Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” After viewing Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious for the first time, the film did not strike me as particularly complex. Nothing specific about the film lodged itself in my brain screaming for an answer–or, at least, an attempted answer. 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, and light and dark to help explain the relationships between Alicia, Devlin, Sebastian and Mrs.
Sebastian, and an overall theme of being trapped.
An analysis of the film from the first poisoning scene to the final scene in the film shows how the above tools lead to a better understanding of the character’s motivations. The most obvious recurring object in the final scenes is the poisoned coffee cup.
In the first scene of the portion being analyzed, Sebastian suggests to Alicia that she drink her coffee, and Hitchcock zooms onto the object as she slowly takes a sip. In a later scene, Mrs. Sebastian pours the coffee 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 sound it makes connecting to the table, includes it in every shot possible, and shows us not only the full coffee cup, but the empty cup as well after Alicia has drank it.
Again, the cup is zoomed in on after Alicia realizes she’s being poisoned. Because the coffee is poisoned, the coffee itself becomes a metaphor for 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 suggests Alicia’s inability to escape her situation–whenever she drinks the coffee, she becomes trapped due to the poison in her cup–and the poison in her sham of a marriage.. A repeated object not so noticeable is Mrs. Sebastian’s needlework. Mrs. Sebastian is constantly working on her needlepoint while Alicia is being poisoned. Hitchcock, in fact, goes out of his way to make sure that a shot of her ‘toiling at her work’ is included several times.
One cannot help but be reminded of Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities–with Madame Defarge knitting everyone’s fate into her work. At the beginning of the film, Devlin hands Alicia a handkerchief, and a scarf, which she keeps, but returns to him in this segment. These pieces of cloth throughout the film help tie Alicia to the different characters, and in essence, help control her fate in different situations. Hitchcock’s use of shot type is another hint into his character’s personalities.
Hitchcock is very fond of medium and close-up shots, and rarely uses a longer shot in the film. This may suggest to the audience to keep a closer eye on the character’s facial expressions, as Hitchcock lets the actors express their thoughts and feelings in this manner. An excellent example of this would be when Alicia realizes that she is being poisoned–Hitchcock zooms in 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 Alicia tells us exactly just how much hatred she has for her. Hitchcock also uses devices in his scenes such as fades from shot to shot. By doing this, Hitchcock illustrates his character’s different viewpoints. The fades themselves are used to connect Alicia’s two different worlds–her ‘fake’ world (her marriage to Sebastian), and her ‘real’ world (her relationship with Devlin). For example, when Alicia is unable to make contact with 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 shots usually comes at a point when Alicia is feeling trapped, and this suggests that the fades represent her desire to escape back to her ‘real’ world. Since, obviously, it is difficult to use colour as a nuance in a black and white film, Hitchcock makes use of light and dark images. When Alicia and Sebastian are alone together, it is usually in darkness.– implying safety in hiding, and also implying a different world. Alicia is safe and free to do what she wants in the darkness, as she is with Devlin, and can easily hide within it. For Sebastian, it is the opposite, for to him, Alicia’s darkness is a world that he cannot enter, although he tries.
An example of this is seen when Alicia meets her commander, and asks him to shut the blinds in the room because the light bothers her. Also, when Devlin rescues Alicia, he walks into her dark bedroom and makes her walk out into the lighted hallway. Sebastian walks up the staircase to meet them, and goes out into the night, where he is rejected from the dark car as Alicia and Devlin pull away. Ironically, this is reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo rescues Juliet from an unwanted marriage to Paris, and where things seem to go wrong for the two star crossed lovers only in the daylight.
The final scene, when Sebastian slowly walks up the stairs to his death, he walks into the light of the house (like walking into the light of heaven), then all becomes dark as the door (St. Peter’s gates?) closes behind him. Again, ironically, it is only then that Sebastian can 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 both feeling trapped, they wear dark colours. For instance, when Alicia realizes she is being poisoned, she attempts an escape, and fails–while wearing a black dress. When Mrs. Sebastian walks down the staircase behind Alicia and Devlin in 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 colours–as when Alicia is poisoned, Mrs. Sebastian is wearing white, and when Alicia makes her escape, she is wearing a white nightslip. Since the two characters are enemies, and in opposite worlds, usually when one is wearing light colours, the other is in dark colours. Hitchcock’s use of shadows also help us understand character motivations. The most obvious example is when Alicia realizes she’s been poisoned, and begins blacking out. She looks at Sebastian and his mother, and the lighting in the room becomes opposite to what it previously was, lighting up the window behind them, and throwing Sebastian and his mother into shadow.
The two characters become shadows themselves. Again, when Alicia staggers to the door of the room, the two shadows of Sebastian and his mother on the door merge to her blurry vision. In this shot, the audience gets a sense that Sebastian and Mrs. Sebastian have become the same person – essentially, they are, as they are united in their common goal of keeping her political preference a secret. 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. What I 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 known better for weird and wonderful films like Vertigo and Psycho, his subtlty is what makes him a master.