Review: Notorious (1946)

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I never put much stock in a Hitchcock title out of force of habit or lack thereof because he never seemed to. But thinking on Notorious I came to the rather unextraordinary epiphany that it refers to lovely Ingrid Bergman as much as any Nazi, at least from a certain perspective.

In the film, she plays the daughter of a Nazi war criminal who was put on trial and found guilty. She, however, is not implicated in his deeds. Instead, busying herself with having a good time, drinking, dancing, laughing — all the superficial pursuits that can distract her from a post-atomic world. You might even say her reputation precedes her and that provides the framework for how others see Ms. Huberman. Namely, one government agent named Devlin, put on her case and writing her off early on as a certain kind of woman.

There’s that initial shot at one of her parties where all the guests are dancing and drinking and everything’s jovial and there Cary Grant sits on the edge of the frame just his profile identifiable to us. And the beauty of the scene is that Ingrid Bergman starts talking to him but instead of showing us his face Hitchcock elects to wait until everyone is gone and they’re sitting together in the next scene. But already there’s this implicit sense that there’s something unusual about this man even without putting words to it.

In the subsequent scene, we get our first view of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman together and how wonderful they look. But Bergman’s character makes an off-handed remark about love songs, about how they’re a bunch of “hooey.” Of course, that pertains to this film and where it will decide to go in the realms of romance, but in my own mind, I see it also functioning as a reaction to Casablanca’s “As Time Goes By” — a film where lovers fell in love partially because of a song.

It’s easy to put the title of a spiritual sequel on Notorious for numerous reasons. Once again we have Bergman and Rains in crucial roles and then trading out Bogey for another legend in his own right, Cary Grant. The paranoia of Casablanca is replaced with the sunnier disposition of Rio de Janeiro which nevertheless is underlined by a certain looming Cold War menace. In this case, instead of the letters of transit, we are provided a Hitchcock MacGuffin, including a bottle of wine, some uranium, and an iconic UNICA key.

But if nothing else these minor remarks can put the debate to rest conclusively. Notorious is a spectacular film in its own right and it enters some similar yet still uncharted territory in accordance with the waters Casablanca chose to ford a few years prior. Meanwhile, Grant has glimpses of his previous self from other films but soon enough he falls into the role of cool and calculated federal agent Devlin in what feels like a true departure.

There’s that supremely unnerving shot as we take on the perspective of a disoriented Ingrid Bergman as Grant walks into the room and hangs over her in a strangely alarming way. Everything is setting up the dynamic at this point.

Still, others will remember the extended make-out session that made history by upholding the Hays Code ” three-second rule” while simultaneously perfectly encapsulating nearly an entire romance in a matter of four or five minutes. There was little else to be said because it was all seen in that one sequence and Hitchcock could proceed with his conceit.

Because, ultimately, Hitchcock’s picture is built around this idea: The American government has a little job to be done and Alicia and Devlin are caught in the middle. Thus, it becomes that time-worn idea of love versus duty. In one sense, Devlin’s caught in a terrible position and yet in the other he treats Alicia so badly — and it’s not simply that this is Alicia but this is beautiful, sweet Ingrid Bergman that he is pushing away. Still, in pushing her away, it’s leading her toward the objective.

He’s simply not willing to dictate anything because that means being vulnerable. Very simply he’s not willing to open up.  Cary Grant has never felt so icy, so aloof, and so unfeeling. Then, on top of this, Sebastian (Rains) looks a far more agreeable fellow cast in such a light. He genuinely loves this woman even if she is a spy. It makes for a conflicted viewing experience.

Though there is a juncture in the film where Devlin is beginning to shift his way of thinking. But as if on cue (undoubtedly) one line of dialogue out of Alicia’s mouth during a racetrack exchange (“You can add Sebastian to my list of playmates”) poisons his whole frame of mind again. His prior opinions of Alicia are confirmed and he sours to her — never giving her the benefit of the doubt from that point forward — and ultimately torturing her so that there is no other choice.

Just like that, she goes through with it. Instigating her relationship with Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) and succeeding so thoroughly that she’s married to him soon enough. For the U.S. government this is a smashing success but for Alicia and Devlin it’s nothing of the sort.

The descending stairwell crane shot is textbook Hitchcock and so often cited but it’s for that very reason. He so directly points us toward the cues of the scene and he does it with his usual technical elegance.

He gives us a party but it’s a party underlined with so much tension because there are stakes that go beyond the nominal appearances. There’s the fact that Devlin’s one of the party guests but also Alicia has that all important key that proves to be their chance to figure out what Sebastian is hiding. But it also makes them far more suspicious.

Beset with paranoia as much as illness she’s suffocated by the presence of her husband and mother-in-law. It looks like Devlin will never come to her. But he does. We’ve seen this before. Cary Grant comes to her bed as she lies there disoriented and looks up into the eyes of this man looking to be her savior instead of opting to use her. At least on one account, the tension has been resolved.

But in the same breath never has there been so much sympathy as for Claud Rains in the closing moment indicative of how Hitch has even given his purported villain a chance to be sympathized with and Rain’s typically compelling performance does precisely that. So even in this final moment, Hitchcock is playing with us giving us that Hollywood ending that we desire and at the same time undermining it in a wonderful way that’s both suspenseful and artistically arresting.

Notorious just might be the Master’s purest expression of his art lacking the micromanagement of Selznick in Rebecca (1940), the technical experiments of Rear Window (1954), the psycho-sexual layers of Vertigo (1958), the man-on-the-run motif of North by Northwest (1959), or even the low budget and marketing frenzy of Psycho (1960), while still garnering the highest production values in its day.  The results speak for themselves, positioning Notorious as one of the definitive romantic thrillers by any standard.

5/5 Stars

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