Sunday, October 02, 2005


Famously, Alfred Hitchcock adopted the term "MacGuffin" to describe a cinematic device that motivates a film's plot, but whose actual content is irrelevant or arbitrary. In Hitchcock's own words, a MacGuffin is:
the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after... The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they're of no importance whatsoever.
Where content matters to the characters, to the director (and the audience) it is form that's really at issue.

Notorious posterIn Notorious, the MacGuffin is uranium-soaked sand hidden in red wine bottles. Ostensibly, the whole purpose of the movie's plot, in which "notorious" good-time girl Alicia Huberman is recruited by the CIA to marry the Nazi Alex Sebastian, involves identifying and locating this secret that lies at the heart of Sebastian's shadowy relationship with other Nazi plotters. But the fact that at an early stage of the film's production diamonds rather than uranium were to have been hidden in Sebastian's cellar demonstrates again that the MacGuffin's content is beside the point.

Our real interest in Notorious, then, is elsewhere: in the complex relationship between Huberman (played by Ingrid Bergman) and her CIA handler T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) and the extent to which each gives up on their desire for the other in order to satisfy the demands of patriotism, employment, or clearing a stained reputation. In the end (just), both sets of requirements are met: the uranium is discovered, the Nazi conspiracy is revealed, and yet Huberman and Devlin are also re-united, but only after Alicia has almost died, slowly poisoned at the hands of Sebastian and his controlling mother.

The backdrop for all this action is Rio de Janeiro. But "backdrop" is the appropriate word: neither Bergman nor Grant nor any of the other cast members ever had to go to Brazil to make the film. Rather, back projection is repeatedly used to frame the action with picture-postcard scenes of Sugarloaf Mountain or the beach.

Grand and Bergman on balcony
Latin America therefore undergoes a double projection: within the film, which will be projected so we can see it at the cinema, Rio de Janeiro is already projected, as backdrop for the on-again off-again romance between Alicia and Devlin. We're at two removes from the film's supposed setting. It's perhaps no surprise that we hardly meet any Brazilians (the only exceptions being a couple of un-named officials); even in a café scene, filmed with Rio street-life back projected behind, a waiter comes to take our couple's order but only his hand intrudes into the frame itself.

Grant and Bergman in cafe
Is Latin America therefore something like a MacGuffin in this film? An element that's just out of reach, important perhaps to the characters, but of no real consequence to the viewer. Rather, a convenient plot device: the sinister Nazis hiding out in South America are a type we will see again and again, not least in The Boys from Brazil. Is Rio here just another stock scenario, like the stock devices of elusive papers or hidden uranium?

Perhaps, though the fact of the back projection itself emphasizes one of Notorious's most important themes: Alicia may be surrounded by the population of a buzzing metropolis--at the café, at the races--but in the end she is always alone, subject to the scrutiny and gaze of just two men, her two lovers, Sebastian and Devlin. Rio can't be "real" here, because that would imply all the myriad connections and possibilities that might give Bergman's character pause for thought and the chance of escape from her deadly double-bind. After all, in the film's brief opening scenes in Miami she had had the chance to take off with a party guest on a yacht bound for Havana.

But on choosing to go down to Brazil with Devlin, Alicia chooses to forgo all the real-world encounters that had given her such a notorious reputation. She condemns herself to a scenario in which she can only act out other people's fantasies, in a world where everything around her is but the projection of ambition, power, and desire.

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