The Great Scenes: “Staircase Finale” from NOTORIOUS

The Movie: Notorious

Spoiler Level: VERY High

The Setup:
Devlin (Cary Grant) has recruited Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) as a subversive seductress in a plot to find weapons hidden by a gang of escaped Nazis, led by Alex Sebastian (Claude Raines). Suspecting her true allegiance, Sebastian and his mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) begin to quietly poison Alicia. In the final scene of the film, Devlin overcomes his distaste for Alicia’s past and the obligations of his job to save her from the den of vipers… all during a meeting with Sebastian’s associates. Please, please, PLEASE do not watch this scene if you haven’t seen Notorious. Go watch the movie TONIGHT if you haven’t seen it. I’m even okay with you watching the YouTube bootleg, if you promise to pick up the eventual blu-ray.

Why It’s Great:
Like all great suspense directors, Alfred Hitchcock seems to have a single goal with his entire visual approach to this story: Get us to the final shot. The final shot of Notorious is one of the most loaded in all of cinema – it starts close on Alex, hearing the Nazis call him back to the house. He turns, the camera remains still, looking at the silhouetted monsters in the mansion door. As Alex schleps to his ultimate fate, the camera slowly starts pushing in, not resting until Alex is in the house, and the door closes. The score seals the deal, rushing to a climax on the fade to black after the door closes. What a lingering image!

Imagine if the movie had closed with Hitchcock cutting to Devlin and Alicia in the car. Yes, it would have kept our perspective with the heroes, and would have assured us that Alicia would be okay, but it would completely undermine the cyclical drama necessary to bring Alex’s story to a close. All that’s important is that Alicia is safe, and Alex is about to be dealt with. End of story.

While this shot is an absolute work-horse, I don’t want to short-change the shot selection in the rest of the scene, which starts with a dreamy, long dolly move mimicking Grant’s return to the fevered Bergman. That shot continues until we leave the bedroom, all in a close single or a close two-shot, on a long lens. I wring my hands with empathy for the production’s worn-out focus puller. In fact, the long close-up is a staple of Notorious, which is famous for one of cinema’s most extended kisses, all shot in an intimate CU. Once the characters leave the bedroom, we get what is one of the most marvelous series of moving close-ups I can recall. How the camera glides down those steps, always effortlessly cutting between the characters, is beyond me. Despite the technical proficiency of his shot series, Hitchcock never once loses grip on the scene itself. He sticks to strict perspective, setting up a new perspective only when absolutely necessary, and with a strong cut-in (for example, the close-up on the apparent lead Nazi).

A lot of my affection for the scene is for its technical merits, but I really shouldn’t forget about the performances. Grant is steely as always, but the real stars here are Bergman and Rains. Bergman spends much of the film as a proud, aggressive wild child, flaunting her party girl past and locking up her feelings. Here she is to be pitied, but also admired, allowing her salvation to happen gracefully. It’s hard not to fall in love with Ingrid Bergman in general, but this one of her most dynamic mainstream performances. Rains, from the moment his Alex sees Devlin extracting Alicia, clearly communicates his motivation – “Get me the flip away from all those Nazis.” The aforementioned look on his face at the start of the film’s final shot is the linchpin of the scene, and therefore, the movie.

Again, I would be remiss not to repeatedly point out that the entire movie drives toward this scene, in which all the wistful character trajectories intersect and resolve. Rarely do we get that kind of efficiency in movies anymore, least of all spy thrillers. The final scene (and shot) of any suspense movie should be the spire of the palace, its absence completely invalidating the foundation set beneath it.