Movies We Like
The massive career of Alfred Hitchcock can be broken down into three sections. There’s his early British career (that includes both silent films and talkies) that ends with Jamaica Inn in 1939. Then there’s the first half of his American period; he crossed the ocean and found instant success with Rebecca and continued to hone his craft and try out different genres during the 1940s and early ‘50s. And then finally there’s his most celebrated period beginning around ’54 with Rear Window and Dial M for Murder, where the name Hitchcock became a brand and most of his films were events in themselves. Of that middle period, besides Rebecca there are a number of celebrated and still admired flicks including Spellbound, Shadow of a Doubt, and Strangers on a Train. But one film that really stands out, less flashy than the others but more emotionally devastating, is Notorious. On paper it’s an espionage thriller, but it’s actually one of the great heartbreaking love stories of the era.
Just after WWII, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the party girl daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, is recruited by an American Intelligence agent, T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant), to prove her love to the red, white, & blue by infiltrating a group of Nazis who are hanging out in Brazil, planning a little postwar revenge against the USA. Things get complicated when, while waiting for the job to start, the two beautiful people fall in love. When the details arrive, it’s ugly; she has to go seduce an older ex-boyfriend, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), and find out what he and his cronies have in mind. She desperately wants Devlin to stand by and trust her; but though he does genuinely love her, he’s too cool to put down his guard and too professional to stop his bosses from deploying her. Still hoping to end up with Devlin, the dutiful Alicia takes the job and seduces Sebastian so well that he asks her to marry him, even while knowing she may be setting him up. It’s a love triangle, but in a twisted kind of knot that only Hitchcock could devise.
Out of devotion to Devlin, and to prove she will do whatever is necessary, she follows through and marries Sebastian; but to her disappointment, it only garners a shrug from Devlin. She is forced to continue through with her ruse as she tries to find some evidence of wrongdoing from Sebastian. This leads to the film’s big set-piece as she and Devlin race against time during a dinner party that Sebastian throws, dealing with a key and a wine bottle full of uranium, which tips of Sebastian that he has been duped by her. Eventually, to cover his missteps from his Nazi buds, he and his shrewish mother, Madame Anna (a brilliant little performance by Leopoldine Konstantin), decide to kill Alicia off with a slow poisoning. Realizing she’s dying forces Devlin to either act to save his true love while blowing their cover or to lose her forever.
Besides the famously thrilling wine bottle and key scene (which included a super cool, long crane shot) the other most celebrated moment is a very erotic kiss between the two lovebirds. It’s one long take and to get around Production Code censor rules (regarding the length of onscreen lip locks) the stars stop kissing but keep embracing and then go back to kissing. The camera stays with them as they walk away, still almost cheek to cheek. Simple and almost innocent compared to today’s standards, but the passion between them is felt and with nothing graphic shown the deeply passionate sexual nature of their relationship is expressed perfectly. Again and again throughout Hitchcock’s career he was able to show today’s audience that sometimes less is more.
For the three main characters Notorious is one big torture fest. Alicia and Devlin are deeply in love but to prove that love Alicia must first seduce and then even marry another man, while Devlin is forced to spy on them. And then poor Sebastian, who proves that even a Nazi swine can have a heart; the guy is gaga for Alicia (and who can blame him, this may be Bergman at her most beautiful). Though he knows she’s playing him he still can’t help himself, and the underrated Rains is so good he brings a lot of complexity and even sympathy to Sebastian that may not have been there on the page. Like some kind of giant battering ram the three characters keep taking their whacks over the head but keep coming back for more, out of love.
For the Swedish-born Bergman, fresh after playing Ilsa, another love starved victim with Nazis breathing on her in the three-way love triangle Casablanca, and then winning an Oscar playing the victim of a cruel husband in Gaslight, she had the 1940s market cornered for playing fragile beauties with possible ulterior motives. After excelling with Hitchcock earlier as a charmer in Suspicion, here Grant really steps out of his comfort zone; though Devlin requires Grant’s naturally sleek good looks, for an actor known for light comedy, there is not a whiff of wit in Devlin, a name that actually conjures visions of the devil. Along with a strong dramatic turn in None but the Lonely Heart, this may be Grant’s best straight dramatic turn; here he has no sly wink to fall back on as he would in his later work with Hitchcock (To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest). The other superstar of his generation employed in Notorious is screenwriter Ben Hecht; after the success of his play The Front Page (made into numerous films including His Girl Friday) he’s remembered as both the number-one script doctor, after uncredited rewrites of films ranging from Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and Rope to Gone with the Wind and the original The Thing From Another Planet. But besides Notorious he’s best remembered for his gangster classics Scarface and Kiss of Death (of course, the original versions of those remade flicks as well). The guy could write anything and no matter what genre, he always brought complicated layers to the characters, Notorious being perhaps his most complicated.
For such a chilly film, Notorious is surprisingly beloved. With so many classics it’s hard to pick a Hitchcock favorite, but many have argued Notorious. It’s certainly up there with Saboteur as one of his best WWII espionage flicks. And it’s up there with maybe his greatest masterpiece, Vertigo, as a wrenching, doomed love story (though unlike Vertigo, in the end the characters of Notorious find a way out of the inevitable doom). The film may be dark and often sad, but the big set-piece and the tense passion between the characters make it more than entertaining. Shot in black and white, with questionable international mat backgrounds that keep it from popping visually the way the Technicolor Vertigo does, the tight script and powerful performances help it overcome any dated filming techniques. For anyone who has felt a prisoner of their own desire, willing to die to prove their love or worse, watching the person you love sacrifice their body and soul to prove themselves, Notorious is both as romantic and heartbreaking as any film ever made.