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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
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
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
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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
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.