Take 68: Notorious

It’s October, and as the movies remaining on my list wind down, it’s time to return to good ol’ Hitch and Notorious. This is the earliest of Alfred Hitchcock’s films to be chosen by the critics, released in 1946, and it’s also the earliest of his prolific career that I have personally seen. The film stars Cary Grant as T.R. Devlin, and Hitch dangles his frame in front of us for a full five minutes before his handsome face is finally revealed. Across from Grant is Ingrid Bergman, playing Alicia Huberman. Much has been written about Hitchcock’s sometimes abusive relationships with his leading women, and much has been written about his particular fascination with Bergman. A formidable force, she is said to have given as good as she got with the director, and that tension can at times be felt on screen.

In a very early, scene where she appears to be celebrating her father’s incarceration, we learn that Alicia enjoys indulgence — which leads to one of my favorite quotes of all time, “The important drinking hasn’t started yet.” We also learn she’s what they would have called at the time a “loose woman” and held seemingly few qualms about her lifestyle. The long night of important drinking if followed by a nice, early morning, drunk drive that was reminiscent of driving scenes in all of the other Hitchcock movies on this list — in Vertigo Jimmy Stewart tails Kim Novak over the rolling San Francisco hills, in Psycho Janet Leigh gets behind the wheel and convinces herself to stay on the run, in Marnie the transport is a galloping horse, and most notably, Cary Grant drunk drives in similar comedic fashion in North By Northwest.

Hitchcock often puts his characters in motion — and they’re typically driving with a relative lack of control and mental capacity. These moments tend to mark turning points for the characters, and that is certainly true as Alicia careens across the lanes on the road and Devlin looks calmly on with quiet judgement.

What follows is a reveal of Devlin’s true intentions: he plays a secret recording of Alicia avowing her love for the United States at a time when the government was investigating her father for aiding Germany during the second World War. Devlin is recruiting Alicia to join him on a mission in Rio, in an attempt to infiltrate a German supply circuit. Because of her familial connections, she’s acquaintances with one of the ringleaders of a crime syndicate in South America, and it’s soon revealed that her mission is to seduce Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) — which the government assumed she’d be up for given her aforementioned loose morals.

Unfortunately, for everyone involved, Devlin and Alicia reluctantly fall in love. Their connection is electric and visible to everyone, including Sebastian who immediately calls them an attractive couple (an objective understatement). Hitchcock often integrates a love story into his thrillers, which obviously heightens the emotional elements and motivates characters in the story, but Notorious is the most blatantly romantic of his films.

In some ways, it’s a reprise of Casablanca — Ingrid Bergman is forced to choose between the man she loves and saving the free world. But what this film has that Casablanca lacks is Cary Grant (with all due respect to Bogart). Unlike most other Hitchcock movies where romance seems like an addendum to the central story, the undeniable magnetism between Alicia and Devlin, allows Notorious to maximize on the chemistry between Bergman and Grant so that we’re as much invested in their happily-ever-after as we are in Alicia’s successful thwarting of the Neo-Nazi plot.

All of this is combined with classic Hitchcockian techniques that earned him the moniker “Master of Suspense”. My favorite example is when Alicia has stolen the key to the wine cellar from Sebastian, so that Devlin can sneakily investigate during a party. When he asks what will happen if someone needs the key to get more champagne during the party, the ticking time bomb suddenly comes into focus. Each time the camera flashes to the chest of champagne, and the bottles continue to dwindle, the suspense escalates notch by notch. There’s a similar escalation in the final sequence, as Devlin manages to escort a poisoned and weary Alicia out of Sebastain’s home.

Notorious is one of my favorite Hitchcock films, mostly because it is tight and economical. The characters are all well rounded and fully motivated, and there are hooks throughout the entirety of the film that keep it dynamic and compelling. I also see traces of these characters in Hitchcock’s later works — for instance Sebastian’s relationship with his mother is evocative of Norman Bates, and Alicia’s autonomous ownership of her sexuality is revisited in Marion Crane.

I keep thinking back to Devlin’s defense of Alicia when some of his fellow officers refer to her as “that kind of girl” and his full-throated insistence that she is as worthy of respect as any of their wives, who had not risked their lives in service to the country. The film does not answer the question of who is meant to be the titular “notorious” individual, although the implication, I think, is that it’s Alicia. Devlin can see beyond that notoriety, and the result is a genuine love story, which just so happens to occur while our heroes saved the world.

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