A to Z of Films Meme (N)

If the movies obeyed the laws of physics, they wouldn’t entertain, and we probably wouldn’t watch them. Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics is a good ‘infotainment’ site that has its own movie physics rating system.

N

Notorious

Beautiful acting, stunning visuals, and a complex, morally intriguing drama make this Hitchcock film a beloved classic.Notorious

The incredibly gorgeous Ingrid Bergman plays Alicia, daughter of a Nazi spy, and a “party girl”. She is recruited by an American intelligence agent Devlin, played by the charismatic Cary Grant, to infiltrate a nest of Nazi collaborators. They are led by Alex, played by Claude Rains, who loves Alicia. The love triangle begins when Alicia falls in love with Devlin.

Unlike many of Hitchcock’s simplistic, monochromatic good and evil characters, Notorious is remarkable for the depth of its characterization. There is a dark side to the suspicious Devlin, who essentially asks the girl to sleep with the enemy, and doesn’t trust her when she loves him. Alex, on the other hand, completely trusts Alicia, and is the victim of a domineering mother. Alicia is caught between patriotism, her real love for Devlin, her pretended love for Alex, and her basic survival instinct – how long can she continue pretending while the danger to her life steadily crosses all limits? We are thus able to sympathize with all the characters in this engaging drama.

The dazzling visuals are a delight. The ‘morning after’ when Devlin suggests his scheme to Alicia, his figure upside down, rotating as she gets up. When Devlin plays the recording proving her patriotism, she moves from shadow to partial light to full light as the recording progresses. The long zoom from an overview of the party room to the key grasped in Alicia’s hand. This is a swooping crane shot that is so effective, that all posters of the movie include a key motif. The marathon kissing scene that while circumventing the 3-second censor restriction becomes one of the most erotic scenes.

The master of suspense also shows how action is not required for suspense. There is virtually no action in the film, and the extremely suspenseful climax does not involve any chase or shoot-out, but Devlin escorting Alicia out of the Nazi stronghold in full view of the spies, who cannot do anything to stop them. (Devlin once walks up the same steps that they descend together, and the number of steps are more when they descend in the climax, prolonging the suspense.)

We should be grateful Producer Selznick did not have his wish to cast Vivien Leigh for Ingrid Bergman’s role, as she is just outstanding as the cynosure of the whole film.

Runner Up

Nayakan

Nayakan (Hero) finds a mention in TIME’s All Time 100 Movies list, which I suspect is a representative entry from mainstream Indian cinema as I believe the list tries to please everyone while not satisfying anyone.

NayakanNayakan is Mani Ratnam’s Godfather-style epic loosely based on a real-life Bombay underworld don. Kamal Haasan delivers a performance of a lifetime, aging convincingly and transitioning smoothly from an angry young man to a powerful, invincible mafia don, to a vulnerable old man.

At the end of the film, when the police are leading Nayakan to the court for trial, his grandson asks him “Are you a good man or a bad man?”, and he replies “I don’t know”. This is the most distinctive element that sets this film miles apart from The Godfather. There is always an underlying thread of questions of morality in the film, and Ratnam handles it well by not eulogizing Nayakan in everything he does. We are shown how he suffers personally because of the maxim violence begets violence, as his wife and son get killed. We see how his daughter becomes estranged from him, and marries a cop who ultimately spearheads his conviction.

The art direction is unbelievable – imagine recreating the slums of Dharavi in a studio in the city of Chennai! The details are so minutely and intricately worked out that one never notices the difference.

There is nothing remarkably new in Nayakan’s view of crime and the underworld, but what elevates the movie is the passionate story-telling that sweeps you into its world. Ratnam’s cinematic energy, most visible in his camerawork, is palpable. The cinematography keeps playing with light and shadow, always to dramatic effect.

Smoothly combining mainstream cinematic elements (for e.g. the sexy dance sequence on the boat), the screenplay does leave you with many unforgettable sequences. The son imitating the don in front of his friends. Nayakan’s anguish at his son’s death – a long sequence with no background music until the end. The sequence of the killing of his wife ending with her fall from the upper storey of their house, while Nayakan is left clinging to her saree in his desperate attempt to save her. And then, he fumbles and the saree too falls down – an unmistakable Kamal Haasan touch. His confrontation and argument with his daughter over violence as an act of revenge against rape, of which she is not aware, while the sidekick is caught in between them. His moral conviction while forcing a doctor to attend to a sick child. This film would not have been as great if it were not for Kamal Haasan, one of India’s greatest actors.

Ilaiyaraaja’s score deserves a special mention in Nayakan – his 400th film. The score provides the perfect backdrop to the entire spectrum of action, romance, adventure, comedy, and tragedy. Notably, all the songs are woven into the screenplay rather than being intrusive ‘must-have’ song and dance numbers. Nayakan’s first meeting with his wife-to-be in a brothel is particularly evocative because of the score. Listen to the background score and view stills from the scene here, to get a glimpse. He is, truly, a Maestro.

Noteworthy Mentions

North by North-West, Hitchcock’s adventure caper with a sequence of memorable scenes that have made this one of the most popular Hitchcock films.

Noriko, one of the most stunning and powerful films I’ve ever seen. Noriko is a child born without arms, but who is extraordinarily dexterous with her feet. The movie is about her struggle to get admission to a school, graduate, pass an employment exam, work at a municipal office, make friends, and to live a normal life as best as she can.

Unfortunately, this movie is not easily available, your best chances of seeing it are at a screening by the Japanese Embassy in your country. They regularly screen Japanese films for international audiences. If you do get an opportunity, I promise that it will be worth your while. The opening and closing sequences of this film will remain with me as long as I live.

Nishant, Shyam Benegal’s classic that was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the ‘76 Cannes.

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7 thoughts on “A to Z of Films Meme (N)

  1. Nayakan is very much on my list, and I wonder if a film with subtitles is available. I like Hitchcock too as long as its not horror. Noriko sounds interesting. You sure have seen a lot of movies!!

  2. Notorious was one of the best Hitchcockian films I have seen. The absolutely thrilling party scene is a great learning experience in understanding how suspense is built step by step..
    Thanks for the information on Noriko…

  3. In fact, I’m looking for Nayakan myself. The subtitled version I have is the one I recorded from TV around 20 years back! Will let you know if I get a copy.

    Yes, you can certainly call me a ‘film buff’!

  4. loved the “N” selections.
    loved the way Hitchcock did that extremely long kiss scene with dialogues thrown in, to bypass censors. great to see a Cary Grant with shades of grey. which, is what i missed in North By North West – he plays Cary Grant 🙂

    Nayakan was a brilliant piece of work – Kamalahassan in, possibly, his best performance. It would have been better but for the obvious hat tips to Godfather. the death of Surya for one, the manner of speaking by nayakan, too much Brando, – for the other. But, i am nitpicking. it was brilliant. loved the scene where he goes to a brothel and lets the girl (his future wife) study maths !!

  5. Thanks, Harini. Yes, the more interesting characterization is what lifted Notorious up above North By North West!

    Yes, I too think this is Hasaan’s best performance, though others like the ending scene in Sadma are (selectively) more evocative. This is an all-round performance that puts him on a pedestal for me. That scene is what I’ve linked to – it’s simply great – the camera work, cinematography, acting, music – all mesh together wonderfully!

  6. You will be surprised, but I saw Notorious half way through and then had to go somewhere and so couldn’t see the end. Will see the entire movie again someday.

    Nayakan is awesome. Kamal Haasan is one of the rare actors in India who takes lots of effort while performing each and every role.

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