NOTORIOUS (1946)

  • Director: Alfred Hitchcock
  • Writer: Ben Hecht
  • Starring: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Louis Calhern, Leopoldine Konstantin, Reinhold Schünzel, Ivan Triesault, and Alexis Minotis
  • Accolades: 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#38), shown at 1946 Cannes Film Festival, 2 Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actor – Claude Rains, Best Original Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch:  Free streaming (with ads) on Tubi app

Notorious a thriller that is pretty much free of actual on-screen violence of any kind. As far as I can recall, nobody even gets held at gunpoint, much less shot. Instead, it relies purely on the pieces of its plot ticking over into place. It is tension created entirely through the tools of filmmaking, not through showing us things that are thrilling in and of themselves. I am not a “back in the day” kind of person, but I do think this art in particular is not one that is practiced as much these days. Yet in its own way Notorious feels very modern. Ingrid Bergman, often considered among the most classic of classic Hollywood stars, gives a performance as the alcoholic, cynical daughter of a convicted Nazi spy that seems like something out of a much more recent movie. Nor do you have to do much reading between the lines. During one surreptitious meeting with American agent Cary Grant, Bergman tells him that she has added Claude Rains’ character to her “list of companions.” Yes, she doesn’t straight up say, “yeah, I banged him” but I mean, she might as well.

Alfred Hitchcock made several movies about beautiful women being manipulated by men for their own purposes, Vertigo being perhaps the most obvious version. Notorious seems at first to be basically that same template, but it spins its two leads off each other at more complicated angles. Grant’s government agent, Devlin, recruits Bergman’s Alicia the night after her father is convicted of treason and (after he gets her out of a drunk driving arrest, making this by far the earliest piece of media I’ve seen where drunk driving is considered an issue) pulls her into a sting operation against Nazis in Brazil. The two of them fall for each other in Rio while waiting for their assignment, which seems to almost inherently make him suspicious of her. She is then assigned by his laconic boss (Louis Calhern) to ingratiate herself with Rains’ “Alexander Sebastian” through any means necessary. Eventually she literally ends up marrying the guy, which seems to be way farther than anyone involved thought this would go. 

It turns out he has “uranium-enriched sand” in several of the bottles of his wine cellar, which turns into the “macguffin” (a term invented by Hitchcock) that drives the plot of the last half of the movie. It’s interesting that, for the studio people, one of the big reasons for rushing Notorious into production with a top-line cast was because they thought having the first movie with the nuclear bomb as a plot point would be a big moneymaker. But for Hitchcock, the uranium could literally be anything. The point is not what the thing is, but that all the characters want the thing. Had the movie been made even two years later, the villains would have been communists, not Nazis, but Hitchcock would still have made the exact same movie.

Hitchcock’s movies were very popular in their day, but they weren’t critically respected the way they are now. That came later. If you needed proof that the things mainstream film critics were looking for at the time were very different from the sorts of things critics look for now, you need look no further. Certainly, the experience of watching a Hitchcock movie on a basic shot-to-shot level is a whole different thing from watching most Hollywood directors of the time. Consider one famous shot from Notorious, where the camera starts high above a busy entrance hall of Sebastian’s house during a party, swooping down until it finally comes to rest on an extreme close-up of the wine cellar key Alicia is nervously holding in her hand, all in a single shot. Far less showy is one early scene where a hungover Alicia wakes up, to her chagrin, to discover that she is in Devlin’s apartment. Hitchcock spends the scene looking at Bergman from a strange angle, with the the hangover tonic Devlin has prepared taking up a third of the screen in the extreme foreground. We are put, as viewers, into her disoriented headspace in a way I don’t think any contemporary director could have matched.

The front stairway of Rains’ home, repeatedly the scene of important moments in the movie, also illustrates how as a director Hitchcock takes every opportunity to push the viewer’s buttons. We watch character walk up and down the stairs all through the movie, and then the final, climactic moments have Bergman and Grant descending slowly, wanting to flee but knowing that if they don’t proceed deliberately it will give the game away. Count how many stairs there are in other scenes in the movie, and count how many we see Grant and Bergman descend in this scene. There are way more stairs at the end, because Hitchcock is stringing along the tension as long as he can. 

Notorious is sometimes presented as the most romantic of Hitchcock movies, and usually when someone says that they’re talking about the romance between Grant and Bergman’s characters. But in fact, as Hitchcock himself would later note, we’re left feeling quite a bit of sympathy for Claude Rains’ character, as well, even though he’s, y’know, a Nazi. For one, he really seems to care about Alicia and we see him feel deeply betrayed by her. We also see that he is controlled by his mother (Leopoldine Konstantin), to the point that I started jokingly quoting Buster lines from Arrested Development during the movie. The mother as the deep source of guilt and repression is a Hitchcock specialty. Grant, meanwhile, spends most of the movie looking pained as he represses his feelings about Bergman, not willing to go against his bosses but also not wanting her to, y’know, sleep with other dudes. Grant’s bosses, for their part, are very frank in their opinion that Alicia is basically only good for being essentially a state-sponsored prostitute and that they think she’s, um, kind of a ho? This theme in the movie is particularly interesting given the country had just gotten out of the World War II, and this kind of cynicism about America’s conduct on the world stage was hardly de rigeur in American media of the time.

One reason the romance between Bergman and Grant is remembered is a love scene that has sometimes been referred to as the “longest kiss in movie history,” at least up until this time. This is something of a misnomer, given that it’s really a bunch of different kisses in a row, but that is more pedantry than anything. Hitchcock was told that, under the production code, no kiss could last longer than three seconds. So, wanting to portray the physical passion between these two characters, he decided to basically have them kiss for three straight minutes. The movie gets away with this by having the two of them repeatedly stop kissing, nuzzle each other and stare into each other’s eyes for a moment, then go back to kissing, stop briefly to have a conversation (at one point one of them even takes a phone call), etc. The pair start on a balcony overlooking Rio (from an extremely similar vantage point to that used in L’Homme del Rio, something that does not seem like a coincidence given Hitchcock’s standing with French directors of that era) and end up at the door to the apartment, never leaving each other’s arms. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his “Great Movies” essay on Notorious, the “30-second rule” likely resulted in a much more interesting scene, given that an actual three-minute kiss “might look like an exercise in slobbering.”

I recommend Notorious to just about anyone, even though it lacks the pure action of some modern thrillers. From a filmmaking perspective it is fascinating, certainly, but it is also genuinely suspenseful and tense. As a story, there is almost no there there: we have some Nazis, we have some radioactive sand, we have a beautiful woman undercover, but very little actually “happens.” What Hitchcock and his actors make out of those materials is pretty much a masterclass in the idea that even the most unassuming materials can be made into a really, really good movie.

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