Beginner's Guide to Alfred Hitchcock: Notorious (1946)
Alfred Hitchcock is known as the Master of Suspense, however in many ways he is a master of romance as well. Many of his films feature a love story, but one that Is twisted, deranged, or distorted by malice and/or danger. Previously, Rear Window used its murder mystery as a metaphor for the romance between Grace Kelly and James Stewart. Then in The 39 Steps, two people fell in love while on the run. In 1946, Hitchcock directed one of his most complicated love stories with Notorious: which focuses around the strange push/pull love affair between Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) and T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant).
As the film begins, a Nazi named John Huberman is sent to prison. His daughter Alicia is a hard-drinking, somewhat promiscuous woman who uses her “good time gal” persona as a mask to hide the shame of her father. Federal agent T.R. Devlin crashes her party, and presents to her a mission that the U.S. government wants her to complete in Brazil. While in Brazil, Dev and Alicia fall in love. But then they are told her mission: infiltrate a Nazi group in Brazil who used to work with her father. This includes faking a love affair then marriage with Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) and spying on him. Alicia is trapped in a bizarre love triangle between the two men, and in the midst of a dangerous Nazi organization.
Notorious proved a turning point for Hitchcock in terms of his direction. His camerawork is more expressive, the emotions are more complicated, the characters more subtly drawn. Hitchcock provides a number of sequences where characters are interacting on multiple levels. Saying one thing, meaning another. Having a silent conversation with shared glances. Alfred Hitchcock uses his camera to direct the audience, getting his viewers to glean the exact emotions and inferences that he wants them to. Notorious is a beautifully directed film, taking a postwar spy thriller and turning it into a tragedy of repressed emotions and unlucky romance.
Notorious features one of Hitchcock’s most celebrated shots. The camera tracks from an upstairs balcony all the way down to the main hall where Ingrid Bergman is nervously clutching a key. The shot is an example of Hitchcock using the camera to enhance a scene. Alicia is at a glamorous party, where she has to play the role of Alex’s wife and also work to complete the mission. From the outside she is just the gorgeous host of a lavish party, but inside she’s a nervous wreck, hiding a dangerous secret.
The characters in the film are a major selling point. Dev and Alicia find themselves in a relationship built on attraction and repulsion. Dev judges Alicia for her past and her connection to her father. Alicia initially distrusts Dev because he is a federal agent. Dev wants Alicia to refuse the mission, and she wants him to tell her not to do the mission. They are both too prideful to give in to each other, and perhaps afraid the other does not feel the same way. Dev is quite cruel to Alicia, often judging her for doing the very things he and her superiors have told her to do. Ironically, Alex is a much more sympathetic character despite being a Nazi. He does care for Alicia in a way that Dev doesn’t. Hitchcock doesn’t quite let him off the hook—Alex is as much a spineless mommy’s boy like Norman Bates; he’s all too easily swayed to turn against Alicia by his mother (Leopoldine Konstantin in her only American film). Mme. Sebastian is a piece of work—she’s cruel and manipulative, and always one step ahead of everyone. She seems to know that Alicia is a spy from the beginning, or at least that Alicia isn’t being completely truthful. It’s a terrific performance, one made even more sinister through Hitchcock’s arresting camerawork.
The other actors in the film are all wonderfully cast. Notorious provides Bergman with her best role; that is saying something for such an esteemed, legendary actress. Alicia is warm and troubled, devoted to her mission but wary of its consequences. The film doesn’t judge Alicia as much as Dev does, and I think a lot of that can be credited to Bergman herself. Cary Grant usually played charming clowns or handsome romantic leads. But here he is alternately caring and judgmental. This is a very different kind of performance for him as well, because he is overturning his usual onscreen persona. Grant still has the time to offer a few quips, and does become a hero of sorts towards the end. Claude Rains is also quite good, playing an easily persuaded man but still keeping a sense of dignity. It’s hard not to feel bad for him, even if he is despicable.
Hitchcock worked with director of photography Ted Tetzlaff, at the time best known for his Oscar nominated work in The Talk of the Town (1942) also starring Cary Grant. Together the two created a number of memorable shots, like when Alicia starts to suspect she’s being poisoned. Hitchcock worked with famed writer Ben Hecht, who received the film’s sole Oscar nomination. Hecht makes good use of innuendoes and hushed inferences in order to tell the story within the confines of the Hays Production Code. Hitchcock also stages a love scene where Alicia and Dev kiss each other, and then chat, and then go back to kissing—all to avoid the “three second kiss” rule in the Hays Cose.
The Hitchcockian disdain for the police comes into play in Notorious as well. Alicia calls Dev a “cop” in a derogatory manner. While it’s not clear what agency Dev works for, his superiors are selfish, hypocritical, and narrow-minded. In some ways, they are just as bad as the Nazis. Hitchcock also plays some tricks on the audience; there’s a terrific scene where Alicia and Dev go down a staircase trying to escape but there are more steps than there were when they went upstairs. Notorious is such a delicate, elegantly crafted thriller with a strong love story at its core. There are a number of Hitchcock fans who consider it his best film—and it’s in my top 3. It’s definitely one of Hitchcock’s most sophisticated, tragic thrillers.