Notorious August 27, 2016
fame, despite having worked in the film industry since the 1920s, had only become him 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 fine-tuned visual storyteller were yet to be broadened by Strangers On a Train, Rear Window, and Psycho. His renown as a risk-taker with a thing for aloof blondes was yet to be realized by To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest, Vertigo, and The Birds.
Notorious, released in 1946, was his first serious attempt to tell a love story, his first serious attempt to make his artistic idiosyncrasies central rather than purely complementary, and his first serious attempt to wander around mature themes entrenched in gnarled reality rather than moviedom fantasticality and/or worst-case-scenario hysteria. It kicked off a brief period of interesting but mostly unsuccessful ego-boosts (The Paradine Case, Rope, Under Capricorn), denoted the continuation of his long-standing working relationship with Cary Grant, and was his second time partnering with Ingrid Bergman. But it arguably, most evidently, announced his arrival as cinema’s resident Master of Suspense, no longer just a 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 dodged 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 he originally pledged allegiance to. The group has relocated to Brazil following World War II and have proven to be evasive.
Unknowing as to what Alicia’s assignment will entail, agent T.R. Devlin (Grant) recruits and seduces her. (Only days after their first meeting are he and Alicia necking at her hotel room in Rio de Janeiro.) Once his superiors decide what their best course of action is, though, he finds himself regretting initiating an affair. His boss (Louis Calhern) has proclaimed that the smartest way to insinuate themselves into the Nazi ring is by using Alicia’s feminine wiles. Romance the leader, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), enough and the necessary trust to live in his humble abode will provide easy access to his baleful possessions. 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 the home incessantly. Devlin and Alicia’s relationship is immediately apparent to Sebastian, fueling jealousy and suspicion that threatens to turn lethal.
But gorgeously dangerous Notorious is. Clearly, that’s Hitchcock’s 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), Notorious accommodates his love of playing the audience like a piano, getting a rise out of even the biggest of a cynic 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 to be found in the film, and that’s part of its allure. Bergman and Grant, so tantalizing and commanding, have intoxicating chemistry. They look good dodging hazard (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 shutterbug, admiring their beauty, but he also rises supreme performances out of them. Bergman is a sensual femme made more appealing as a result of her courageousness, her scrappiness, and her emotional fragility; Grant is a charismatic lone wolf who seems to be a precursor to James Bond minus the male chauvinism.
But 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 flaming 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 effervescently elegant but sometimes distortedly surreal.
Notorious is so mouthwateringly designed and presented that it feels like much more than an escapist thriller. 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, but Notorious captures him making the transition from reliable filmmaker to bona fide artiste. A+
1 Hr., 41 Mins.
otorious is a movie of locked doors, hidden agendas, red herrings, smooth-talking evils, secrets, and lies. It is also a movie of bejeweled glamor and posh luster — its presentation is so chic that a sinister quality tip-toes beneath its 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 Alfred Hitchcock, Notorious marked a new beginning. Worldwide