Notorious is one of my favorite Hitchcock films. With Nazi plots, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Claude Rains, and crazy suspense, it’s an enjoyable and engrossing watch all the way through.
The story opens with Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) walking out of a courthouse; her Nazi father has just been convicted of treason. She’s not going to let it get her down though, she throws a party later that evening for herself to forget the harrowing events of the day. There she meets Devlin (Cary Grant), who turns out to be an American agent (they never specify the agency) and wants Alicia’s help. Her father’s status as a treasonous Nazi is perfect for getting Alicia into a Nazi conspiracy brewing in Rio de Janeiro. After finding out he’s a cop, she initially turns against him. However, she decides to help him and they waste no time falling in love.
The problem between them is, mainly, that Devlin doesn’t trust Alicia. She’s got a bit of a reputation back in the states, and though Devlin defends her in front of other people, he throws it her face when he’s actually talking to her. Not a real good setup for a relationship. It’s clear that Devlin wants to believe that Alicia’s in love with him, but he can’t for some reason. This creates feelings of inadequacy in Alicia, so she goes ahead with the agency’s plan even though she doesn’t want to. The plan is basically to have Alicia attract the leader of the Nazi group, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) so she can just passively listen to what’s going on when she’s at his house. She does her job a little too well, and the next thing we know, Alicia and Alex are married and Alicia and Devlin are becoming hopelessly star-crossed.
Meanwhile, with all this relationship drama going on, we get the espionage side of the story as well. It takes awhile into the film for Devlin and Alicia to discover the enormity of their dasterdly plot, but honestly the nature of the scheme itself doesn’t matter that much. They’re Nazis, so we already know they’re evil. Basically they’re developing a bomb or something with all of the uranium they’re collecting, but the uranium is just a MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is a term that Hitchcock coined himself, and it’s something that everyone in the story is concerned with that only matters as an object that everyone is concerned with. For example, the uranium was originally going to be diamonds, and it still could’ve been, and the film basically would have been the same.
Most of the suspense in Notorious comes from the sneaking around that Devlin and Alicia have to do in order to find the uranium. Also, Sebastian is very jealous of Devlin; despite what Alicia tells him to the contrary, he knows there is something between those two. So this means that whenever they are together and Sebastian is present, he watches them like a hawk. That said, none of this sneaking would be have so interesting if you weren’t afraid that either of the two were going to throw themselves at the other any second. That’s what Sebastian’s actually on the look out for; he has no idea (eventually he gets it) that Alicia and Devlin are actually spying on him.
Notorious is said to be one of Hitchcock’s greatest love stories. The weird thing is, when you step back and think about it the love story is kind of annoying. It’s basically that Devlin doesn’t want to admit he loves Alicia, and then she doesn’t want to admit it, so they don’t get anywhere for awhile. It’s just your basic communication problems. The thing is, I didn’t notice any of this when watching the movie because the performances were so good. This was my fourth time (I think) watching it, and I only just realized this now. When I’m watching the film, I just get so invested in finally getting to the moment when Devlin stops being a jerk about it and they could be together.
One of the most famous romantic scenes in this film is the kissing scene at the beginning. The Hayes Production Code (aka censorship) limited all kisses to be 3 seconds long, maximum. But Hitchcock wanted them kissing for longer than three seconds, so he figured out a way to get around that. What he had Bergman and Grant do it just stop every three seconds or so and say something, and then keep going. They never leave each other’s arms, and Hitchcock was able to make that kissing scene last three minutes as opposed to three seconds. Take that Hayes Production Code!
There are also some great titly camera shots in Notorious. I don’t know if they’re tilty camera shots as much as drunken camera shots, but tomato tomato (that phrase has a much more potent effect when spoken). In the beginning, when Devlin first approaches Alicia about “taking the job,” he takes her home after she’s been driving drunk. She wakes up the next morning to Devlin’s voice and a massive hangover. We see Devlin framed in the doorway tilted about twenty degrees to the left, which gives him a rather ominous appearance. That, coupled with the glowing glass of what I believe is alka-seltzer that he’s telling her to drink, reminding me of the famous light bulb in the milk glass trick in another Hitchcock-Grant film, Suspicion, was not making me trust Grant’s character that much. Anyway, after we see him in the doorway, he starts walking toward Alicia and he does about a full three sixty turn. By the time he is standing over Alicia we see him upside down.
As I already noted, Grant’s and Bergman’s performances were wonderful. Ingrid Bergman had a great character to play with Alicia. While Alicia is not squeaky clean, she is a good person after all as she helps foil Nazi plans and such. However, the main focus of the film is relationships, and you basically want to see how she and Cary Grant interact. They are both known for this type of leading-person romantic stuff and do not disappoint here. This has to be one of Grant’s best performances, I have seldom seen better from him. In my opinion, a lot of times Cary Grant can sound a bit ridiculous with the way he talks. That’s great in a comedy, but not as great in a drama like this. However, he doesn’t talk that much. He mostly glares. I mean he does talk, and he’s more subdued when he does, and when I say he glares I mean that in a good way, because that’s his character.
Claude Rains was also really good. One of the interesting things about Notorious is that the villain is more likable most of the time than the hero is. Most of the time you are able to forget that Sebastian is actually a Nazi; he seems like a nice guy who loves Alicia. By the end this is all too obvious, but until then Rains manages to make Sebastian pretty likable. His voice is a lot softer than Grant’s, and he also is smiling a lot more and just seems generally friendlier. But for me at least, Bergman’s performance kept it obvious that we were supposed to be rooting for her to get with Cary Grant at the end. And oh yeah, Rains is a Nazi (and we hate those guys).
Notorious is a fantastic film with a lot going for it. You have famous stars turning in great performances, a romance between romantic people, Hitchcock creating a lot of suspense and giving us camera angles and such things to analyze, and a classic spy thriller plot that always works well. And I haven’t even told you the stomach churning ending yet (and I won’t be, so you’ll have to watch the film).
“Miss Huberman is first, last, and always not a lady. She may be risking her life, but when it comes to being a lady, she doesn’t hold a candle to your wife, sitting in Washington, playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue.”
Long story short: 4/4 stars