As a married man, I feel an obligation to my wife to be cautious about the films I watch, especially those with nude scenes. This presents a tricky dilemma because I am a card-carrying film snob, and my taste in movies favors arthouse dramas – most of which include nude scenes which serve no discernable purpose to plot or character. So when I see the newest film by my favorite directors, I have no other option than to do some research before I view it, which means I have to read what happens. Thus, I begin a series in which I explore films that are enhanced by their lack of nudity, films that are hindered by pointless nudity, and the very rare examples of films with necessary nudity.
Considering that many classic films were improved by the MPAA guidelines against nudity and how many modern films are ruined by pointless nude scenes, I’ll begin my series with Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorius.
Agent Devlin (Cary Grant) is a government spy who’s been sent to recruit a former Nazi’s disgraced daughter, Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), who is notorious for fast living. They fall deeply in love, but their affair is interrupted by her assignment, which involves marrying a Nazi sympathizer, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains). Throughout the assignment, Bergman constantly affirms her devotion to Devlin, but her success as a spy only drives Devlin more and more jealous. The story never acknowledges their consummation of the marriage or further marital intimacies, which surely would have been essential to her success. The audience knows only what Devlin knows, so we share his suspicions, and this is what elevates the film from good to extraordinary.
I submit that many modern directors would ruin the brilliant tension in the film. A love scene between Devlin and Alicia would make her unconvincing to us as a spy because the audience would only be able to picture her and Devlin together – although they share one of cinema’s most memorable kisses. A love scene between the undercover Alicia and her husband would make the audience struggle to forgive her betrayal of Devlin. If the film contained both of these scenarios, the audience would detach from Devlin because we know what he doesn’t.
Hitchcock is notorious as the undisputed Master of Suspense, and understood that the success of this film, as in his many other films, rested in his ability to connect his audience to the lead character as the plot unfolds for both of us. In Notorious, he accomplishes the same brilliant tension as in his classic Psycho and Rear Window, in which he envelopes the audience in the protagonist’s journey.