Sunday, December 25, 2016

It's a Wonderful Life Turns 70

It’s a Wonderful Life is a full-fledged American icon, and an indispensable part of the nation’s cinematic DNA. It defines the term Classic - in fact redefines it - by virtue of becoming more and more popular over the years, finally achieving a status that transcends mere entertainment. The film’s lofty stature is no doubt due to its near perfect balance of rugged individualist destiny and collectivist bleeding heart liberalism. It’s a Wonderful Life sentimentally propagates many popular notions of the American experience, some real some fictional, and holds up a flattering mirror to humanity, which has lovingly admired its own reflection for 70 years.

Fittingly, the plot of It’s a Wonderful Life is tightly entwined with the story of America in the first half of the 20th century. Here an earnest young man of high moral fiber named George Bailey (James Stewart) must put his dreams of college on hold to save his community from a greedy, predatory slum lord (Lionel Barrymore). This pattern will repeat itself at critical moments in George’s life, as his ambitious plans are deferred by the Depression, war and the pressing needs of his friends and family. But, like America, there’s an exceptionalness about George Bailey, and thanks to the divine intervention of a kindly specter named Clarence (the great Henry Travers), the desperate George will grow to appreciate his life through a stunning, nightmarish vision of an alternative reality.

Director Frank Capra made his name with rousing populist dramas that enthralled and inspired the masses. Dubbed “Capra-Corn” by cynical film critics, Capra’s crowd pleasing aesthetic was a natural outgrowth of his extensive background in silent features and short subjects. Known for outlandish situations and ham-fisted acting, these one-reelers were platforms for brisk storytelling and fast paced entertainment, not ambiguous metaphors on the vagaries of the human condition. Capra’s career was only fair-to-middlin’ in those early days, but with the arrival of sound, this egalitarian auteur hit his stride, winning three Oscars in the process. With bouncy, good natured tales of class warfare like It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Capra reassured his audiences that decent, hardworking folk were on the right side of cosmic justice, and corruption would always find its comeuppance.

It’s this unique sensibility that floods every gauzy frame of It’s a Wonderful Life, sustaining it for generations and making it a nearly perfect holiday family film. Yes, portions of it are quite dated and will be offensive to modern attitudes, as is the case with any film of this vintage. But it remains an astonishingly effective story of sacrifice, redemption and, quite literally, the better angels of our nature. And if you’re not joyfully weeping at the closing scene, go see a doctor as soon as possible. You may be dead inside.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Manchester by the Sea (2016) ✭✭✭✭✭

Perhaps as a token counterbalance to the crapulous events of 2016, the cinematic fates have gifted us Manchester by the Sea, a brilliant and intense portrait of quiet desperation. Even though it's been showered with award nominations, Manchester is a sort of anti-Oscar bait. It features no heroic soul overcoming a disability on the way to achieving greatness, nor does it irreverently capture an important moment in history. It exists in an HO-scale universe where life’s pressures lead ordinary folks into bad decisions with consequences too terrible to imagine, and lives too damaged to ever fully heal.

One such walking wounded is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), caretaker of a crumbling apartment building in Quincy, Massachusetts. Chandler’s stoic routine of shoveling sidewalks and plunging toilets is shattered one day by shocking news from his hometown; news that will serve as a backstory catalyst and eventually topple the high emotional walls he has built to ward off society. Affleck can, to put it uncharitably, act rings around his older brother, and his loner turn here ranks among the great disaffecteds of cinema, approaching Travis Bickle territory. But Affleck’s Chandler has no designs on avenging the world’s wrongs. His energy - what little he has left - is consumed with sifting through the waste of a life in ruins.

While Chandler returns to the titular picture postcard town, blanketed by a snowfall that has caused life to go dormant, he finds he must settle affairs he wants no part of. For him, it is a town of shunning ghosts and shameful specters, its tidy clapboard houses and cobblestone streets the architecture of his undoing. Director Kenneth Lonergan and production designer Ruth De Jong flesh out every environ through a tense celebration of the stale and ordinary, their sets stuffed with the dingy bric-a-brac of what it means to be working class in 2016 America. The bread and circuses of beer and hockey no longer enthrall Affleck’s Chandler, but his fiery relationship with a bright teenager named Patrick (Lucas Hedges) may provide a glimmer of salvation. And with Manchester by the Sea, we’ll take any glimmer we can get.

Genre-wise, the film is a little tough categorize. It's a melodrama that never becomes melodramatic; a soap that never gets sudsy. Perhaps its most accurate description is a horror film, but the expected zombies, vampires and demons have been replaced by a coven of human weakness and fallibility. In Manchester by the Sea, even the kind and well intentioned can become monstrous, and no silver bullet or stake-through-the-heart can dispatch an accidental evil to its hellish rest. The perpetrators can only be forgiven. Even if they can't forgive themselves.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Qatsi Trilogy (1983 - 2002)

The Qatsi Trilogy is a collection of films made by Godfrey Reggio between 1983 and 2002. Each film offers an extraordinary and unforgettable cinematic experience, and their messages are, astonishingly, even more pertinent and vital today. The visual and aural wonders of The Qatsi Trilogy fall into no preset genre or easily explainable category of filmmaking. The simplest description would be a grafting of somber political treatise with IMAX style sensory joyride.

To fully understand these unique works, one must understand the filmmaker, and his singular background and sensibilities. Godfrey Reggio is not an assembly line graduate of the USC film school. In fact, he spent the 1960s as a social worker and political activist, founding several community programs for disadvantaged youth in New Mexico. He also spent 14 years in training for the priesthood, but abandoned that quest to pursue a deeper understanding of the philosophy and mysticism of the Hopi Indians.

Reggio is, in short, a spiritual pilgrim with an Arriflex, and his films question the basic tenets of modern life, using the most basic components of cinema. Reggio’s wordless mediations consist exclusively of images and music, and through time-shifting scenes of the natural and manmade worlds, supported by Philip Glass’s expressive and omnipresent score, Reggio creates a beautiful sensory language that articulates his complex ideas directly to the human soul.

Koyaanisqatsi (1983) leads off the set, and viewers will find themselves mesmerized from the opening frames. The title is Hopi for “life out of balance,” and over the next 90 minutes, Reggio builds a compelling portrait of the insanity of modern life brick-by-brick. While Reggio’s films don’t follow a narrative per se, Koyaanisqatsi begins with a tone poem evoking Earth’s creation. Majestic vistas of pristine Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly ultimately give way to aerial shots of the various grids imposed on Earth by man, and the dusty havoc wrought on the planet by his extractive industries.

Reggio’s camera eventually makes its way to the steel canyons of Manhattan. What follows is a time lapse montage that stuns and stupefies. Human beings are reduced to mere machine cogs, as long lens shots of crowded midtown streets and undercranked scenes of Grand Central Station at rush hour combine with Glass’ frenetic score to issue a blistering condemnation of technological society. Koyaanisqatsi is a luscious tableau that raises the cinematic experience to the level of the carnal, and seduces and horrifies in equal measure.

The title of Powaqqatsi (1988) translates as “Parasite” and here Reggio shifts his attention to the trauma inflicted on the Third World by industrialization. As workers covered in mud scurry into a mine in Pakistan and Bedouins drag heavy loads through a desert sandstorm, a chorus of children’s voices echo the ghostly chants of a lost culture. An Indian commuter train, bulging with riders, slowly makes its way through an impoverished city choked with thick smog, while Sikh and Buddhist holy men pray for divine providence.

The scope of Glass’ chart widens here as well, incorporating percussive and indigenous instruments. While not as visually bombastic as its predecessor, Powaqqatsi has its share of money shots. Scenes of village life rendered in rippling waters give the proceedings an arresting impressionistic quality, and a slow motion shot of a young Latin American girl in a frilly dress walking past a bullet riddled wall with “Long Live Guerrilla War” scribbled in graffiti will leave viewers haunted and breathless. On its initial release, Powaqqatsi did not receive the universal acclaim of Koyannisqatsi, but viewed with today’s eyes it is a work of mystical prescience. In the 25 years hence, its fevered denunciation of the global economy rings with a despairing truth.

Naqoyqatsi (2002), in essence “War as a Way of Life”, rounds out the trilogy and serves as a powerful and disturbing coda. Working mainly with stock footage and computer manipulated imagery, Reggio casts daggers into the heart of the digital age and its rampant depersonalization. Virtually no ill of the new century is left unscathed, as Reggio cleverly tackles the medical industry, athletes on steroids, relentless advertising and the venal alliances of our politicians, to name a few. In his most potent metaphor, Reggio uses old footage of crash test dummies to draw a staggering equation to victims of terror, leaving a nightmarish aftertaste. In support is Glass’ lushly orchestrated score, featuring cello lines from Yo-Yo Ma that seem dispatched from another world.

Constructed in three acts, Naqoyqatsi’s final stanza draws Reggio’s two decades of observations to their logical, and devastating, conclusion. As the dogs of war unleash weapons of ever greater destruction, history’s great works of art liquify and literally melt into each other, as a culture races unabated to its self-inflicted annihilation. As skydivers flirt with death in a search for cheap thrills, the universe reclaims its besotted and ruined celestial offspring, leaving only a field of star dust where a great society once stood. And we are back to where Koyannisqatsi began, with weathered petroglyphs as mute witness to man’s perfidious folly.

This reviewer first encountered Koyannisqatsi in the mid-1980s. when a local art house ran it as a double feature with Liquid Sky, Slava Tsukerman’s funky, punky, sci-fi exercise in bad taste from 1982. It didn’t seem an odd pairing at the time as each film dealt with worlds facing self-destruction due to uncontrollable appetites. Truth be told, I loved both films, but while history has relegated Tsukerman’s movie to cultish obscurity, Reggio’s existential epics remain relevant and influential, both aesthetically and politically. As Criterion’s release of The Qatsi Trilogy makes clear, Godfrey Reggio is a visionary who sought to use the unique strengths of cinema to present his powerful prophecy of a dire and dissolute future; an objective usually reserved for political broadsides and think tank white papers. Not only was he artistically successful, unfortunately it appears he was right.

Monday, September 26, 2016

'Round Midnight Turns 30

Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight is a densely atmospheric tribute to the American jazz musicians who fled second-class citizen status in favor of the enthusiastic and adoring audiences of Europe. While a fictional work, the film features many real life musicians portraying thinly disguised versions of themselves; avoiding the sanitized artifice that plagues so many films about jazz. Tavernier does not ask us to accept Sal Mineo as Gene Krupa or regal Diana Ross as used-and-abused Billie Holiday. The expat musicians here huddled in a seedy Paris hotel are played by real life jazz stars; names like Herbie Hancock and John McLaughlin. And what they may lack in dramatic polish is more than made up by a convincing off-center sensibility. Jazz musicians live in a deeply introspective world, and the character interactions in this film quietly sizzle with just the right touch of awkwardness.

In a squalid New York hotel room, Dale Turner, an aging saxophonist, says goodbye to his dying musical mentor Hershel (Hart Leroy Bibbs) and departs for Paris, where there is still a growing audience for bebop. Turner is played by Dexter Gordon, a real life tenor sax great and Grammy winning recording artist. Art often imitates life in this film and Gordon made a similar exodus during his own career, spending much of the 1960s based in Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

The hulking Gordon consumes the role – there is no other word for it – with the same improvisational verve found in his sax solos. He delivers his lines of dialogue with long, loopy pauses peppered by occasional bursts of verbal 16th notes. He affects the gravelly voice of the classic burn-out; a life lived on a steady diet of whisky, heroine and Gitanes. Gordon’s vocal tonality here is reminiscent of the impossibly low, hair-raising notes he often achieved on his tenor sax – notes previously thought beyond the instrument’s capability and a hallmark of his best recordings.

Once in Paris, Turner becomes a virtual ward of Buttercup (an outstanding performance by Sandra Reeves-Phillips), a sort of potty mouthed version of Mother Teresa for wayward musicians. Buttercup leases out hotel rooms to expat jazzmen and keeps them fed, punctual for club dates and, most important of all, off the junk. Turner spends his evenings performing at the Blue Note, a smoky, low ceilinged hipster warren. There Turner regains and refines his improvisational chops, while the bar’s crusty proprietor (the great John Berry) keeps an eagle eye on Turner’s glass, insuring that nothing stronger than Perrier finds its way in.

Production designer Alexander Trauner and set builder Phillipe Turlure do outstanding work here recreating the small club and the adjacent side street. The rhombus layout of Paris lends itself to convincing and playful exterior sets, but here the men show admirable restraint. They resist the temptation to lard the tableau with neon signs and traffic, offering instead a placid neighborhood of second tier watering holes and bakeries; exactly the kind of low profile venue a wounded spirit would go to regroup.

As Turner’s audiences steadily grow, his performances attract a struggling young illustrator named Francis (Francois Cluzet), who huddles by a basement window, happy to absorb the music for just a few muffled minutes. Francis’s flighty wife (Christine Pascal) has deserted him and their 12 year old daughter (Gabrielle Haker), and the financial strain has made an evening at a jazz club an unthinkable luxury. One night between sets, Francis works up the courage to approach this god of the saxophone, who gravelly asks, “Hey man, can you buy me a beer?” Francis eventually realizes that this is not the indomitable Dale Turner he grew up idolizing, but a penniless, desiccated husk whose talent has gone to seed.

As an unlikely friendship develops between these two lost souls, Tavernier elects to present without a shred of sentimentality. And there’s ample opportunity, for Francis soon experiences the many worries and frustrations wrought by a personal relationship with the self-destructive. But these two men, utterly dissimilar and from different sides of the world, manage to find their missing qualities in each other. Francis puts aside his self pity and rediscovers the inspiration to pursue his artistic career, while Dale realizes that musical exploration need not be a fearful and lonely endeavor.

But there are no climactic, cathartic moments where all is made right and the principals find themselves on the fast track to success. Tavernier is too smart for that and, fortunately, he knows his audience is as well. The creative life, while full of exhilaration and despair, is above all a long tough slog. Eventually Dale will seek to return to the scene of his former glory and, in the process, his new found strength will be severely tested. And this time, the stakes are a lot higher for the saxophonist than merely his musical reputation.

But the trials of Dale Turner serve only as a narrative background wash, for ‘Round Midnight is really a film more about music than musicians. There are a number of wonderful performances here, and Tavernier integrates them so seamlessly the film avoids any sense of being a biography occasionally interrupted by music. From the opening strains of “As Time Goes By”, it should be clear to audiences that these extrapolations by Turner are the last remaining links to his dissolute past.

Dexter Gordon’s solo technique heavily exploited intentional lateness – he was always slightly behind the beat – but the result is an exciting expansion of the melody; making familiar tunes refreshing and new. This musical reimaging was the stock-in-trade of bebop; its practitioners were to jazz what the impressionists were to painting. And while the film alludes to critical favorites like Charlie Parker and Lester Young, no one was better at it than Dexter Gordon.

This film was made 25 years ago, and Dexter Gordon has been dead and buried for 20 of them. Whether anyone will even be playing bebop 25 years from now is an open question. Sadly, I suspect the answer is no. But if some future musician should attempt a revival of this uniquely American style, it will probably be a result of seeing this film. ‘Round Midnight is unquestionably the greatest film ever made about jazz. I submit it’s also the greatest film ever made about music, and the frail human souls who create it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Big Night Turns 20

Big Night (1996) is a fun and fabulous film for foodies. In fact, you’ll probably gain a pound or two just watching it. It’s all about a struggling Italian restaurant at the Jersey shore during the free-wheeling, optimistic days of the 1950s. At this humble trattoria, two immigrant brothers: Primo (Stanley Tucci) and Secondo (Tony Shalhoub), offer an array of exotic and authentic recipes from their native Italy. Actually, the fare is a little too authentic for this working class neighborhood, as the brothers find their customers would prefer familiar pizza and spaghetti. With their clientele staying away in droves, the brothers decide to risk it all by throwing a ruinously elaborate dinner party for bandleader Louis Prima, who is performing in the area. What transpires will be an unforgettable night with ancient scores settled, secret perfidies revealed, old romances rekindled and new loves blossoming, all while chowing down on an eye-popping, belt-busting bacchanal for the ages.

If Big Night doesn’t feel like the typical focus grouped, dramaturged to death Hollywood feature, that’s because it isn’t. Filmed on a low budget over 32 days, the movie was a labor of love; intended by writer and co-director Tucci as an homage to his childhood. Many of the dishes in the film were actually prepared by Tucci’s mother Joan, using old family recipes from Calabria. The film was also a boon to Tucci’s acting career. He had gotten pigeonholed as a cruel gangster drug dealer type, and Primo’s sincere, lovably neurotic character showed a new range in his persona. He and Shalhoub have an impressive comedic chemistry, born of years of experience. Shalhoub’s superb timing was hardly a surprise - he was a regular on the NBC sitcom Wings (1991-1997) - but here he proved himself capable of stepping out of the supporting actor shadows, and carrying a film on his back.

For all its astonishing culinary fireworks, Big Night is actually a film of small moments, played to perfection. The scene where the brothers discuss replacing the seafood risotto on their menu with a hot dog never fails to get a big laugh. Another memorable moment occurs when Shalhoub describes to his would-be girlfriend (Alison Janney) a lasagna so good he wanted to kill himself. Not only is the scene hilarious, it’s a classic example of the wide gulf between Latin and Anglo-Saxon temperaments. But it’s the film’s final three minutes that - like a slice of Secondo’s ultra rich timpano - will stay with you a long time. Filmed in one take, Tucci makes fried eggs for the exhausted, and mightily hung-over, restaurant staff. Though nary a word is spoken, we know that somehow, despite their depleted savings, despite their dwindling prospects, despite their family squabbles, the brothers will find a way to venture on; their bonds of love unbreakable.


Monday, September 12, 2016

The Battle of Algiers Turns 50

Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) has the look and feel of a distant time and place, yet it depicts harrowing events that could have been torn from today’s headlines. It’s the story of the early days of Algeria’s struggle for independence from France, and the deep seated anger and resentment that simmered within the city’s muslim population against their French occupiers. When a group of disaffected young men led by Ali (Brahim Hadjadj) begin a series of random shootings of police officers, their campaign of terror rapidly escalates to well-planned bombings of crowded cafes and government offices. Eventually, a highly decorated French colonel with a reputation for ruthlessness (Jean Martin) is brought in the quell the violence, and all hell breaks loose.

Filmed in stark tones of black and white, The Battle of Algiers offers the viewer a stunning, immersive experience. In the sequence that ends act two, the terrorists decide to execute a ghoulish series of simultaneous bombings. As we see their meticulous planning and perfidy, nail biting tension builds to nearly unbearable levels. But Pontecorvo is careful to be even-handed in his presentation, and we see that both the police and the rebels are capable of despicable acts leading to the slaughter of innocents. The film was screened at the Pentagon by the Iraq War braintrust in 2003 as an illustration of how to put down a civilian rebellion. Its lessons may have been learned too well, as the film’s graphic depiction of torture techniques - including waterboarding - soon became standard practice for the American occupation. The other side may have been inspired by the film as well, as the recent truck bombing in Nice looks a lot like an attack in the film’s closing minutes.

In an interview in Rolling Stone in 1975, Marlon Brando described Gillo Pontecorvo as “the best director I ever worked with,” (the pair had teamed on “Burn!” in 1969) placing the filmmaker in heady company. The Battle of Algiers is rife with beautifully constructed sequences that rank with the very best thrillers, stirring deep wells of suspense and dread within the viewer. It is a film that will leave you emotionally exhausted, not only from the violent struggle on screen, but from the realization that the conflict between Islam and Christendom has made so little progress over the last 50 years. In fact, it’s only gotten worse.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Jean de Florette Turns 30

Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette is part one of a sprawling Shakespearean-style tragedy; a multi-generational tale of parched, flinty soils and equally barren human souls. Set in the blinding sunlight of Provence circa 1920, it’s the story of the last surviving members of the Sobeyran family (Yves Montand, Daniel Auteuil), a once flourishing clan laid low by decades of petty squabbles and shady dealings. To rescue the Soybeyran name from its death rattles, Montand and Auteuil devise a scheme to virtually steal a neighboring farm rumored to have a hidden spring, thus providing an endless supply of water for their lucrative cut flower enterprise.

A wrench is thrown in their plan when the land is inherited by a hunchbacked Parisian accountant (Gerard Depardieu) with designs on building a life there with his family. Their foul machinations threatened, Montand and Auteuil resort to vandalism and sabotage to ensure the naive Depardieu’s failure. But in pursuing their cruel strategy, the smirking Soybeyrans unwittingly seal their own disastrous fate, opening a Pandora’s Box that will eventually unleash upon them a ruthless justice of recrimination, regret and abject misery.

The film works both as an engrossing rural melodrama, and as a tactile evocation of time and place. Cameraman Bruno Nuytten’s glowing frames are filled with the rocky cliffs, dusty trails and azure skies of the Vaucluse district. It’s a landscape as beautiful as it is unforgiving, and those who attempt to scratch out a living from its hardscrabble wastes must fight and conquer the hostilities of nature. But equally harsh is the bedrock of arrogance and narcissism that lies just below the surface of the Soybeyrans. Berri cleverly makes the family’s odious history visually manifest in Auteuil’s gap-toothed, squinty-eyed portrayal of the appropriately named Ugolin. Looking like a French peasant version of Alfred E. Newman, this role made Auteuil an international star; his embodiment so convincing audiences were shocked to later learn that off screen he was actually a handsome fellow.

But this is truly Gerard Depardieu’s movie. His energetic capture of the urban innocent with dreams of a simple life in the country still rings true today. His attempt to learn farming from musty textbooks is a classic miscalculation that initially amuses, then turns dangerous and deadly as his fruitless toil damages his body and psyche. Depardieu dominates his scenes, emitting a foolhardy passion that seems to jump from the screen. And as we will learn in the sequel Manon of the Spring (1986), underneath Depardieu’s infantile enthusiasm lies an arrogant streak of his own, and he comes by it honestly.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Notorious Turns 70

Those looking to curl up with a sleek and stylish thriller could do a lot worse than Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious from 1946. Now celebrating its 70th birthday, Notorious is an engrossing and - at 101 minutes - efficient piece of moviemaking that artfully avoids spelling out every iota of backstory; often substituting mood and nuance for conventional plotting. It’s a film that feels very modern, despite its shaggy vintage, and incorporates enough noir elements to remain true to its lineage, while charting a narrative course for the legions of spy flicks that followed.

Written by the legendary script doctor Ben Hecht – winner of the first ever screenwritng Oscar for Underworld in 1927 - Notorious is as lean and spare as a haiku. Through just a few laser focused scenes, Hecht and Hitchcock establish their characters’ histories, tendencies and motivations without a single wasted word or gesture. The sprawling plot will involve complex schemes with international implications, yet not a moment feels false, rushed or over simplified. The story gives us only the necessary and savory tidbits, perfectly reduced to the elemental, and Hitchcock commits nary a fumble in its deceptively simple execution.

Set in Miami, Notorious is all about Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, who has decided that oblivion drinking and easy virtue are fine methods of forgetting her troubles. During a sloppy party one night at her beachbox bungalow she meets a handsome friend-of-a-friend named Devlin (Cary Grant) and, several bottles later, Alicia finds herself reeling, both from lust and too much wine. But Devlin has designs greater than a quick roll in the hay. His employer, a nameless U.S. spy agency, has determined that Alicia has the perfect resume for a secret mission to save the world from nuclear destruction, and it’s Devlin’s job to transform this hollow-legged floozy into a competent spook.

Notorious features a cast of such stalwart talents its reductive story takes on larger and richer dimensions. Claude Rains is fun to watch as an architect of evil undone by his own mushy lapses, and makes a superb foil for Grant. The great Louis Calhern, as Devlin’s boss Prescott, reprises his sleazy diplomat role from Duck Soup - and a dozen other pictures – and it’s a joy to watch this consummate character actor ply his craft. Bergman’s apparent effortlessness is impressive, and few leading ladies could pull off her transformation from Florida party girl to reserved hausfrau as convincingly. And Grant, despite the gravity of his role, glides through with his patented elegance and beguiling sense of imminent wit.

In the Hitchcock filmography, Spellbound precedes Notorious by a year, but the stylistic differences between the films seems like decades. Spellbound, a Selznick production, feels stogy and stagebound, its sets clunky and overdecorated; brimming with an insecure person’s idea of good taste. Notorious, produced by Hitchcock himself, feels fresh and contemporary and it’s a fitting battlefield for this tale of entrenched European privilege versus the ideals of a New World. While Spellbound wallowed in shadowy plot contrivances, Notorious attacks its narrative with straightforward, determined vigor. Here, Hitchcock tells a tight, muscular story in a tight, muscular style, and provides both a model and a standard for countless Cold War spy thrillers still to come.