Monday, January 17, 2011

Great Face, Great Performance: Cary Grant as Devlin in Notorious

It seems only fitting that to kick off my series "Great Face, Great Performance" I feature one of my favorite actors in what is (in my humble opinion, at least) his finest role. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) the part also happens to be from my favorite movie, Hitchcock's Notorious.

I once read an article seeking to praise Cary Grant for the usual things: his charm, his athleticism, his poise, his charisma. That iconic "Cary Grant" persona, so carefully honed and developed over the years, has become indivisible from its creator, and Grant is often criticized for playing the same suave urban sophisticate from film to film, accused of never really bothering to "act", simply being himself. Grant's role as T.R. Devlin in Notorious is a subversive, indisputable contradiction to that assumption. Here is a subtle, nuanced portrayal of a chilly, cold, yet undeniably alluring man whose immaturity and insecurities lie only slightly hidden beneath his carefully polished veneer. There are deep wells of warmth and emotion within but to get to them you have to chip away at layer upon layer of ice. It's a role that completely inverts that familiar charming persona, turning the lithe, athletic sex appeal into something dangerous and destructive. It’s the role that should have won Grant his Oscar.

The story of Notorious is a near-perfect setup for an espionage thriller. (Beware, ahead and throughout the rest of the post, there will be spoilers. If you haven't seen the movie, go rent it. Now.) Alicia Hubermann (Ingrid Bergman) is the daughter of a Nazi traitor. She is a hard-partying, heavy-drinking girl who, beneath her jovial, devil-may-care attitude, is desperately seeking acceptance and love. After a party, she is recruited by Devlin (Cary Grant) to help the U.S. with a covert operation in Rio. As they wait for news of their assignment, the two fall in love, but Devlin seems unable to fully return Alicia's ardor. Then, they get word: Alicia is to seduce the head of the Nazi ring operating in Rio. Alicia looks to Devlin for a sign of his love, but gets none and agrees to the assignment. At a big party, Alicia and Devlin discover that the Nazis are smuggling uranium ore hidden in wine bottles. Alicia's husband, the Nazi ringleader Sebastian (Claude Rains) gets wind of her treachery and slowly begins to poison her. Alicia is on the brink of death when Devlin returns and in a daring, suspenseful act of bravery, rescues her from the house and brings her to safety. 

From the very beginning of the film, we realize that Hitchcock is going to toy with our perceptions of the enigma that is Cary Grant. The calculated restraint with which Hitchcock uses his star is perfect evidence of what sets him apart from lesser film directors; at every opportunity, Grant is held at arm’s length. Hitchcock places him in the back of a frame, or with his back turned to the camera or in silhouette. He understands that Grant, as a major star, will automatically be the object of focus for the audience—what better way to create tension than to deny the audience what they want? In many ways, we start to feel just like Alicia, inexplicably drawn to a man who is always just a bit out of reach.

His introduction is the shot featured above, just the back of his head sitting still and silent at the drunken party as Alicia gazes at him from across the room. We, of course, already know who it is. Slicked hair, perfect collar, a wry, ironic cock to the head. 

The next morning, Alicia awakens with a dreadful hangover and peers through her haze up at Grant, and this is what she sees:

Why can I not wake up after a night of drunken partying to this in my doorframe?
For the greater part of the film, we (the audience, the camera) are Devlin's only confidantes. Hitchcock brings us in close to his face in moments of deep catharsis or emotion, but to the other characters (Alicia, Sebastian) he is almost invariably shown as I described before: at a distance, in shadow, in profile or with his back turned to the audience. It's a perfect marriage of performance, composition and camerawork combining to present a man who is always a step or two removed from those around him. Examples:

As Alicia and Devlin return to her apartment to get in some quality smooching time, Alicia pauses and removes her gloves, watching as Devlin walks away from her to the balcony. The unanswered question (which she poses to him more directly later in the scene): does he actually love her? 

Alicia dresses up for a party at Sebastian's house. As she talks to Prescott, their boss, about her instructions for the night's event, Devlin remains silent, his back turned to the audience, closed off in his own thoughts as she steals little glances at him here and there. 

After getting word of the nature of Alicia's assignment, Devlin returns to Alicia's flat to keep his dinner date with her. As she happily chatters on in the kitchen, unaware of what has happened, he walks out to the cold balcony and hunches his shoulders up, staring down at the ground. Once again, he is isolated and in Grant's simple gesture we can feel his loneliness and his helpless, tortured vulnerability.

 In one of their early love scenes, Alicia teases Devlin: 

"You're sore because you've fallen for a little drunk you tailed in Miami and you don't like it. It makes you sick all over, doesn't it? People will laugh at you, the invincible Devlin, in love with someone who isn't worth even wasting the words on..." 

Devlin alternates through the little scene by gazing at her and then looking away--her words are hitting too close to home for his comfort. Then, in a gesture that seems equal parts passion and equal parts desire to shut her up, he seizes her and kisses her. 

Then, the last scene, the most important. Grant has infiltrated Sebastian's house and crept up to Alicia's room to see her. His appearance here is a direct mirror image to his first arrival through her drunken haze in the beginning of the movie.

Framed in a doorway, covered in shadow. He walks forward slowly (quite literally “walking into the light”), and we see now that there is no cocky, inscrutable smile on his face. It's an unabashed expression of horror: 

From here on out, once Devlin makes his confession of love, there isn't a shot of Dev without Alicia nestled safely in his arms. Hitchcock devotes himself to intimate two-shots of the two of them, showing them now as a unit, displaying through the staging and the composition of his shots that Devlin is a changed man and is now able to love, trust and truly care for Alicia. 

There are, of course, a generous amount of frontal close-ups of Grant's face, but these are almost exclusively given in his moments of intimacy with Alicia, when he drops the cold facade and lets a little warmth shine through. And, as mentioned before, we as the audience are given a privileged glimpse into Dev's psyche--one thing Hitchcock loved to do was to let the audience in on more secrets than the characters. We know that Devlin is truly in love with Alicia at least an hour and fifteen minutes before she does. Look at his expression after Alicia walks into the room all dolled up for a party at Sebastian's. Prescott (to the right of Devlin) has the line and gets the focus of the shot, but should you be quick enough to catch one look at Dev's face and you'll know the whole story.

After meeting at the racetrack for news of the previous night's party, Alicia informs Devlin that she and Sebastian have slept together. Swallowing his shock (which we as an audience absorb in a straight-on closeup of his face), Devlin begins to lash out at her in that clipped, perfect monotone, bringing her to tears. 

Notice the difference in frame between Alicia and Devlin's shots. Alicia's close-up is so intimate that we can see the tear glimmering in the corner of her eye. Devlin's (as seen from Alicia's point of view) is cold, closed-off, icy. We only see half his face as she looks up at him. 

Some of the most wrenching moments in the film are when we witness Devlin’s defense of Alicia to Prescott and the others--precisely the sort of defense Alicia desperately needs to hear but that he is, for reasons of his own, unable to tell her. At a meeting, Prescott and the representatives of the Rio government discuss the progress being made in the case. Grant has his back turned to them, deep in brooding thought and only bothers to turn around (so the audience can feel the full force of his emotion) when one of the men refers to Alicia as "a woman of that sort.”

It's in these little moments that Grant really shines in this role, not least because of the love Hitchcock's camera shows for Grant's face. The nuances Grant delivers are so subtle that some of them may only be picked up upon repeat viewings. Occasionally, it is merely a flick of the eyes or a turn of the head that betrays what he is actually thinking. The few moments where Devlin allows himself to lose that cool (the aforementioned moments where he defends Alicia, or when he furiously reacts to the news of her assignment--below) are shocking both in their explosiveness and the speed with which Devlin quickly shuts himself down after his outbursts. We get the feeling that there are barely contained fires stewing under that effortless cool and that at any moment—with the right look, word, touch—they may come bursting forth. Grant is able to convey the sense that Devlin, even more than he is afraid of Alica (“I’ve always been scared of women,” he remarks dryly), is perhaps even more afraid of himself and the depth of emotion he feels for her.

The carefully placed layers of true love/false love serve as the major suspense throughout the movie; for a closer breakdown of the film’s plot, I suggest you read Donald Spoto’s excellent essay on Notorious in his book “The Art of Alfred Hitchcock.” Even with a cursory glance, we see the meticulous way Hitchcock has all the levels playing off of one another: Devlin pretends not to be in love with Alicia, who must in turn pretend to be in love with Sebastian, and then must pretend to not be in love with Devlin when Devlin pretends to be in love with her in order to keep Sebastian off the trail of the uranium ore in the wine bottles. And then there are the feigned gestures of love (again outlined by Dr. Spoto): Alicia passionately embraces her husband to conceal the fact that she has just stolen a crucial key from his chain. Devlin's kiss of Alicia's hand at the party (witnessed narrowly by the jealous Sebastian, who takes it as a true sign of affection between the two) actually conceals Alicia passing off the key to Devlin:

Their kiss by the wine cellar is the single most devastating moment in the film; about eighty-six different emotional threads are running through this scene and Hitchcock orchestrates it like a symphony, with Rains, Bergman and Grant playing their parts to perfection.  We are at once terrified of their being found out, thrilled at the passionate kiss, afraid of what Sebastian will do to Alicia when he finds them together. We are torn apart by Alicia’s breathless protestations against her love for Devlin, when only moments before she helplessly whispered, "Oh, Dev...Dev." Devlin’s own short speech to Sebastian about his love for Alicia borders on the comedic. Again, he is turned away from Alicia and the camera, and we can immediately see that the confession hits too close to home for him; he can only bear to admit his ardor in the driest of monotones—to put any emotion in it, even at this crucial moment when their lives hinge on his performance, would be revealing too much. 


This analysis wouldn’t be complete without a slightly gushy paragraph about why exactly Cary Grant is so cool, so, dear reader, here it is. 

The first conclusion: it’s hard to deny the sex appeal of an obviously athletic man in a three-piece suit. Grant milked this appeal for the entirety of his career (seeing the former acrobat randomly do a back flip nearly perfectly in place while wearing a full suit in Holiday is one of the singularly most surprising, wonderful moments in Grant’s filmography). That athleticism is an undercurrent throughout this film; there is a shocking moment where the previously complacent Devlin lashes out and with a single, efficient blow, knocks the drunk, protesting Alicia unconscious in her car, then calmly scooches her over and takes the wheel. Whenever a crisis arises, we see where Devlin’s calm comes in to play and there is something so attractive about the way he keeps his head (even when we don't want him to--during their passionate wine cellar kiss, it is Devlin who has the presence of mind to urgently mutter "Push me away," to Alicia as Sebastian approaches). When they’re in the wine cellar and a bottle breaks, Alicia frets and runs to and fro worrying about whether Sebastian will find them. Devlin calmly leans down and starts cleaning away the ore, even cracking a few jokes as he puts everything in order. Who can do cool, humorous and athletic better than Cary Grant?

At the film’s conclusion, it is his quick thinking that saves their lives, as he realizes that the only way to save the woman he loves is to walk her right out through the lion’s den. Devlin is the ultimate poker player. He learns of Alicia's mysterious "illness" and absorbs it with only the flicker of a glance, then we see him begin to put the pieces together. Grant is so wonderfully transparent in this scene that we literally see the wheels turning in his head.

He begins to walk up the stairs...

...then begins to run, taking them two at a time as the audience cheers him on.

Later, during their escape, he keeps his face perfectly straight and his hand hovering over his pocket just to give the suggestion of a gun, breezing out of the house right under their noses and leaving poor Claude Rains pathetically begging in his car's wake.

And I mean, come on, what woman doesn’t want a guy who can not only rock a tux but save her from a house full of Nazis without firing a single shot?

The look says it all.
Grant’s masterful performance in this movie is really what gives Notorious its devastating emotional core and is in itself a fairly definitive argument against those who claim that he never actually bothered to act. In the masterful hands of Grant and Hitchcock, we’re given one of the most understatedly complex leading men in cinema; a handsome, capable, intelligent man who is nevertheless terrified of himself and the strength of his own emotions; whose cruel, careless actions and neuroses nearly lead the woman he loves to her death. Notorious gives us the odd situation of a hero who arguably is much more cruel to the heroine than the actual villain. We, as an audience, are already predisposed to like Grant/Devlin, which makes his treatment of Alicia all the more devastating. Had Hitchcock not shown us glimpses into the inner turmoil within Devlin, and if Grant hadn’t so brilliantly been able to play him both as calculatedly cold and heartbreakingly vulnerable at the same time, Devlin would come off as merely sadistic or an antihero impossible to root for. But all of it pays off-- the moment of his revelation is one of the most moving, triumphant climaxes in cinema. I have seen this film countless times, and it is absolutely impossible for me not to cry at the moment when he admits his mistakes to Alicia and finally confesses his love to her. “You…love me,” she whispers, and smiles. “Oh, you love me.” 

It's perfect.