BFI Hitchcock Season: ‘Notorious’ (1946)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Ben Hecht
Starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains
Of the fourteen films that Hitchcock directed in the forties the critical consensus tends to focus on Shadow Of A Doubt, Hitchcock’s personal favourite of his fifty-three pictures, and Notorious, the romantic spy caper which features the alluring pairing of Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in the second of his four and her three collaborations with the master of suspense. This period was also marked with the singular set concentrations of spatial suspense in both Rope and Lifeboat, and the first of his overt flirting with psychoanalysis and symbolism in Spellbound the year before, but I concur with the critical fraternity that Notorious is the high water mark of this decade of experimentation and development, with its nervous romance between the conflicted protagonists foreshadowing the similarly legendary couplings of the following decade, whilst the deployment of an Elektra driven guilt syndrome heralds more overt techniques in terms of character motivation, a developing maturity and complexity which are the building blocks of the subsequent masterpieces. The alchemical ingredients that would see Hitchcock transmogrifying film into a macabre gold during his classical period throughout the Fifties through to the mid Sixties can be divined through Hitchcock’s work in this preceding decade and they are never more clearly synthesized than in Notorious, a fantastic thriller and rollercoaster romance with simmering performances from both Bergman and Grant.
Miami, 1946, a courtroom interior, and a grizzled pack of photographers await the sentencing of the German spy Mr. Huberman for crimes against the state in a perilous time of war. Profiled as a faceless monolith he gets twenty years and his daughter, the aristocratically beautiful Alicia Huberman (a smouldering Ingrid Bergman) walks the shameful parade of the press and flees back to her home. Wracked by guilt Alicia takes to the bottle and solace in the arms of men, in her tiger print blouse a clear figure of unbridled and unleashed femininity, enter stage left the suave government agent T.R Devlin (a clipped Cary Grant) whose mission it is to convince Alicia to infiltrate a South American spy ring linked to her fathers crusade, and soon the couple are jetting down to as a fiery affair blazes between them. Alicia’s mission is to gain entrance to the home of Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains, the original Invisible Man since you ask) whom has always held a torch for her, although his imperious, hectoring mother Madame Sebastian (Leopoldine Konstantin) has her suspicions of this potential cuckold of her sons devoted affections. The fascist spy ring are cryptically pursuing a clandestine plot to develop fissionable materials, and as Alicia is drawn closer into the bosom of the conspiracy she must make the ultimate sacrifice of her body and reputation, and potentially abandon the true love of her life forever…
So let’s summarize as we prowl down the Hitchcock checklist – we have a tortured, psychologically charged romance framed in threat by outside forces, the antagonist Alexander is plagued with the guilt riven hectoring of a controlling mother figure, the film’s plot is cantilevered around espionage and spy-craft, of uncovering buried secrets which is the goal for our damaged heroine who is scarred by her father’s treason and must complete the mission to absolve her inherited sins and achieve resolution through the uncertain affections of her handsome suitor whom in the films most charged sequence literally sweeps her up into his arms and romantically marches her away to liberation and freedom. The plot serves the genre conventions, of suspense and tension being built around the excavation of the genus of the conspiracy, but these themes are heightened and elevated through the romance, with Grant as Hitchcock’s instrument of doubt as it is unsure whether he genuinely cares for Alicia or is merely fulfilling his patriotic duty, a situation compounded when Alicia marries Sebastian and presumably fulfils her conjugal duties, with tensions arising from a man having to send the potential love of his life into the arms of an enemy agent, to be spoiled and desecrated in order to pay for the deceitful treason of her father. Alicia is caught in a psychological trap, she doesn’t know if Devlin simply manipulated her to undertake the mission, and even if his feelings extend beyond his civic service she has now sacrificed herself to the enemy, and it’s from these complexities that we begin to genuinely empathise with the characters through these moral webs and their fissionable interactions, as the on-screen chemistry between Grant and Bergman is simply explosive, andI’m contractually obliged to link to the celebrated key scene.
For its period, Hitchcock was pushing at the boundaries of acceptable eroticism with his passionate trysts, for its time it’s almost embarrassing to watch for me, it’s just too intimate to observe, with Grant nuzzling away at Bergman’s neck as they both mutter their sweet platitudes to each other. The passionate chemistry between them as tangible as the uranium pulsing McGuffin that propels the espionage, with the breaching of forbidden doors in the Sebastian mansion where many secrets are kept, its Hitchcock’s first attempt at a genuine and heartfelt love story which is rarely played for laughs as the trademark pranks and jest are mostly regulated to the cutting room floor. Alicia is the true hero of the story in eclipse of Grant, a point which takes us back to the alleged treatment of women in the Hitchcock universe, as she enters the lion’s den and takes the risks, she is the resourceful heroine who retains the mask of subterfuge under the straining circumstances, although admittedly she does needs to be finally saved by the male hero in the final sequence but c’mon, this was 1946. The climax of Notorious is magnificently orchestrated for its era, once again in Hitchcock’s universe the normal contract of behaviour and systems of decency must be observed in an almost Buñuelian inflected fashion as the poisoned Alicia is spirited away by the impervious Devlin, as through a cruel twist of the screenwriters quill if Sebastian intervenes then his fellow plotters will have to homicidally eject him from their cabal when they discover that he has married an American agent, a fact he has kept secret from everyone except his mother, with whom he has plotted the slow murder of his duplicitous wife through the judicious application of arsenic. Thus Sebastian is impotently left by Devlin to return to his home and the murderous, neutering wrath of his mother, symbolically castrated as Devlin and Alicia hurtle away into the emancipating South American night. A core film of the Forties and a psychologically explosive precursor of things to come, Notorious is essential Hitchcock.