Notorious:Accuracy of Storyboard

- Hitchcock's Pure Cinema 10 (final part) -



Storyboarding is an essential process of Hollywood film production. The shots in each scene are designed and planned in this process. However, how the shots exactly turn out will normally be different from the planned because of the unpredictable aspects of shooting. Hitchcock’s storyboards, which are preserved in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science library, are known for their accuracy regarding how a shot is planned and how they are in the final product. Hitchcock once said, “Everything is decided on paper… I think a film should be made on paper ahead of time.” His storyboards are proof of what he believed, and “Notorious” is a perfect example expressing just what he said.

The movie begins with a trial, in which Alicia’s father is found guilty for being a German spy during WWll. She is then contacted by an FBI agent, Devlin. The US government wants to recruit her to infiltrate a group of ex-Nazi members, who moved to Brazil after the war. Because of the guilt-ridden feelings about her father, Alicia agrees to work for them and she flies to Rio de Janeiro with Devlin. While waiting for the details about her assignment, Alicia and Devlin fall in love. Soon the assignment arrives, instructing Alicia to seduce Alex Sebastian, who is a friend of Alicia’s father and a leading member of the group. Alex was in love with Alicia in the past. Alicia, reluctantly, agrees to the assignment. However, Alex quickly falls for Alicia and proposes to her.

Camera works with detailed plan

This film was released in 1946. Many critics consider this film as a milestone of HITCHCOCK’s artistry and thematic maturity. In addition to typical suspense in a spy film, this film skillfully depicts the characters’ internal struggles, which gives depth to the film. The acting by Cary GRANT and Ingrid BERGMAN is superb, but more than that, the masterfulness of the camera work and its detailed planning is clearly visible. One of the most well known shots of these is the opening shot of the party at Sebastian’s mansion.

At the high ceiling entrance hall of the huge mansion, a high angle wide shot is pointed to the entire scene of the party from the second floor balcony. The camera slowly comes down, moves towards Sebastian and Alicia standing side by side on the ground floor, then advances to a close up of a key in Alicia’s palm. Alicia has stolen this key to the wine cellar from Sebastian in order to find out his secret. In the recent years, this kind of dynamic moving shot was often used in action films. Those shots are usually created by CGI, or shot with a camera on a remotely operated drone. But when “Notorious” was shot in 1945, this shot was filmed with the camera placed on a large tracking device built with wood.

HITCHCOCK liked to use this kind of dynamic and dramatic shot in many of his films years before CGI was available. HITCHCOCK says, “What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.” The camera steers clear of the party guests, and focuses on Alicia and the key in her hand. In this seemingly uneventfully party, there exists a drama which deals with the life or death of many people hanging in the balance. HITCHCOCK brilliantly expresses this on the screen with this shot.

Another well-known shot in this film is the two and a half minute long shot of Alicia and Devlin kissing. Under the censorship of those days, a kiss over three seconds was prohibited. As if he challenges the rule itself, HITCHCOCK created a shot where Alicia and Devlin repeat less than three seconds long kisses, as they have a light chat. They move from the hotel balcony to inside the room while keeping their faces close and repeatedly kissing again and again. The camera follows and keeps them in a close up shot without any cuts. Critics agree that this shot is perhaps the most intimate love scene HITCHCOCK had ever filmed.

MacGuffin Effect and Movie Focus

François TRUFFAUT, a French film director also known for his book based on an interview with HITCHCOCK, said that “Notorious” is the film which makes us feel the perfect correlation between what HITCHCOCK was aiming at and what appeared on the screen. He continued to say, “To the eye, the ensemble is as perfect as an animated cartoon.” This quote clearly supports the accuracy of HITCHCOCK’s storyboard.

There is a filmmaking technique called the MacGuffin effect. HITCHCOCK talked about this effect in many of his interviews and the term became popular. A MacGuffin in a movie is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues. It’s necessary for the purpose of narrative, but has little importance. For example, in “Notorious,” Devlin approaches Alicia in order to find out the secret of ex-Nazi members, and the secret is the uranium that was hidden in the wine cellar. The focus of this film is the drama happening to get to this secret, and the uranium itself has no importance.

Truffaut says that “Notorious” takes the shape of an espionage film, but it’s actually a film about moral dilemma. The loyalty to the country or the love for the lover? Alicia and Devlin keep struggling with this conflict throughout the film. The suspense in this film is not whether they will find out the enemy’s plot and Alicia is saved, but whether Alicia and Devilin find a way to be together. The storyline of espionage suspense is the MacGuffin effect, and the film’s focus is on the humanity and emotion of the characters. This is why Hitchcock’s work is more than just an entertainment. The uranium is the Macguffin in this case.

Steven SPIELBERG said that all the amazing techniques that we see in the today’s movies have already been done by some other filmmaker in the black and white film era. HITCHCOCK is one of those pioneer filmmakers. His films have influenced and impacted many filmmakers in the past. I started this column with hope of spreading word of the greatness of HITCHCOCK’s films. With this final article, however, my only regret is that I was able to introduce only a glimpse into his fascinating works. I truly hope that those who were interested in my articles will continue to watch his films and learn the filmmaking craftsmanship of the greatest film director of all time, Alfred HITCHCOCK.