On the surface of things, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious seems about as retrograde as it gets. Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) is the titular “notorious” one — notorious, that is, for her history of sexual looseness. Never mind that she and secret agent Devlin (Cary Grant) fall in love. In fact, the film’s central problem is her sexual past — will it keep them apart?

A hoary tale? Yes. So how does this film manage to be so perfect?

Dev has pursued Alicia for professional reasons: because her father was a prominent Nazi, tried and imprisoned for his crimes. Knowing that she rejects her father’s beliefs, Dev sees her — at first, anyway — as a perfect potential agent to rout out other Nazis.

But when they head down to Rio to wait for their assignment, the intervening weeks allow them to spend a lot of time together. Sure as the sun will rise, they fall for one another. In the sun-baked Brazilian landscape, they enjoy a blissful honeymoon-like affair. Alicia is uninhibited with her expressions of love.

No one who has ever watched their kissing scene at the telephone will forget it — a scene for which Hitchcock had to walk a fine line. Hollywood’s Hays Code censors stipulated that no onscreen kiss be longer than 3 seconds, so the director had them break their kisses into brief bursts but ultimately choreographed a 3+ minute long take of these two perfectly beautiful human beings embracing, kissing sporadically, nuzzling one another’s necks, murmuring about the evening they’ll spend together. It’s spectacularly sexy, showing yet again the futility of rules seeking to delimit sex onscreen. Just look at how she touches his earlobe, and try to deny this truth.

This scene also introduces a maddening conundrum: Alicia’s open-hearted professions of love vs. Devlin’s restraint. He won’t tell her he loves her. It doesn’t stop her from going all in — but her love and his closed mouth on the subject becomes a barrier in their affair. She’s also open about her prior personal misery, which often led her to drink to excess. But she feels different now, capable of change. Dev listens to her optimism and looks into her glowing face, but remains devastatingly silent.

He gets worse when they finally learn of Alicia’s first assignment as an agent: to flirt with and gain access to the inner circle of a local Nazi transplant, Alex (Claude Rains). Realizing that the CIA wants her because of her loose sexual past makes both of them stop short. Alicia believes she has changed; should she refuse? Does Dev’s refusal to admit he loves her indicate that their relationship is going nowhere? Why won’t he beg her not to participate? Given her disappointments in him, she reluctantly agrees to go undercover, and their relationship comes to a painful halt. Get it? Because he won’t allow that she might have been changed by her love for him, she returns to her old ways of sleeping around and drinking. It’s a classic vicious circle.

So why do I find this film so fresh?

Because I find it impossible to believe Hitchcock’s real goal was to make a problem out of Bergman’s sexuality. Far from it. No one can watch her onscreen — that absolutely guileless woman, so open about her feelings for Dev — and find her problematic. Instead, it’s the shadowy, conflicted Devlin who appears as the real problem. When he meets with his CIA superiors, he makes it clear how troubled he is by their use of her, their assessment of her character. We know early on that he loves her; why can’t he tell her?

Dev’s inability to express his true feelings to her ultimately constitutes a betrayal of their love, especially when the Nazi, smitten as expected with the beautiful and vivacious Alicia, asks her to marry him. Watching Ingrid Bergman’s face register that betrayal is akin to watching her two years earlier in Gaslight (1944) as the young wife driven mad as a result of her husband’s machinations. Her face conveys hurt, lust, and love equally with such transparency that it breaks your heart.

Still, Devlin’s crippled emotions forward the plot usefully into a terrific tale. Equal parts domestic drama (how can she live with Alex and his sinister mother?), thwarted love story (will Dev allow himself to love Alicia again?), and political thriller (just what are Alex and his Nazi cronies up to, anyway?), Notorious never limits itself to any single genre boundary. Watching Alicia and Devlin finagle to get him into Alex’s mysteriously locked wine cellar is riveting on all three levels.

Even more thrilling is what happens when Alex discovers his wife’s perfidy — and what he does about it. The Hitchcock-y second half of the film is so compelling not just because we’re so worried about Alicia, and not just because it’s filmed with such precision and drama, but because Dev must finally make a choice.

That’s why this film still feels so fresh, why it never feels like an outdated, retrograde tale about the importance of female chastity: the real story isn’t about her notoriety, but about Devlin’s inability to be honest with her and with himself. Read this way, the film looks far more subversive of gender and sexual norms of the time.

Would I go so far as to say it’s radically dismissive of those retrograde views about female sexuality? Well, no. It still propels Alicia toward rehabilitation from her old life into a happy monogamous relationship. It’s still titled Notorious, for heaven’s sake. But let’s not be small. This film imagines a happy future for a woman with a rich and varied sexual history, and criticizes a man for refusing to believe in such a thing.

And oh, this film couldn’t be any tighter, or feature three more compelling leads in Bergman, Grant, and Rains. Maybe I need to watch it again right now.

 

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I went to see this film because it was described as classic pre-Code — i.e., made before the censors in Hollywood took all the sex and nudity and corrupt cops out of film — and also because it stars the elegant Warren William, so skilled at playing the slithering, soulless society cad (you’d never guess he’d been raised in a tiny burg in Minnesota by looking at his Roman nose and high-society accent). But within a few minutes I realized that Skyscraper Souls is one of those rare films that has so many current-day tie-ins to financial irregularities and real-estate fraud that one can only marvel at its rediscovery. On the surface it looks like an old-movie melodrama that warns us about the multiple dangers of the city; but ultimately it seems to be one of those rare documents that shows us how relevant the 1930s Depression is to our own.

Almost all the drama takes place within a single skyscraper — the fictional Dwight building, which towers over even the Empire State Building. Warren is David Dwight himself, the man with the vision and political ties to get the building built, overcome skepticism, and stand as the figurehead for capitalistic greed and risk. From the beginning, we know he’s at risk for defaulting on his massive loan and that his investors want to pull out. He calls the building “a model of engineering, this spirit of an age crystallized in steel and stone.” “It goes halfway to hell and right up to heaven and it’s beautiful,” he rhapsodizes.

But Dwight isn’t the central character: that belongs to the young Lynn Harding (Maureen O’Sullivan, Mia Farrow’s mother and Jane to Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan). Just look at that dark hair and pixie smile — the Irish immigrant O’Sullivan was a delight. As Lynn, she’s new to the city where she works as a secretary for her mother’s oldest friend, Sarah, a sophisticated 30-something businesswoman in a secret and doomed extramarital affair with Dwight. Sarah has promised to protect the youthful, innocent Lynn against the dangers of city life. She’ll need protection, because the Dwight Building is full of wolves eager to get a bite of her — one of whom will be the ur-wolf, Dwight.

The usual misogyny infests this world of skyscrapers and high modernism. As Lynn makes her way to work every day, men in the building swarm around her like flies, asking her out for dinner and a little pawing. One of these is Tom (Norman Foster), a young office worker trying to make it in the big city. Tom begs, cajoles, harasses Lynn until she agrees to go out with him — and then tries so desperately to work his way around her bases that she comes to work the next day in tears, furious and humiliated. No wonder when the dashing, womanizing Dwight pays attention, she’s flattered. We’re supposed to prefer Tom and view his stalker/date-rapist inclinations as boyish ignorance, but one can’t help but think that all of her options are bad.

Meanwhile, Dwight struggles to regain control of his building. He’s seriously over-mortgaged and deep in dept to the point of being close to losing the building to the bank altogether. Threatened by his investors, he decides to take the risky move of artificially inflating bank stock during one crazy day of Wall Street trading. Since he lacks money for this, he enlists a partner — a dumb millionaire sucker, easily entranced by the women Dwight sends his way — and the trading begins. Lynn’s sort-of boyfriend Tom throws in his life savings and invests, as does all of Dwight’s business investors. Then, at the appointed time, Dwight sends the stock crashing to the ground — now possessed of the funds to buy himself out of his debts. In short, he sacrifices everyone around him, and the public good overall, to pursue his capitalist vision.

Hell ensues and the body count piles up. The film offers up some stunningly dark visions of the financial desperation wrought by such greed — darker, really, than almost any other early 20th-c. film I’ve ever seen except Erich von Stroheim’s silent masterpiece Greed (1924). When his former partners confront Dwight about his perfidy — which has led to at least two suicides — Dwight is unmoved: 

Listen, if I double-crossed somebody else for you I wouldn’t be a double-crosser. I’d be a financial genius. You’d profit by it. You’d love it. You’d love me. I’d be your pal, your leader. But I put one over on you, so I’m a double-crosser. It’s all in the point of view, gentlemen. But don’t despair. There’s lot of small fry that you can double-cross. Just like the good old days … before you got out of your class.

It’s kind of amazing to see inklings of what film could do before the moralists got their hands on script approval and storylines by 1934 or so, thereby changing the possibilities for film. Films became relentlessly clean for decades — until the slow demise of the Code by the 1970s. It’s not just that pre-Code movies offered so many scenes of female undress; they also had the chance to portray the ugliest side of the Depression in a way that seems stunningly modern now. Just think about the rosy, pull-yourself-up message of this summer’s Larry Crowne: and then think how different the summer movie season would be if our films portrayed the true devastation of our own financial crisis. Not uplifting, to be sure — but true.

There’s something in Ernst Lubitsch’s “Design for Living” (1933) that I haven’t seen in other films of the same era:  female sexual desire.  Mix that into a ménage à trois between Miriam Hopkins and two men — Frederic March and Gary Cooper — and you have a whole lot of things I hadn’t seen on screen until now.

Very loosely based on a Noël Coward play (which was itself very loosely based on the personal lives of stage actors Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, who were two of Coward’s best friends), and completely rewritten by Ben Hecht and reimagined by Lubitsch, the film centers on Tommy, a playwright, and George, a painter, who both fall for sparky young advertising artist Gilda.  Within days she finds she’s fallen, too; except she’s fallen in love with both of them.  “A thing happened to me that usually happens to men,” she explains:

You see, a man can meet two, three, or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then by a process of interesting elimination he’s able to decide which one he prefers.  But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice.  Oh, it’s quite all right for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out.”

For about five minutes this poses a serious problem for the men, who seem to face a crisis in their friendship.  But they’ve missed the solution Gilda is proposing:  That the three of them experiment with a purely platonic arrangement of living together in the same, shabby Montmartre apartment, with Gilda serving as their “mother of the arts” to spark and hone their creative genius.  To make this threesome work, they make what they call a “gentleman’s agreement”:  “No sex.”  And indeed, she’s responsible for their subsequent success.  First, she barnstorms a producer’s apartment to drop a copy of Tommy’s new play on his desk.  “It’s a woman’s play!” she pronounces triumphantly, and everyone in the room sits up and pays attention.  (I was initially going to dedicate this post to that line alone.)  Soon Tommy is whisked off to London to see it through rehearsals and opening night.

With him away, Gilda and George can no longer repress their passion for one another.  She’s always had a tendency to be slightly louche, and to throw herself onto beds in a serio-comic pose of female disconcertion.  Realizing that sex with Tommy is now an inevitability, Gilda throws herself onto the bed and pronounces, “It’s true we have a gentleman’s agreement — but unfortunately, I am no gentleman!”  (Fade.)

Tommy is crushed when he hears of this development, when he comes back to Paris and finds George temporarily out of town, he sadly reminds her of their previously happy life by pointing to his old typewriter they’ve kept, even though it’s in sorry shape:

Tommy, accusing:  “You didn’t keep it oiled.”
Gilda:  “I did for a while.”
Tommy:  “The keys are rusty.  The shift is broken.”  Gilda slides the carriage, causing the typewriter to “ding.”  They look at each other with surprise.
Gilda:  “But it still rings!”  He walks over to be close to her.
Gilda, repeating:  “It still rings.”
Tommy, meaningfully:  “Does it?”
(Fade.)

So he and Gilda take a turn indulging in a night of passion — which they regret as soon as George returns.  Horrified by the prospect of losing them and destroying the men’s friendship, she runs off and marries Edward Everett Horton, a tedious advertising suit.  But Tommy and George reconcile and determine to find her again.

In other pre-Code films, women either deploy sex as a means of gaining power (Barbara Stanwyck in “Baby Face,” for example, which I described briefly earlier this month) or to signal their looseness (Jean Harlow in virtually anything before 1933).  Seeing Hopkins genuinely drawn to both men — and unable to control her sexual desire for them — makes one realize what movies might have been able to say about female sexuality if it hadn’t been for the Code.  This film genuinely wants its audiences to imagine a situation in which one woman might have two live-in lovers — a situation that doesn’t end in tears and melodrama.  Lubitsch always keeps the tone light, but the subject matter is fairly radical.

Even more radical were the queer overtones in Tommy and George’s relationship, which Coward’s play explored in detail.  But just because they’re subtle in the film doesn’t mean they’ve been erased.  From the outset, we know that this is a genuine triangle; these men love each other just as much as they’re attracted to Gilda, and to ruin their love would be just as tragic as one man losing the woman.  It wouldn’t be long before the Code would truly stub out such images.

“Design for Living” is ultimately one of those near-miss kinds of films — its dialogue doesn’t quite sparkle, and its actors never quite stop being talky and self-conscious.  Gary Cooper was 31 and at the height of his beauty, but not yet at the height of the comic skills that would appear so gracefully in “Mr. Deeds Comes to Town” (at 31, Cooper had already appeared — incredibly — in 61 films).  Compared with her male co-stars, the relative newcomer Hopkins appears the most suited for the film’s scope, and she looks increasingly terrific in every glamorous outfit.  The “Lubitsch touch” that made other films radiant — “The Shop Around the Corner,” “Ninotchka,” “Trouble in Paradise” — doesn’t quite jell here.

But to see a comedy from 1933 that takes for granted that a woman has independent sexual desire, and that this will not lead her to abjection, regret, or early death:  how rare it is.  As Gilda herself puts it to her husband on their wedding night, as he pronounces that he has “forgiven” her for her earlier sexual peccadillos, “Forgiven me?!  Forgiven me for what?”  Thank you.

Oooh! check out this nice tumblr with images/ scenes from Design for Living.