Notorious (1946)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Producer: Alfred Hitchcock (RKO, Vanguard)

Writer: Ben Hecht (screenplay)

Photography: Ted Tetzlaff

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Louis Calhern, Leopoldine Konstantin, Reinhold Schunzel, Moroni Olsen, Ivan Triesault, Alex Minotis

Alfred Hitchcock was the best of the best, a shoe-in for MovieMaker Magazine’s Most Influential Director of All Time. So it’s no wonder that Roger Ebert, in selecting his own All Time Top 10, would include a Hitchcock film. Contrary to what you might expect, it was not Psycho (1960). Nor was it Vertigo (1958), Rear Window (1954), North By Northwest (1959), Frenzy (1972), Rebecca (1940), or The Birds (1963). No, for Ebert it was Notorious, the very same film that Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osbourne calls his favorite Hitchcock.

What is it about the magic of this film? Is it because it’s the first time Hitch realized the benefit of major stars, bringing us the Oscar-nominated support of Claude Rains and the dream pairing of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman? Is it because it’s the first time Hitch discovered the benefit of great dialogue, thanks to an Oscar-nominated script by Ben Hecht? Or is it because it marks the moment Hitchcock began financing his own pictures for the rest of his career? I say it’s all these at once, a perfect storm for Hitchcock’s first major masterpiece, building off his work in The 39 Steps (1939), Rebecca (1940) and his personal favorite, Shadow of a Doubt (1942), to assemble his first major flourish of auteur iconography (those elements which we recognize as undeniably Hitchcock).

Alicia Huberman (Bergman) is the expatriate daughter of a convicted German spy, perhaps the source of a personal complex that drives her to live a loose life in Miami at the close of WWII. During one of her parties, she meets T.R. Devlin (Grant), an American agent who persuades her to fly with him to Rio de Janiro and participate in a spy operation against several of her father’s Nazi associates. Their main target: Alex Sebastian (Rains), who used to have a thing for Huberman and is now ripe for her to seduce (and marry) in order to investigate a Nazi stash of nuclear bomb uranium. There’s just one problem: Huberman loves Devlin, and vice versa, though he won’t admit it, creating a collision of love and duty for the two American spies, and, at the film’s climax, within Sebastian himself.

While the elements of Bergman, Raines, a love triangle and hostile Nazi territory recall pieces of Casablanca (1942), Notorious stands as an entirely original work. How edgy is its premise: a heroine sleeping with a man she dislikes in order to win the heart of another man, who’d rather she not sleep with that man! Imagine it in 1946! Hecht, a two-time Oscar winner, was in a league of his own, and Notorious is his only script to make the Writers’ Guilds 101 Greatest Screenplays of All Time.

Crucial to its making the list is the sheer complexity of its characters. You may notice that the only all good or all bad main character is Sebastian’s mother (Leopoldine Konstantin), a preview of Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and, as critic Kim Newman wrote, “the sort of creature Mrs. Bates might have been.” (A) Her poisoning of Huberman — inspiring scenes in both Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Sixth Sense (1999) — paints her as the clear villain, and it seems Alex Sebastian only takes part because he is (a) under her spell, and (b) already been betrayed.

Alex Sebastian is a most fascinating villain, who comes off as oddly likable in spite of his Nazi associations. A little “sympathy for the devil,” so to speak. Perhaps its his uneasy expression at having to whack poor Amiele. Or his sincere love for Alicia, which wins sympathy points with audiences because we know he’s being worked the entire time. Moreover, when he is faced with a heroic decision at the end, he chooses right and becomes a tragic figure in that rare final moment when we kind of feel bad for the villain (thanks to that creepy low-angle final shot).

What tricky devils, Hitch and Hecht, giving us this Sebastian who for much of the film treats the heroine better than the hero! Indeed, Devlin is quite the jerk. Not only does he physically strike Alicia in the beginning, he emotionall strikes her throughout. He’s the kind of protagonist who steals the “antagonize” from the antagonist, hitting Alicia nonstop with hurtful remarks. As she says, “Below the belt, everytime.” The guy’s clearly in love with her, but he cannot see through his first impression of her, as this “notorious” playgirl with no hope of changing. But this is why I love Devlin, not as a guy but as a character, because he’s tailor made for character growth, thus elevating Notorious beyond the usual character constructs.

The actors must’ve been thrilled to find a script with such character depth, though the casting credit belongs to David O. Selznick, who assembled the film’s pieces before turning it over to Hitchcock. For Grant, the film was a chance to play a darker role, breaking from his comedic parts in She Done Him Wrong (1933), The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), The Philadelphia Story (1940) and, to an extent, Gunga Din (1939). For Rains, it meant the last of four Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor, following Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Casablanca (1942) and Mr. Skeffington (1944).

As for Bergman, she was right at home alongside Hitch and Hecht, with whom she had worked in Spellbound (1945). The film would also give her a lifelong friend in Grant, whom she would ask to accept on her behalf her second Oscar for Anastasia (1956). It’s a shame one of those Oscars didn’t come for Notorious, as the film may very well be her greatest performance. Not only does she bear the weight of the entire film, she nails a deeply complex role, one where she must define her patriotism and love through promiscuity, all the while battling an alcoholic psaedo-masichism, asking Devlin to believe she’s a new woman only moments before taking another sip. What would Notorious be without Bergman’s pained reactions to Grant’s verbal barbs?

And here’s where Hitchcock’s genius comes in. Note the way he cuts to a close-up of Alicia’s face each time Devlin insults her. It’s the same way he handles Jimmy Stewart’s hurtful comments to Grace Kelly in Rear Window (1954). Subtle sympathy at its best. At the same time, note the way he uses a subjective profile shot at the race track, from Alicia’s POV seeing only the side of Devlin’s face. How better to show his disgust at her, this wall he’s putting up? Casual viewers may not overtly notice such things, but subconsciously these director’s cues are directing our feelings toward the characters and signifying the characters’ feelings toward one another.

The subtext in this film is magnificent. Hitchcock shows why he is one of the absolute best at signifying stuff going on beneath the surface, at working the audience, even when they don’t know they’re being worked. Take for instance the scene when Alicia announces to Devlin and his fellow agents that Sebastian wants her to marry him. The body language and facial expressions are both brilliant acting and powerful director manipulation, having us screaming at the screen, “Just tell her you love her!” In a way it’s another spin on the classic Hitchcock suspense tool, recited in so many film courses — you show the bomb on the bus, but you don’t let any of the passengers know about it. In other words, you let the audience in on the secret, while the characters are doomed to follow the script. The result is pleasantly excruciating.

No film uses this technique more blatantly or more often than Notorious, where audiences are asked repeatedly to follow physical objects while all or some of the on-screen characters are oblivious to their importance. Consider the zoom from an extreme high angle from mansion ceiling down onto the key in Alicia’s hand — the ultimate example of personified camera, when the camera becomes a curious participant in the action. The way Hitch turns an affectionate hand clasp into a suspense moment with nothing more than a key. The genius device of the dwindling bottles in the champagne tub, a symbol of the characters’ time restraints. The similar use of Alicia turning down an offer from a drink waiter — both her vice and her duty. The pacing of the wine cellar sequence having our stomach in knots, thanks to closeups on various bottles that make us gasp. The prominance of the poisoned coffee cup, actually constructed as a four-foot cup to achieve the look of it being larger than Alicia’s head. And the personified camera moving from mother to coffee cup to Alicia, its symbolism obvious.

These personified camera shots are icons throughout Hitchcock’s work and form part of the foundation of the auteur theory. Notorious at times seems a textbook for study in this theory, with Sebastian’s mansion providing an orgy of Hitchcock icons. In it we get cross-tracking (two alternating shots, one regular, one POV, each with a moving camera); the extreme high angle shot (coming at a turning point); the checkerboard floor (a ground for conflict); staircases (as transitional grounds between safety and danger); and a double image of Rains in a mirror as he struggles with a moral decision. Then, of course, there’s Hitchcock’s biggest trademark, if not a directorial icon, then certainly a story fixture, the MacGuffin — that word Hitch invented to describe that thing which characters worry about but which viewers don’t care about. In Notorious we get Hitchcock’s archetypal MacGuffin — that curious uranium ore, which drives the entire plot but is nothing more than a superfluous detail in the overall picture. Watch how it’s mentioned only in passing in the film’s climax, the uranium taking a backseat to the real subject of the film — the relationship between Alicia and Devlin.

The relationship is all one-sided at the start. When we first see Devlin, we see only his back, in silhouette, the entire time Alicia entertains her guests. This over-the-shoulder shot is an oft-cited example for proponents of the “male gaze theory,” the notion that most classic films are told from the male perspective, as they were all made by men. Hitchcock is nothing if not a male gazer of women, and thus Devlin’s cruel, studying eye may say as much about Hitchcock the man as it does Devlin the character. In this way, Hitchcock exorcises his demons through Devlin’s character arc. Or, does he try fighting his impulses by giving Alicia many of the film’s key POV shots? Consider that wonderful POV shot in the beginning when she wakes up hungover, the camera replacing her eyes as Grant walks around the bed to an upsidedown image. Or later when the camera zooms in upon Alex and his mother in Alicia’s moment of horrific realization, before beginning a brilliant woozy series of POVS, where Alex and his mother transform into shadows and the bass chord reverberates on the soundtrack. We are in Alicia’s shoes for much of the film, and her growth is equally important — note how she changes costumes from black and white stripes to solid colors by the end. Still, in the end, it’s Devlin’s decision to make, only he who can save the day by learning the error of his ways. It’s no coincidence that the climax of the film comes the precise moment he finally believes she’s not a drunkard and takes action on her behalf. Insert another fine Hitchcock icon, the camera spinning around the two lovers at the turning point in the relationship, in this point when Devlin finally admits, “I’ve loved you from the beginning.”

You know, if it weren’t for Hitchcock’s genius as a suspense-maker, history might remember him for his love of shameless romance (Notorious is one of three films toi make AFI’s 100 Passions). One can pick through any of his films and focus on the sexual heat — between Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window, Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo, Stewart and Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor in The Birds, Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, Grant and Kelly in To Catch a Thief, hell, even that between Janet Leigh and Tony Perkins in Psycho. Still, no Hitchcock scene is hotter than that exchange between Devlin and Alicia when they first arrive at their beachfront suite in Rio de Jinero. In order to dodge the Production Code, Hitch had Grant and Bergman smooch eachother in fits, while keeping their lips dangerously close in an extended long take, at that point the longest close-up kiss in movie history. (A) Try watching that scene and then maintaining that Hitchcock is only a “master of suspense.” What a misnomer. He was the master of suspense and romance. In short, he was simply The Master.


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