NotoriousAfter viewing Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious for the first time, the filmdid not strike me as particularly complex. Nothing specific about the filmlodged itself in my brain screaming for an answeror, at least, an attemptedanswer. Yet, upon subsequent viewings, subtle things became more noticeable.
(Perhaps Hitchcock’s subtlety is what makes him so enormously popular!)Hitchcock uses motifs and objects, shot styles and shifting points of view, andlight and dark to help explain the relationships between Alicia, Devlin,Sebastian and Mrs. Sebastian, and an overall theme of being trapped. Ananalysis of the film from the first poisoning scene to the final scene in thefilm shows how the above tools lead to a better understanding of thecharacter’s motivations.
The most obvious recurring object in the final scenes is the poisonedcoffee cup. In the first scene of the portion being analyzed, Sebastiansuggests to Alicia that she drink her coffee, and Hitchcock zooms onto theobject as she slowly takes a sip. In a later scene, Mrs. Sebastian pours thecoffee into the cup for Alicia, and sets it on a small table in front of her.
Here, Hitchcock not only zooms in on the small teacup, but heightens the soundit makes connecting to the table, includes it in every shot possible, and showsus not only the full coffee cup, but the empty cup as well after Alicia hasdrank it. Again, the cup is zoomed in on after Alicia realizes she’s beingpoisoned. Because the coffee is poisoned, the coffee itself becomes a metaphorfor life and death, supported by the fact that the poisoner herself ours it,and the shots of the full and empty teacup. In this way, it also suggestsAlicia’s inability to escape her situationwhenever she drinks the coffee, shebecomes trapped due to the poison in her cupand the poison in her sham of amarriage..
A repeated object not so noticeable is Mrs. Sebastian’s needlework.
Mrs. Sebastian is constantly working on her needlepoint while Alicia is beingpoisoned. Hitchcock, in fact, goes out of his way to make sure that a shot ofher `toiling at her work’ is included several times. One cannot help but bereminded of Dickens classic A Tale of Two Citieswith Madame Defarge knittingeveryone’s fate into her work. At the beginning of the film, Devlin handsAlicia a handkerchief, and a scarf, which she keeps, but returns to him in thissegment. These pieces of cloth throughout the film help tie Alicia to thedifferent characters, and in essence, help control her fate in differentsituations.
Hitchcock’s use of shot type is another hint into his character’spersonalities. Hitchcock is very fond of medium and close-up shots, and rarelyuses a longer shot in the film. This may suggest to the audience to keep acloser eye on the character’s facial expressions, as Hitchcock lets the actorsexpress their thoughts and feelings in this manner. An excellent example ofthis would be when Alicia realizes that she is being poisoned Hitchcock zoomsin on her wide-eyed expression as she first looks at the teacup, then at Mrs.
Sebastian and her husband. Mrs. Sebastian’s cold hearted stare back at Aliciatells us exactly just how much hatred she has for her.
Hitchcock also uses devices in his scenes such as fades from shot toshot. By doing this, Hitchcock illustrates his character’s differentviewpoints. The fades themselves are used to connect Alicia’s two differentworldsher fake’ world (her marriage to Sebastian), and her `real’ world (herrelationship with Devlin). For example, when Alicia is unable to make contactwith Devlin due to her illness, there are several shots of her in her sick bed,then fading to Devlin waiting impatiently at a bench. The fading between shotsusually comes at a point when Alicia is feeling trapped, and this suggests thatthe fades represent her desire to escape back to her `real’ world.
Since, obviously, it is difficult to use colour as a nuance in a blackand white film, Hitchcock makes use of light and dark images. When Alicia andSebastian are alone together, it is usually in darkness. implying safety inhiding, and also implying a different world. Alicia is safe and free to dowhat she wants in the darkness, as she is with Devlin, and can easily hidewithin it. For Sebastian, it is the opposite, for to him, Alicia’s darkness isa world that he cannot enter, although he tries. An example of this is seenwhen Alicia meets her commander, and asks him to shut the blinds in the roombecause the light bothers her. Also, when Devlin rescues Alicia, he walks intoher dark bedroom and makes her walk out into the lighted hallway. Sebastianwalks up the staircase to meet them, and goes out into the night, where he isrejected from the dark car as Alicia and Devlin pull away. Ironically, this isreminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo rescues Juliet from an unwantedmarriage to Paris, and where things seem to go wrong for the two star crossedlovers only in the daylight. The final scene, when Sebastian slowly walks upthe stairs to his death, he walks into the light of the house (like walkinginto the light of heaven), then all becomes dark as the door (St. Peter’sgates?) closes behind him. Again, ironically, it is only then that Sebastiancan reach Alicia’s dark world’through death.
The costumes that the characters wear is also a clue. Both Mrs.
Sebastian and Alicia are trapped in their worlds, and when they are bothfeeling trapped, they wear dark colours. For instance, when Alicia realizesshe is being poisoned, she attempts an escape, and failswhile wearing a blackdress. When Mrs. Sebastian walks down the staircase behind Alicia and Devlinin the final few scenes, she knows she is trapped, and is wearing a dark dress.
However, whenever the two characters feel free or released from their trappings,they wear light coloursas when Alicia is poisoned, Mrs. Sebastian is wearingwhite, and when Alicia makes her escape, she is wearing a white nightslip.
Since the two characters are enemies, and in opposite worlds, usually when oneis wearing light colours, the other is in dark colours.
Hitchcock’s use of shadows also help us understand charactermotivations. The most obvious example is when Alicia realizes she’s beenpoisoned, and begins blacking out. She looks at Sebastian and his mother, andthe lighting in the room becomes opposite to what it previously was, lightingup the window behind them, and throwing Sebastian and his mother into shadow.
The two characters become shadows themselves. Again, when Alicia staggers tothe door of the room, the two shadows of Sebastian and his mother on the doormerge to her blurry vision. In this shot, the audience gets a sense thatSebastian and Mrs. Sebastian have become the same personessentially, they are,as they are united in their common goal of keeping her political preference asecret.
Through nuances such as repeated objects, shot types and light and dark,Hitchcock is able to help the audience better understand Alicia, Sebastian, Mrs.
Sebastian and Devlin’s personalities and motivations towards one another. WhatI found extremely compelling is the fact that, unlike Scorsese’s After Hours,the motifs throughout this film weren’t immediately apparent, at least to me,unless Hitchcock wanted them to be. Although Hitchcock is probably knownbetter for weird and wonderful films like Vertigo and Psycho, his subtlty iswhat makes him a master.
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