Hide and Seek
Mark Asch on Notorious
Hitchcock’s cinema is an architecture of obsession. Patterned out of shot/reverse shots of observer and observed, punctuated by frame-filling inserts, his films return the eye again and again to objects of desire—the MacGuffin, the thing that everyone wants. Any object in Hitchcock can take on a hypnotic significance—a wedding ring, a birdcage, a matchbook—but it’s fitting that the most famous prop in his filmography is a literal key. Notorious (1946) is a film about concealment, and its main symbol—the object on the cover of its film’s Criterion DVD case, and in the final shot of Kent Jones’s Hitchcock/Truffaut documentary—unlocks the whole Hitchcock filmography.
Notorious opens on a newspaper photographer’s flashbulb, its light signifying a threat of exposure, before the camera tracks to the half-closed door of a courtroom, which a reporter peeks through with prying eyes as the father of Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is convicted of treason for aiding the Nazis. Later, at a party, an inebriated Aliciameets Cary Grant’s T.R. Devlin, who flirts with her by tying a scarf around her exposed midriff, a sliver of flesh conspicuous in its effacement. The two commence a dance of discretion and disclosure, beginning with the reveal that Devlin is a U.S. government agent who has been secretly bugging her apartment. To entrap her, he plays a recording that catches her out making an admission, contra her aloof exterior, of love—for her country. Though, after Devlin recruits her to seduce and surveil Alex Sebastian (Claude Raines), a Nazi expat in Brazil, Alicia and Devlin will also conceal their love for each other, from each other and from the rest of the world, out of their mutual pride and devotion to the mission.
Installed in Alex’s Rio mansion, a Bluebeard’s castle with closed doors and secret doings, Alicia discovers that the innermost sanctum is the wine cellar, the one room locked to her, whose keys are guarded jealously by Alex’s mother. At a party, which Alicia convinces Alex to throw for her, she plans to steal the key and get it to Devlin.
The key in question is for a simple Yale lock. We see it for the first time in the opening shots of Notorious’s party centerpiece, as Alicia stands in wide shot in a doorway, looking into the next room. The following shot is a reverse-shot dolly, which rushes into the room from the doorway where Alicia stands, towards the dressing-table where Alex has dropped his keychain. It seems like a point-of-view shot but isn’t—when Hitchcock cuts back to the first setup, Alicia is still standing in the doorway—but it is powerfully subjective, approaching the key before she has, conveying its lure and foreboding. As she walks to the desk in long shot, Hitchcock keeps the key in the foreground. (Hitchcock would often place key props in the extreme foreground of his compositions to make them look huge.)
Alex talks from the next room, offscreen, about Devlin, of whom he is jealous: he believes Alicia’s handler, whom she sees on the sly, is her lover. As Alicia removes the key from its ring, Hitchcock uses alternating close-ups of Bergman’s face and hands and medium shots of the door to the next room to take us inside Alicia’s anxiety, the language of basic continuity editing conveying close spaces and fine margins. In an omniscientwide shot, Alex enters the room, hands open; Alicia closes a fist around the key. Alex takes Alicia’s clenched hands in his. “It’s not that I don’t trust you,” he says to his wife, questioning her fidelity as Hitchcock cuts to close-ups of him opening and kissing first Alicia’s right hand—no key—and then turning his attention toher left. But first Alicia embraces him, and, with the camera now positioned behind Alex’s back, moves the key from one hand to the other, then drops it to the floor and kicks it under the table.
After this close shave, Hitchcock dissolves to the party. The camera, overlooking the mansion’s grand foyer from the second-floor landing, surveys the scene, then cranes in from the initial establishing shot, closer and closer, all the way into an extreme close-up of Alicia’s white-knuckled hand worrying over the key. The logistical difficulty of this shot, the absurdity of using a crane for an extreme close-up, underscores the key’s importance, the subject of a monomaniacal fixation amidst all this activity. This is one of the key shots in all Hitchcock, an echt exampleof how his montage creates fetish objects imbuedwith all the anxiety and fear and desire simmering in his films.
“The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it […]. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen”—Hitchcock’s famous definition of suspense hinges on awareness of an explosive truth on the verge of discovery, a nagging knowledge that becomes ever more acute with each cutaway reminder. The key in Notorious is that explosive truth; it is the object that may be discovered, in a film concerned primarily with disguise and deceit. Alicia hides the key as she hides her motives from Alex, as she and Devlin hide their love for each other, but all these locked rooms may be opened at any moment. Though Alex is suspected of making literal bombs, what’s under the table in Notorious is hidden desire, rather than the literal time-bomb in, say, Sabotage (though that film, too, concerns a marriage one of the spouses has entered into as cover for subversive activity, like a beard).
When Devlin arrives at the party, we see him from across the room, in long shot from Alex’s point of view, as he takes Alicia’s hand. Hitchcock then cuts to a close-up, unmotivated by any character’s perspective, of Devlin kissing her hand gallantly, taking the key from her as he does so, before a match on action back to the long shot. As the two talk at the party, planning to sneak down to the wine cellar together, Hitchcock involves us in a precarious dance between observer and observed, text and subtext, alternating subjective long shots from Alex’s perspective which seem to portray their flirtation cover story, and objective medium shots, with a shorter focal length, in which we can hear their mission-oriented dialogue.
When Alex and Alicia descend to the wine cellar, Hitchcock ramps up the pressure through crosscutting. He adds another element to the sequence, introducing recurrent nervous close-ups of the dwindling stores of champagne at the bar upstairs as Devlin inspects the bottles downstairs and discovers Alex’s hidden store of uranium ore. When one bottle breaks, Alicia and Devlin race, as characters so often must in Hitchcock, to dispose of evidence before a suspicious party arrives on the scene.
When Alex comes upon them downstairs, they kiss—they must confirm that they are lovers to prevent his suspicion that they are spies. In fact, they are both: the clinch we see in Alex’s POV long shot now matches the close-up, as Alicia murmurs Devlin’s name, the disguise dropped, her heart unlocked. (This is one of those moments in Hitchcock, as in Rear Window when Lisa puts on Mrs. Thorvald’s wedding ring, when the formerly parallel-running thriller and romance storylines converge.)
In a reverse shot, we see Alex witnessing his cuckolding, awkwardly aware of the wine steward who has accompanied him downstairs. After Devlin leaves the party, they return to the cellar; the camera now is positioned at waist height by the locked door, stationary as Alex approaches, reaches into his pocket for his keychain, and holds it up to the camera, framing it for its close-up. This shot, with the actor moving instead of the camera, is the inverse of the crane that opens the party, appropriately so as it conveys the opposite information, the absence of the key instead of its presence. Alex notices the missing key, then tells his servant a cover story of his own: “We don’t need to give them any more champagne.”
Without a key, there’s only the keyhole, through which one peeps for an illicit glance at the adult world, perhaps fearful of being caught spying. Furthermore, the overtly sexual metaphor of lock and key is apt for the director who bragged to Truffaut about the metaphor of the train going into the tunnel in North by Northwest. There is a thread of arrested sexual development, of juvenile perversity and shame, running through Hitchcock’s work as through a life marked by such well-documented improper behavior as his homophobic taunting of Ivor Novello and others, his harassment of Tippi Hedren, and his jibe to a houseguest about the bedroom he shared with Alma Reville, “where nothing ever happens.”
Vulgar Freudian readings about repression and guilt can take you a long way with Hitchcock. Hitchcock was raised Catholic, and his films with Catholic protagonists are the ultimate iteration of the Wrong Man plots to which he frequently returned. In 1953’s I Confess (great title), Montgomery Clift’s priest cannot prove himself innocent of an evil deed he had reason to wish done—he is, indeed, guilty of thoughtcrime, of murderous and illicit sexual desire, and tormented accordingly. In 1957’s The Wrong Man, Henry Fonda is falsely accused, but only delivered from persecution following the miraculous reappearance of his guilty double, introduced by Hitchcock as Fonda prays on the soundtrack, like divine deliverance from original sin. The legend is that young Hitchcock’s father sent him to the local police station to deliver a note to the constable and, per the request of his father’s note, was locked in a cell for a time, and told upon his release that this is what happens to children who don’t behave; this is supposed to have instilled Hitchcock with the lifelong fear of judgment that infuses his film, the dread conviction that someone (the cops? God?) will know what a naughty boy you’ve been.
Think of the great, sadistically (or masochistically?) protracted suspense sequences in Hitchcock: the body in the trunk in Rope, the lighter in the grate in Strangers on a Train, or the car sinking into the muck in Psycho—all, like Notorious, caught up in the queasy thrill of concealment and the terror of exposure. In these excruciating moments, thanks to Hitchcock’s neurotic montage, we cannot help but identify with the bad guys as they race to dispose of a key piece of evidence. In Rear Window, Raymond Burr has killed his wife and James Stewart is spying on his neighbor; when Lisa finds the wedding ring and Thorvald stares into Jeffries’s camera-eye, hero and villain are united, for a thrilling, horrifying instant, in their mutual animal terror at being discovered. And the audience is implicated as well, as Thorvald, the figure through the keyhole, stares straight through Jeffries’s aperture and back at us.
Let’s return for a moment to Psycho. Earlier in the film, before we watch nervously with the boyish, angsty Anthony Perkins as his car sinks into the mud, Norman Bates had snuck a look at Marion Crane through a peephole, become aroused, performed a fetishistic act, and afterwards cleaned up the bathroom after himself, failing to flush a telltale piece of paper down the toilet. No filmmaker was better than Hitchcock at conveying the fear of being caught masturbating. (One film of my lifetime that shares a surprising number of genes with Psycho is American Pie: when Jason Biggs turns to face his father with a cockful of apple pie, it’s a revelation of kink as electrifying as Norman in his mother’s dress, and with the same twist of reverse–primal scene humiliation.) If all this is adolescent, well, so, at its base level, is sexual desire. It’s why bathrooms have locks. And in Notorious as well there is an acutely uncomfortable current of familial intimacy.
In Notorious, at the end of the party, Alex drops his keychain on the table, still missing the key for the wine cellar. In the morning, he wakes, seemingly before his wife, and the camera dollies behind him as he walks to his desk, then looks down; cut to a close-up, tracking in from above, hurtling one last time towards the key, back on its ring. Alex reveals to his mother that he’s been seduced and exposed, but he attempts for the rest of the film to conceal this from his Nazi coconspirators. (He keeps it in the family, where all humiliation begins.) And the crisis of Alicia’s blown cover means Devlin must also shed his diffident disguise and come to his lover’s aid. He barges into her bedroom and leads her out through the front hall of Alex’s mansion. All the doors are now thrown wide open.