From Stephen J. Whitty Facebook post about Notorious, the 1946 Hitchcock film that he screened yesterday for a class at Montclair State College, but primarily about Leopoldine Konstantin, who played Claude Rains‘ icy, watchful, hawk-like Nazi mom:
“Konstantin had been a great star in early 20th century Europe. She worked for Max Reinhardt, appeared in the original Spring Awakening and the first film version of Lola Montez. Did an American stage tour in 1911. She got married, began a family and got divorced. Hitler came to power. She left for England, and lost her son in the blitz. Eventually she came to America. With her English uncertain and her fame receding, she took a job in a factory.
“Hitchcock, meanwhile, was casting Notorious. Who to play Rains’ domineering mother? Ethel Barrymore was suggested. Mildred Natwick’s name came up. But neither seemed right. Then one of the emigre actors already cast, Reinhold Schuenzel, said, ‘Do you know the perfect actress is already here in Los Angeles? And she needs a job.’
“Watching the film now, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.
“Her best scene comes when Rains tells her that his new wife has betrayed him. First Konstantin sits up in bed. She smiles, slightly — it is so wonderful, isn’t it, to have one’s most evil thoughts about your daughter-in-law confirmed? Then she hears her son explain the details. And, very coolly, she reaches across to her nightstand, pulls a cigarette out of a box, and lights it.
“Six times I’ve hosted this film, and every time the crowd laughs.
“And I think it’s because, in that one moment, as she stabs the cigarette into her mouth tough-guy, Jimmy-Cagney style — Konstantin has told us everything we need to know about her character. She is unromantic. She is resolute. She is a thousand times fiercer than her son, and she will do whatever it takes to protect him. All that in the lighting of a cigarette.
“This is what great actors do. They find the tiniest moment, the smallest action, and they invest it with meaning and metaphor.”