How Hitchcock Pulled off a Shot for the Ages
About an hour into Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 classic Notorious, a tangled tale of love and espionage set in postwar Rio de Janeiro, comes one of the most celebrated shots the director ever committed to film. During a posh soirée at the home of the wealthy Nazi Sebastian (Claude Rains), whom the undercover Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) has been assigned to seduce, the spy and her handler (Cary Grant) plot to surreptitiously search the host’s suspicious wine cellar. The Master of Suspense conveys the tension of the moment with the kind of flourish that earned him that designation: a crane-mounted camera calmly surveys the party in progress from a perch near the top of a grand staircase, before swooping down through the air to the floor below, all the while pushing in on Alicia, until coming to rest on a close-up of the cellar key in her trembling hand.
In a supplement from our new release of Notorious, award-winning cinematographer—and Hitch devotee—John Bailey (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, The Big Chill) talks about a variety of elements that contribute to the film’s visual style, including the director’s attentiveness to character and his sly use of props. The excerpt above zooms in on the technical challenges of executing the elaborate crane shot featuring the fateful cellar key, which was filmed with one of the non-reflex cameras in use at the time. Due to these devices’ construction, and the discrepancy between what the lens captured and what the operator was able to see through the camera’s side-mounted eyepiece, it was often difficult to ensure that the image, during filming, was framed correctly and in focus—and this was especially true for close-ups and aerial shots, the defining aspects of Hitchcock’s famed foyer descent. Watch to the end of the video for Bailey’s play-by-play analysis of these thirty-plus seconds of virtuosic filmmaking.