Cary Grant. Ingrid Bergman. Alfred Hitchcock.
Combine any two and you’ll find a good film. Indiscreet (Grant and Bergman). Spellbound (Bergman and Hitch). North by Northwest (Hitch and Grant).
But only in 1946’s Notorious do you get all three.
The title refers to Bergman’s character Alicia Huberman, the cynical daughter of a convicted German traitor with a reputation for hard drinking and easy virtue.
T.R. Devlin (Grant) is a government agent who offers her a job as an American spy who will infiltrate a group of Nazis that once associated with her father.
Neither Devlin nor Alicia know the exact nature of their assignment when they head down to Brazil. While awaiting their instructions, they begin a passionate love affair. Alicia is head over heels, but Devlin is more reserved as he considers her checkered past.
Hitchcock showcases the depth of their passion in one of his most famous scenes, an extended kiss that outsmarted the censors and was all the sexier for its restraint. In 1946, the censors still insisted on putting their fingerprints all over Hollywood’s films. “Scenes of passion” were severely restricted and kisses could not be too long. To get around this, Hitchcock shot Bergman and Grant interrupting their short kisses with conversation. They talk over dinner plans, they touch faces and ears, then stay glued to one another as they cross the room to answer the telephone. They never kiss for more than a few seconds, but Hitch manages a three minute scene that was absolutely sensational for its time and still holds up today.
It is after this scene that Devlin gets his devastating orders—Alicia is to seduce Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), a friend of her father’s and an older man who once lusted after her.
It is here that the cat and mouse game between Alicia and Devlin begins. She wants him to intervene with his superiors, to insist that she is not the kind of woman who would sleep with a man she does not love. Except that before him, she was exactly that kind of woman. Devlin wants her to refuse the assignment to prove her love for him.
There is passion but not yet trust between them, and neither expresses their wish to the other.
Alicia accepts the assignment with resigned stoicism, and the deeper she delves into Sebastian’s inner circle, the more she and Devlin mistrust their love.
Devlin must force the woman he cannot admit he loves into the arms of another man, and Alicia goes because she sees helping America as redemption for her past.
Hitchcock ratchets up the tension when Alicia must steal a key to the wine cellar and pass it off to Devlin during a party so he can search for evidence of a Nazi weapons stockpile.
The plot thickens further still when Sebastian’s mother catches onto Alicia’s deception and begins slowly poisoning her.
Will Devlin rescue her before it’s too late?
It’s a sin to spoil the ending of a Hitchcock film but this one satisfies as much as any he ever made.
Notorious is the most romantic of Hitchcock’s films. Unlike Rebecca, the hero and heroine are on equal terms with one another, and are perfectly matched—or will be, if they can only learn to trust one another in love as well as work.
It’s been a long time since I first watched Notorious in a film studies class in college, and I’d forgotten just how damn good it is. Not an inch of fat to cut, or a single false note. It draws you in from the opening scene and doesn’t let you go until the final credits.
No matter how addicted you are to your smartphone, you won’t even glance at it until Hitchcock releases you from his tale of suspense and romance.
When I wrote about Rebecca, I posited that I was looking forward to the Netflix remake, as I’d long thought that as good as it was, it was ripe for a modern take unshackled from the strictures of the production code.
The Netflix remake was not the movie I wanted, and it made me think that Hitchcock’s films are so good they can’t be bettered.
Who would dare even try?
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.