Alfred Hitchcock's “Notorious” is the most elegant expression of
the master's visual style, just as “Vertigo” is the fullest expression of his
obsessions. It contains some of the most effective camera shots in his--or
anyone’s--work, and they all lead to the great final passages in which two men
find out how very wrong they both were.
is the film, with “Casablanca,” that assures Ingrid Bergman’s immortality. She
plays a woman whose notorious reputation encourages U.S. agents to recruit her
to spy on Nazis in postwar Rio. And that reputation nearly gets her killed,
when the man she loves mistrusts her. His misunderstanding is at the center of
a plot in which all of the pieces come together with perfect precision, so that
two people walk down a staircase to their freedom, and a third person climbs
steps to his doom.
made the film in 1946, when the war was over but the Cold War was just
beginning. A few months later, he would have made the villains Communists, but
as he and Ben Hecht worked on the script, Nazis were still uppermost in their
minds. (An opening subtitle says: “Miami, Florida, 3:20 p.m., April 20,
1946”--admirably specific, but as unnecessary as the similarly detailed
information at the beginning of “Psycho.")
story stars Bergman as a patriotic American named Alicia Huberman, whose father
is a convicted Nazi spy. Alicia is known for drinking and apparent promiscuity,
and is recruited by an agent named Devlin (Cary Grant) to fly to Rio and
insinuate herself into the household of a spy ring led by Sebastian (Claude
Rains). Sebastian once loved her, and perhaps he still does; Devlin is
essentially asking her to share the spy's bed to discover his secrets. And this
she is willing to do, because by the time he asks her, she is in love--with
of these sexual arrangements are of course handled with the sort of subtle
dialogue and innuendo that Hollywood used to get around the production code.
There is never a moment when improper behavior is actually stated or shown, but
the film leaves no doubt. By the time all of the pieces are in place, we
actually feel more sympathy for Sebastian than for Devlin. He may be a spy but
he loves Alicia sincerely, while Devlin may be an American agent but has used
Alicia's love to force her into the arms of another man.
was known for his attention to visual details. He drew storyboards of every
scene before shooting it, and slyly plays against Grant’s star power in the
scene introducing Devlin to the movie. At a party the night her father has been
convicted, Alicia drinks to forget. The camera positions itself behind the
seated Devlin, so we see only the back of his head. He anchors the shot as the
camera moves left and right, following the morally ambiguous Alicia as she
flirts, drinks and tries to forget.
are more famous shots the next morning. Alicia awakens with a hangover, and
there is a gigantic foreground closeup of a glass of Alka-Seltzer (it will be
paired much later in the movie with a huge foreground coffee cup that we know
contains arsenic). From her point of view, she sees Devlin in the doorway,
backlit and upside down. As she sits up, he rotates 180degrees. He suggests a
spy deal. She refuses, talking of her plans to take a cruise. He plays a secret
recording that proves she is, after all, patriotic--despite her loose image. As
the recording begins, she is in shadow. As it continues, she is in bars of
light. As it ends, she is in full light. Hitchcock has choreographed the
visuals so that they precisely reflect what is happening.
film is rich with other elegant shots, the most famous beginning with the
camera on a landing high above the entrance hall of Sebastian’s mansion in Rio.
It ends, after one unbroken movement, with a closeup of a key in Alicia's
nervously twisting hand. The key will open the wine cellar, where Devlin
(posing as a guest) will join Alicia in trying to find Sebastian’s secret. One
of the bottles contains not wine but a radioactive substance used in bombs. Of
course, it could contain anything--maps, codes, diamonds--because it is a
MacGuffin (Hitchcock's name for that plot element that everyone is concerned
about, although it hardly matters what it is).
Hecht screenplay is ingenious in playing the two men against one another.
Sebastian, played by Rains, is smaller, more elegant, more vulnerable, and
dominated by his forbidding mother (Leopoldine Konstantin). Devlin, played by
Grant, is tall, physically imposing, crude at times, suspicious where Sebastian
is trusting. Both men love her but the wrong man trusts her, and the plot leads
to a moment of inspired ingenuity in which Devlin is able to escort Alicia out
of the Nazi mansion in full view of all of the spies, and the circumstances are
such that nobody can stop him. (There is a point earlier in the film where
Devlin walks up the same staircase, and if you count his steps you will find
that on the way down he and Alicia descend more steps than there actually
are--Hitchcock's way of prolonging the suspense.)
Hitchcock's career, he devised stories in which elegant women, usually blond,
were manipulated into situations of great danger. Hitchcock was the master
manipulator, with the male actors as his surrogates. “Vertigo” treats this
theme so openly it almost gives the game away. But look how it works in
“Notorious,” where Devlin (like the Jimmy Stewart character in “Vertigo”)
grooms and trains innocent women to be exactly who he desires her to be, and
then makes her do his bidding.
great erotic moment in “Vertigo” is the one where the man kisses the woman of
his fantasy, while the room whirls around him. There is a parallel scene in
“Notorious,” and it was famous at the time as “the longest kiss in the history
of the movies.” It was not, however, a single kiss, as Tim Dirks points out in
his essay on the film (www.filmsite.org/noto.html). The production code forbade
a kiss lasting longer than three seconds, and so Bergman and Grant alternate
kissing with dialogue and eyeplay, while never leaving one another's arms. The
sequence begins on a balcony overlooking Rio, encompasses a telephone call and
a discussion of the dinner menu, and ends with a parting at the apartment door,
taking three minutes in all. The three-second rule led to a better scene; an
actual180-second kiss might look like an exercise in slobbering.
The choice of Ingrid Bergman for the role was ideal; she subtly
combined the noble and the carnal. Consider “Casablanca” (all of the viewers of
“Notorious” would have), in which she lives with a resistance hero but in her
heart loves a scruffy bar owner, and yet emerges as an idealistic heroine. In “Notorious,”
we never seriously doubt that she is the heroine, but we can understand why the
Grant character does. She appears to be a dipsomaniac, and besides, she sleeps
with Sebastian. But she does it because she loves Devlin. Devlin has difficulty
in loving a woman who would do that; one is reminded of Groucho Marx, who
refused to join any club that would have him as a member.
many movies have ended in obligatory chases and shoot-outs that the ability to
write a well-crafted third act has almost died out. Among its many
achievements, “Notorious” ends well. Like clockwork, the inevitable events of
the last 10 minutes take place, and they all lead to the final perfect shot, in
which another Nazi says to Sebastian, “Alex, will you come in, please? I wish
to talk to you.” And Alex goes in, knowing he will never come out alive.