Monday, February 28, 2011

Notorious (1946)

“Truth was it wasn't film noir. The high-priced actors like Cary Grant back at the studios got all the lights. So ours was lit with cigarettes."
- Robert Mitchum on the dark look of Out of the Past

Mitchum was right. There was no film noir in the 1940s. There is now... and that's part of the problem - trying to classify what is film noir and what wasn't when looking back at movies out of the past.

There are many films that aren't as easy to put into the noir category as some of Mitchum RKO thrillers are. Notorious - starring “High-priced actor” Grant -- is one of them. Directed by the master and starring two of the biggest movie stars of all time. But is it a film noir?

I put that question out there to see if there's a consensus. What I found - as I usually do when discussing film noir - was that there are many ways to define film noir.

As noir as it gets

Zet Torbjörn Astner on Facebook:
“As noir as it gets! But please notice that it's very much the story of one extremely lonely woman in a world where, except for Claude Rains' mother, after Ingrid's arrival in Rio, you see hardly any other women at all. (Well, there's that great party-scene of course, but after that) She reminds me of characters in Bresson-movies: Joan of Arc, even Mouchette. And of course Marnie and Janet "Marion Crane" Leigh in Psycho - the loneliness of these women is as heartbreaking as frightening.”


Andrew666 at Back Alley adds up the individual elements to to see how noir Notorious is:

For me, Notorious would score about 6 out of 10 on the scale of noir. There are some things that I would see as being noir influenced -

  • sharp angular shadows,
  • some of Hitchcock's vertiginous shots
  • Both Grant and Bergman being the victims of forces bigger than they are
  • The crime element - the selling of the uranium
  • Objects which become fetishistic symbols - the key to the cellar
  • Hidden motivations that shift as the film unfolds
  • The conflict between desire and duty
  • Ingrid as a (reluctant) femme fatale to Alex
  • Alienation - when Ingrid feels she has been abandoned emotionally by Devlin
  • Twisted relationships such as Alex and his mother

On the other hand, there are elements that I find hard to accept as noir

  • The smoochy kiss (enjoyable though this was to watch)
  • the upbeat ending
  • the spy plot
  • the Latin setting for the main story

Well, okay, maybe that's 7 out of 10...

Andrew's point about the famous kiss is interesting.

Too big to be a noir

Noir got its distinctive look and sounds when it was skirting censorship rules. Clever dialog and having most of the sex and violence happen in the shadows were a necessity then (especially when making James M. Cain's Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice into movies). The film makers behind Notorious didn't have to play by the same rules - the kiss Andrew mentions is proof.

“In 1946, MGM claimed that a lengthy kiss between John Garfield and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice was timed with a stopwatch to make sure it did not exceed censorship regulations. In the same year, the Selznik studio announced that Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman's extended embrace in Notorious - an embrace accompanied by a good deal of low-voiced conversation - was the longest kiss in screen history”
- More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts by James Naremore

So while noir film makers avoided censorship, guys like Hitchcock and Selznik could actually change the rules.

Big budget films with big stars - say many - just can't be noir. Or can they? Some noir fans at Facebook would classify it as a rare big-budget noir.

Bud Palmer on Facebook:
“There are low budget (B Movie) Noir films and big budget (A movie) ones. Notorious, I believe, is the later.”

Others would disagree. Jörn von Gummersbach:
“What a coincidence. I've watched it some days ago for the first time. My girlfriend and me checked nearly 50 Noirs up to now, and we both have the opinion, that this film is NOT Noir. Sure, it has some elements, but the parts don't add to a Noir how we see it. Hitch has made only one real noir and that's Strangers on a Train.”
(Editor's note: an argument could be made that Hitchcock's one real noir was Vertigo, as Roger Wade mentions at the Back Alley. But that's another discussion for another time.)

The Film Noir Encyclopedia calls Notorious a romantic thriller but notes “Hitchcock incorporates familiar film noir themes” but other don't find the film fatalistic enough. Jay M. at the Back Alley writes:
“It just doesn't have the fatalistic quality of true noir. There are elements in it that relate to noir: the heroine's predicament in particular, and the character played by Claude Rains have noir overtones. But the overall feel of the film is more of a romantic intrigue.”

It was in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid

When the Steve Martin spoof, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid came out in 1982 the term “film noir” wasn't as popular use even among movie critics. Although the film today is clearly a homage to film noir, at the time of its release even Siskel and Ebert didn't use the term film noir when describing it. Almost 30 years later almost all the films snipped for use in the comedy are considered noir - including Notorious. I know more than one film fan who became obsessed with film noir after trying to see all the movies seen in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. I know this isn't the strongest case for Notorious but I think it's a valid one. If it's in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid it's probably noir.

Does it matter if it's a noir?

Does it matter if it's noir or not? No. We routinely feature movies at Film Noir of the Week that aren't 100-percent noir. Should we be obsessed with trying to categorize movies or should we just appreciate that these old movies aren't forgotten? Personally, I would say the movie isn't noir. But it is one of my favorite films so I have no problem discussing it here.

I'll end this week's article with one final quote. This one from Amy Sullivan on Facebook:

“I see it as a Noir and I honestly can't think of another film that has a more astoundingly beautiful looking couple than Grant and Bergman... it's a brilliant film and easy on the eyes.”

My thought exactly.

Written by Steve-O


  1. I thought Hitch had to specifically break up the kiss with conversation to get around the censors as well, but doing so made it even more erotic. He didn't have a free pass, that much I think I am sure of.

  2. Can't figure out how folks talk film noir without referencing this guy:

  3. great analysis of a fantasic film. i can see the Noir elements but i would not specifically call Notorious a full out Noir.


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