Notorious August 27, 2016
1 Hr., 41 Mins.
otorious (1946) is a movie of locked doors, hidden agendas, red herrings, smooth-talking evils, secrets, and lies. It's also a movie of bejeweled glamor and impossible poshness. Its presentation is so chic that a sinister quality waits beneath the opulence, waiting to overtake the champagne-covered calm only to be replaced, like clockwork, by the previously seen grandeur once emotional release comes to an end.
For director Alfred Hitchcock, Notorious marked a new beginning. Worldwide fame, despite having worked in the film industry since the 1920s, had only really become him in the U.S. since the one-two punch of Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent,
both released in 1940. Far off in the future were his outstanding 1950s, characterized by knockout collaborations with Grace Kelly, indulgences in his erotic fixations, and William Castle-level publicity stunts that made him as much of a phenom as a recognizable celebrity. His reputation as technical wizard and genius
visual storyteller were yet to be most iconically broadened by Strangers On a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), and Psycho (1960). His renown as a risk-taker with a thing for aloof blondes was yet to be realized by To Catch a Thief (1955), North by Northwest (1959), Vertigo (1958), The Birds (1963).
Notorious was arguably his first serious attempt to tell a love story, to make his artistic idiosyncrasies central rather than purely complementary. It kicked off a brief period of interesting but mostly unsuccessful ego-boosts (1947's The Paradine Case, 1948's Rope, additional Ingrid Bergman collaboration Under Capricorn, released in 1949), denoted the continuation of his long-standing working relationship with Cary Grant, and was his second time partnering with Bergman.
But it arguably most evidently confirmed his place as cinema’s resident Master of Suspense, not merely a preternaturally gifted and crafty filmmaker but also an artist unnervingly in control of his abilities.
Notorious is additionally among Hitchcock's most accessible films, and is, I think, his sexiest. Building off a pithy screenplay by Ben Hecht, the film stars Bergman as Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a Nazi spy. As a young woman with a mind of her own and an appreciation for the country she’s called home for more than half her life, inheriting her father’s deviousness has evaded her. In a conversation recorded by the feds, Alicia flatly rejects her old man’s invitation to join the party. She’s too loyal to think of betraying her fellow Americans.
Her faithfulness is noted by the government, who, since the man’s execution, has been contemplating different methods to infiltrate the ring of adversaries to which he originally pledged allegiance. The group has relocated to Brazil following World War II and have proven elusive. Unaware of what Alicia’s assignment will entail, agent T.R. Devlin (Grant) recruits then seduces her. (Only days after their first meeting are he and Alicia necking on her hotel-room balcony in Rio de Janeiro.)
Once his superiors decide what the best course of action is, though, Devlin finds himself regretting initiating an affair. His boss (Louis Calhern) thinks the smartest way to insinuate themselves into the Nazi ring is by making use of Alicia’s feminine wiles. Romance the leader, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), enough and the necessary trust to eventually live in his humble abode will provide easy access. A conflict of interest it is — Alicia and Devlin’s spark dwindles after time apart and misunderstandings inflict strife — but it just might work.
Danger lies ahead. Sebastian’s monstrous mother (Leopoldine Konstantin), with whom he appears to have a near incestuous bond, is poised and ready to harm Alicia as soon as they first shake hands. Nazis stroll in and out of Sebastian's home
incessantly. Devlin and Alicia’s relationship is immediately apparent to Sebastian, fueling jealousy and suspicion that threatens to turn lethal.
otorious is gorgeously dangerous — clearly the intended effect. As evidenced by a filmography more beguiled by danger presented with a sense of humor than danger presented with a straight face (though his darkest works are almost always worthier), Hitchcock's Notorious
accommodates his love of playing the audience like a piano, getting a rise out of even the biggest of a skeptic only to turn around with a smile
and a wink and inform one of his paying victims that all in front of them was simply a close call.
There are many moments like this found in the film, and that’s part of the allure. Bergman and Grant, so tantalizing and commanding, have great chemistry. They look good dodging danger (and look good with each other), and we’re more than willing to sprint alongside them as they jump over the obstacles Hecht unceremoniously places in front of them. Hitchcock photographs the pair with the delectation of a cheesecake-model shutterbug, admiring their beauty, but he also evokes supreme performances out of them. The always-effervescent Bergman is made more appealing as a result of her courageousness, scrappiness, emotional fragility; Grant is a charismatic lone wolf who seems a precursor to James Bond minus the louder male chauvinism.
It’s Notorious’s little touches of Hitchcockian regality that make the utmost impression. Notice how Hitch works his way around the Hays Code’s ruling that characters cannot kiss for longer than three seconds by keeping Grant and Bergman, at the height of Alicia and Devlin’s romance, locked in a heated embrace for two and a half minutes, nuzzles and caresses taking the place of a prolonged forbidden French. How the keys that unlock Sebastian’s secret-riddled wine cellar, along with the poisoned cups of tea the latter and his mother deliver to Alicia after they discover her duplicity, become characters themselves. How the dialogue is both nudge-nudge witty and serious. How the cinematography is sometimes fizzily post-card pretty but sometimes distortedly surreal.
Notorious is so mouthwateringly designed and presented that it feels like much more than the escapist thriller it was patently manufactured to be. In a genre that oftentimes runs the risk of being one-note by putting overly familiar characters in overly familiar situations, caring more about a potential thrill than about becoming a potential masterpiece, the film turns the building of excitement, of intrigue, into an art form. Hitchcock would eventually go bigger and broader. Notorious memorably captures him making an unequivocal transition from reliable filmmaker to bona fide artiste. A+