008

Notorious (1946)

I first saw this film at a revival film festival while a college student. Must have been almost 25 years ago.

What struck me most was how my heart beat when Alexander found Alicia in the wine cellar and reached to kiss her hands. She threw them around his neck in a mock show of exuberant affection, successfully hiding they key of betrayal clinched in her palm. I grew up in a world of Star Wars special effects, watching movies in theaters wired with the type of THX sound that made the whole venue vibrate. So, it amazed me that such a small moment, in a film made 17 years before my birth, could still excite me so. I not only felt the supsense, but shared Alicia's fear and her turmoil.

Of course, more than excitement, this film is about romance. For some reason, Casablanca never did it for me. I don't think I ever trusted Ilsa. I know I never forgave her. Maybe that's because I never witnessed her pain at losing Rick for myself and I didn't fully believe her when she described it. In Notorious, by contrast, Alicia's loss is palpable. I think I bought everything I knew about Cary Grant from other movies into my reading of Devlin. I knew how silly, funny, tender and nimble he could be from Arsenic and Old Lace and Penny Serenade, to the Awful Truth. So, when I looked at Devlin, I saw through him. I simply assumed that inside he was all the other things I'd seen Cary Grant be before. When he treated her like a prostitute, bit into Alicia's soul with his cruel words, I felt all the love and hurt he was repressing and knew his inner struggle.

Cary's character doesn't have an arc in Notorious as he does in An Affair to Remember. We don't see him in love and then in betrayal, so we can't really assess the contrast. In Affair, we watch Nickie harden himself, to hide the pain he felt when Terry failed to meet him at the top of the Empire State Building. We don't witness the hardening process in Notorious. By the time we meet T. R. Devlin, he's already cold and accusing, already been burned.

Devlin was so unbending and cool throughout the movie, that his softness in the final minutes when he clutches Alicia to his cheek would not have been enough for me. The final tenderness would not have mitigated his previous harshness or blunted his bitter words. It could not have made up for or melted the icy perception he'd created in the movies first 90 minutes, had I not seen Devlin as Cary Grant from all those movies past, and known exactly what was lurking inside, all the things Devlin was withholding from Alicia.

I brought all of my Cary Grant experiences with me to my viewing of Notorious and they created the facets of Devlin's personality that were only hinted at onscreen. So, when Devlin rejected her, I knew everything that she was missing, every gaze, laugh and caress suppressed. That's why my heart broke with hers.

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