A CIA agent, T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant, Suspicion), is ordered to convince the daughter of a convicted Nazi, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman, Spellbound), to spy for the U.S. government in Brazil. Devlin and Alicia unexpectedly fall in love, and the relationship is put under enormous strain after Devlin is forced to ask Alicia to become the lover of a wealthy fascist, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains, Casablanca).
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Dry your eyes, baby; it’s out of character.”
Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious deserves to be placed among the best and most fascinating movies dealing with the world of espionage. This gripping, multilayered tale of love, duty and guilt offers a surprisingly sanguinary portrayal of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) at a time when the country was drunk on patriotism.
The film’s plot, concocted by Hitchcock and writer Ben Hecht (The Front Page), is surprisingly simple. Something about Nazis in Brazil. Hitchcock doesn’t bother to explain what the American spies are looking for, or what the Nazis are planning to do. It’s hard to name another movie that makes so much out of so little.
Notorious is mostly about trust: lack of trust and misplaced trust. Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia doesn’t trust anybody since finding out about her father’s betrayal, Cary Grant’s CIA Devlin loves but doesn’t trust Alicia, Claude Rains’s Nazi Alex foolishly trust Alicia, and Alex’s mother, played by Leopoldine Konstantin, wisely mistrusts Alicia.
Guilt is also a theme that figures prominently in the narrative. Alicia feels guilty over her father’s treasonous acts, and Devlin feels guilty over pimping out his lover to a Nazi. Interestingly, the couple’s extreme feelings of self-reproach suggest a sadomasochistic relationship. I don’t know if this happened to other viewers, but I was so caught up in the bizarre “love affair” that I completely forgot about the spy games.
In addition to all that, Notorious is graced with all the evocative imagery cinema can provide. Highlights include a marvelous dutch angle with Grant standing by a door, a fabulous crane shot that ends with a close-up of Bergman’s hand, a series of highly romantic embraces between Grant and Bergman, and a superbly crafted finale, one of Hitch’s bleakest, that is guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat.
As for the performances, the three main actors do some of the best work of their careers. Grant’s spy Devlin is one of his most intriguing characterizations. The actor is excellent as the fearless, but emotionally stunted and deeply conflicted government agent (I spent the whole time thinking that Grant could have been a great James Bond).
Bergman is fantastic as the troubled Alicia, a sort of reluctant Mata Hari. The actress brings out all facets of a difficult character, definitely one of Hitchcock’s most complex heroines. Last but not least is British character actor Rains, who is stunningly effective as the pathetic mama’s boy Alexander. Rains’s first-class work was rewarded with an Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting category. Also with Louis Calhern (Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar), who plays Grant’s cynical boss.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
“Notorious withstands multiple viewings; the older you get the more true, the more astonishingly true, it becomes,” author Donald Spoto wrote in his book The Art of Alfred Hitchcock. Amen. My appreciation for the film grows with each viewing. Every single time I watch Notorious I discover something new. I can’t praise the movie enough — it’s one of Hitchcock’s, and cinema’s, best thrillers. B&W, 101 minutes, Not Rated.