Although perhaps not as well-remembered as Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, or Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious is one of his more brilliant and intellectual films, presaging the director’s immediately recognizable visual style that would flourish in the 1950s. Interestingly, it is also one of the earlier films in which Hitch employs a romance as bait to lure audiences in with his characteristic irony.
The intricate plot involving a group of ruthless Nazis ensconced in a South American hideout revolves around the love-affair melodrama between its leads, T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant), an American special agent, and Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the daughter of a notorious convicted Nazi who’s hired to spy on one of the leading henchmen of the operation, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), by worming her way into his affections and, ultimately, marrying him. In this way, the relationship between Huberman and Sebastian strikingly resembles that between Eve Kendall and Vandamm in the later North by Northwest (1959); both films feature strong female protagonists torn between amorous desires and responsibility to a higher power (in both cases, the U.S. government).
Throughout Notorious, Grant speaks with his usual breezy urbanity combined with a sarcastically quipping tongue, while Bergman, despite her somewhat mannish physique and role as a staunch heroine, conveys the hint of feminine love-lost tragedy audiences had come to expect since her most celebrated role as Ilsa Lund in Casablanca, another film in which Nazi scheming is a major plot focus.
As Sebastian, Rains (who interestingly also played a notable role in Casablanca as an unscrupulous pawn of the Vichy regime) becomes one of Hitchcock’s most memorable villains—suave and simpatico, he’s reminiscent of Stephen Fisher, a Nazi sympathizer from the director’s earlier film Foreign Correspondent. More sinister is Sebastian’s mother, Anna (Leopoldine Konstantin), pure spidery evil in female form (there was certainly no love lost between Hitchcock and old bags). Suspecting Alicia of teachery from the start, she ultimately spins a sticky web of counter-deceit for the dissembling young bride but fails to fully insert her poisonous fangs.
The pall that draws over Alicia’s eyes after she drinks the poisoned coffee served by the mother-son duo is one of the film’s strongest visual images. Staggering and falling to the ground, all she sees of her two adversaries is their shadowy forms as a mist gradually envelops her gaze. Loss of consciousness, in both its literal and figurative senses, is one of the film’s recurring motifs. In one of the earliest scenes, an inebriated Alicia (alcohol, after all, is a poison) awakes to find Devlin towering over her as she lies in bed with a terrible hangover, the camera rotating and turning upside down to follow her perspective. Such shots as these would seem to mean more, within the film’s context, than mere visual showmanship. Whether drunk, poisoned, or sober, Alicia is trudging through existence as a sort of zombie responding to the whims and actions of others. Her father was a war criminal; she drinks to forget that. She loves Devlin but her duty compels her to sleep with someone she loathes. She functions, in other words, as one who is continually unconscious, one whose free will is under the influence.
And despite supposedly loving her so passionately, Devlin’s catty insinuations, ill-befitting the professionalism one might associate with special agents, never lets up for a second. Not that we want it to, because Grant’s lithe wordplay is one of the chief strengths of the sharply written screenplay. He barrages Alicia with ironic insults about her relationship with Sebastian that penetrate her thin lover’s skin like a mosquito’s proboscis. Devlin could be seen as operating as a mouthpiece for Hitchcock’s wry view of women. Perhaps these lines sum it up best: “A man doesn’t tell a woman what to do; she tells herself. You almost had me believing in that little hokey-pokey miracle of yours, that a woman like you could change her spots.” As usual with Hitchcock, though, the irony is delightful, the remarks serving as evidence of gender and professional role reversal. Devlin has become the jilted-feeling bitchy female, using snide witticisms as his weapon to verbally abuse a woman of honor shouldering the full responsibility of the espionage operation. Certainly the leader of the operation, Captain Prescott (Louis Calhern), can’t claim to be helping matters any, unless bloviating and wolfing down a sandwich count as such.
Albeit dialogue is probably a secondary concern for Hitchcock anyway. In Notorious, so much of the plot is revealed through the motion of the camera, particularly tracking shots of various items, notably a wine bottle containing uranium deposits and a key to the cellar where the bottles are housed (an excellent example of Hitchcock’s use of MacGuffin, a term he coined to refer to plot elements that keep viewers engaged but that aren’t essential to the story). In a marvelous use of close-up, we pursue Sebastian’s jealous eyes until they alight on Devlin and Alicia conversing at a party thrown at the Nazi mansion. As they scheme together about discovering the secrets confined in the wine cellar, their glances periodically shoot back to assess the awareness of their host. Few directors can so expertly capture psychology and thoughts through images and facial expressions alone (though Bergman comes to mind as one who would be at least a match for Hitchcock in this respect).
Such suspensefully emotion-manipulating scenes as these are sure to keep spectators on the edge of their chairs until the denouement. Alas, as with so many Hitchcock films, the ending will seem to come too abruptly and too soon. No matter. A wolverine keeps coming back to the caribou carcass it scavenges and stashes away, and so audiences will keep coming back for multiple viewings of Notorious to flesh out and ponder its details for decades to come.
Joe’s Grade: A+