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25 January 2013

Notorious (1946)

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Music: Roy Webb
Starring: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, 
Claude Rains, Leopoldine Konstantin
One of the earlier Hitchcocks, Notorious is often overlooked when it comes to discussing the great films of the master craftsman. It is strange that it should be so, considering that it is considered one of the finest movies in the Master of Suspense's cinematic career. Notorious began life as a single-line idea in 1944 - the story of a woman sold into sexual enslavement for political purposes. If that is a startling idea today, just imagine what it must have seemed like in the 40s. It is also intriguing because one would have expected such a character to come to a bad end - heroines of the period had to be like Caesar's wife.

It was the remark made by reader Songs of Yore, about another Hitchcock favourite, Dial M For Murder, in the comment section of 12 Angry Men that made me revisit this film at present. This is a much earlier film, and as I said before, quite one of my favourites. Besides, any excuse is a good excuse to watch Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.

Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is the daughter of a convicted German spy. The evening after her father has been sentenced, she throws a party; it is quite clear that she is, if not drunk, well on her way to being so. At that party is a man Alicia does not recognise, but is attracted to. Only she doesn't (yet) know who he is. T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) is a Federal agent, not above manhandling her when she proves recalcitrant. He renders her unconscious, and drives her home. The next morning, he tells her why he gatecrashed her party. A party of Nazis have relocated to Brazil after World War II; the Brazilian government is trying to smoke them out, and the US authorities think that she would be the perfect person to infiltrate the group. 
Why should she do it? Patriotism, snaps Devlin; an opportunity to make up for her dad's treason. When she still rejects the suggestion, Devlin plays her a record; the Huberman residence had been tapped for three months before her father's trial. They have evidence that shows that she rejected her father's beliefs. Somewhat reluctantly, she agrees to do as he asks.

And so, they fly to Rio, to await the assignment. Days turn to weeks, and Devlin and Alicia are thrown together; Devlin makes no attempt to mask his contempt of who and what Alicia is - a dipsomaniac who sleeps with any man around. 'You don't think a woman can change?' asks Alicia, hurt. Yet Devlin is attracted to her despite himself, though he cannot bring himself to say it. Alicia is not as inhibited. She has fallen for this rough man and she is not afraid to show it. Yet she knows he does not love her.
The dichotomy is set - her openness versus his restraint; her love for him versus his disgust for her past. She knows she is changing, she is optimistic it will continue. He is disturbingly silent.

As they kiss, and make plans for the evening, neither know the nature of the assignment that Devlin's bosses have in store for Alicia. Devlin meets his boss only to be told that Alicia's job is to seduce Alexander Sebastian, a friend of her father's and a man they think is the head of the Nazis in Rio. Alicia has been chosen not only because she is her father's daughter and Sebastian knows her, but because Sebastian had also been in love with her before. Devlin, who had been objecting to Alicia being used like this, is taken aback. His previous notions about her character come to the surface.

When he gets back, he makes a nasty dig at her past. Alicia is hurt. 'Right below the belt every time,' she cries. 'That isn't fair, Dev.' But he is no mood to assuage her hurt. As bluntly as he can, he tells her what her assignment is. Seduce Sebastian, find out his plans, and report back. She is devastated. Did he even try to tell them she was not that sort of woman? No, he left that to her. She is still begging for some reassurance. Does he want her to take the job? That's for her to decide, he says. She hopes against hope for some sign that he cares, but Devlin has none to give her. Alicia's face expresses her betrayal. Had it all been a game so far?
The next day they contrive a meeting with Sebastian (Claude Rains), and Alicia renews her acquaintance with him. She had previously told Devlin that she had never been responsive to Sebastian's overtures, but Devlin, seeing them together cannot quite suppress his feelings. Sebastian is everything Devlin is not - charming, tender, attentive, and still so in love with Alicia. 
By the time the evening ends, she has accomplished part of her assignment; she has secured an invitation to Sebastian's house for dinner the next evening. She gets her orders - learn the names and nationalities of every man at the party at Sebastian's house. 

At dinner, one of the guests is upset at the sight of the wine bottles on the sideboard. His evident discomfort catches Alicia's attention. It has not gone unnoticed by his comrades in arms either. It is not the first slip he's made, nor, they are sure, will it be his last. They are playing for desperate stakes, these men, and cannot afford the slightest error.

When Devlin contrives another meeting with Alicia, she gives him the list of names, and also tells him about the scene at dinner. She also gives him another pertinent bit of information - he can add Sebastian's name to her list of playmates. She hopes to provoke a reaction out of him, but she is disappointed. "Pretty fast work," he compliments her. She had almost had him believing she had changed.
She is furious. He threw her at Sebastian, and now he is angry? He did nothing of the sort, he says, she could have refused. Only, she didn't. It is obvious she has not changed. The accusation stings - what was he so sore about? Some sort of a love test? He had never believed in her, so why is he so surprised? If he had, he answers, it might have been ugly now. He was a fool to think she had changed for love. Her face reflects her anguish - if he had only said, once, that he loved her...
Back at the races, Sebastian offers Alicia a chance to prove that she doesn't care for Devlin. She reports it to her superiors; she hopes that Devlin will at least then intervene, but he is as curt as ever. Stricken, she marries Sebastian.

Sebastian has his own troubles at home. His mother disapproves totally of his chosen bride and makes no attempt to hide her hatred even after they come back from their honeymoon.
But there is nothing else that Alicia has to complain about in her new home. Her husband is all that she could wish for, and the house keys have been given up (under duress) by her mother-in-law. All the keys, in fact, except that to the wine cellar.

When Devlin hears about that, he urges her to get the key to the wine cellar. Coupled with the incident of the upset guest, it was evident that the cellar holds the secrets they are looking for. So Alicia does as she is told again.
The night of the party, Alicia and Devlin manage to slip away unnoticed. They open the wine cellar with the purloined key, and snoop around. Devlin has an accident, which leads him to an unexpected find. Only Sebastian is on his way to the wine cellar as well. Though they try to cover their tracks, Sebastian's suspicions are aroused. 

His wife's perfidy leaves Sebastian a wreck. As his mother tells him early the next morning, "We are only protected by the enormity of your stupidity." 
The plot moves swiftly from then on, as Dame Sebastian takes charge. The film is so compelling because it doesn't let the tension subside. Will the Feds let Alicia die? After all, their opinion of her is not very high. 'A woman of her sort' is how they refer to her, Will they let her be collateral damage? What about Devlin? Is he ready to put aside his conflicting feelings to save the woman who loves him and wouldn't be in danger if it hadn't been for him? Just what is Sebastian hiding? And to what lengths will he go to, to cover that up?
It was probably the first time that Alfred Hitchcock managed to assemble such a dream cast for one of his films. My favourite Grant-Bergman collaboration, Notorious  was the first of many such. Bergman was nervous and insecure though Hitchcock had, uncharacteristically for him, allowed her inputs into her characterisation. Cary Grant, who came in with his usual joie de vivre helped matters when he, unusually for him, coached her through her initial period of adjustment. It was to be the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the two stars.

Ingrid was stunning as Alicia. In fact, many consider her outing as Alicia to be her finest work, and that is saying something when you consider the oeuvre of this beautiful actress. Unlike Casablanca (1942), where she played a married woman in love with another man, and the ending ensured her 'purity' - she chooses to stay with her husband -  Notorious cast her against type as a promiscuous woman, an on-the-verge alcoholic, who is persuaded in the name of patriotism to sleep with one man while in love with another. She brings a certain dignity to the role of a fallen woman who agrees to sleep with a man she doesn't love on the order of  a man she does. Her tragedy is that the man she betrays loves and trusts her while the man she loves not only mistrusts her motives, but is willing to stand aside and barter her services in return for the key to secrets. As Bergman famously put it, her career would see her image go 'from saint to whore to saint again'. 

Cary Grant was also cast against type. He was the 'hero' of the film, yet he is not very likeable, this T.R. Devlin. He is willing to manipulate Alicia's love and set her up as sexual bait to capture her father's erstwhile colleague, and is then devastated when she succeeds in doing so. It is the classic double standard - he eggs her on to sleeping with the enemy and then hates her for doing as she is bid. Devlin is not a very sympathetic character, and Grant plays him well - brooding and bitter, and very, very sarcastic.  

Far more sympathetic is Sebastian, the Nazi husband, whom Alicia betrays. It was producer Selznick who struck out for Claude Rains, and it was a piece of inspired casting. Sebastian loved Alicia once, and loves her even more now she is his wife. He also trusts her, a trust that is misplaced since she will betray him, and in living, seal his death. He definitely loves her more than Devlin does, and will pay the price for that love when he realises Alicia never loved him. For all that he is willing to kill Alicia in the end, Sebastian is a very sympathetic character, much more human and therefore, much more appealing.

Leopoldine Konstantin's Dame Sebastian has very little screen time, but she is chilling. Hers is a very dominant personality, and it is clear that she sees Alicia as a threat. When the opportunity arises to get her out of the way, she moves quickly. Hers is an unforgettable cameo.

The lead pair scorch the screen, their chemistry so sexually charged, though nothing improper is ever shown on screen. 
Selznick was reportedly aghast at the narrative arch of Bergman's character, afraid that the audience would never accept such a notorious woman as heroine. Roy Webb's music, overlooked just as much as the film, helped build up the atmosphere - both the passion, and the tension.

Ben Hecht's script gave us a very sensual film, passionate and erotic without being explicit. The screenplay also outlined the differences between the two men, and Hitchcock emphasises them by the way he stages the scenes with the two men. 

As always, the way Hitchcock framed his shots increases the tension. I have found that there is always a shot or two that stays with me long after I have finished watching a Hitchcock film. In Rope, it is the scene where James Stewart unknowingly plays with the murder weapon; in Spellbound, it was the scene where two boys are sliding down and one falls on sharp pointed railings (no, not the Salvador Dali-designed dream sequence); in Strangers on a Train, it is the last tennis match; here, it is the long unbroken shot of the landing, ending with a closeup of the key in Alicia's nervous hands. 
Unlike many movies that peter out towards the climax, Notorious keeps the suspense going until the last scene. (Spoiler ahead). When Devlin walks into Sebastian's mansion, goes up the stairs, and walks out with a weak Alicia in his arms in full view of Sebastian and the Nazis, you have a sense of anti-climax. Only to have the tension spike again as one of the Nazis tells Sebastian 'Alex, will you come in, please? I wish to talk to you.' The expression on Sebastian's face as he follows his colleague into the room is priceless. And you're left with a sudden sadness for a man whose only fault was that he trusted the woman he loved.

Trivia: Notorious  had what was then called 'the longest kiss in history'. In order to circumvent the Hays Code, Hitchcock broke the three-minute kiss into multiple shots, with the leads pulling apart every three seconds (which was the maximum length of time allowed for an on-screen kiss.)

Before Selznick gave up the rights to RKO (to garner cash for his pet project Duel in the Sun), he had lobbied hard for Josph Cotten to play Federal Agent Devlin. It took the combined might of William Dozier of RKO and Alfred Hitchcock to dissuade him.


  1. Notorius, Spellbound, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Dial M for Murder, North By Northwest, these were gems, they do not make films like these anymore, I can watch these films again and again, both Ingrid and Grant were superb and yes so were the supporting characters and I absolutely agree with you about Dame Sebastian -chilling is the word.

  2. Hitchcock movies! Watched very few, so many to go...Used to a TV channel during school days, TNT, I think where old movies used to be shown regulalrly...All my English classics seen then only, very few afterwards...BTW, what's Hay's Code - maximum length of time allowed for an on-screen kiss?

    For a 1946 movie, the print is still in good shape, no? Feel sad that we never thought about restoring or keeping proper prints till recently - the best years of Malayalam cinema are not there on any DVDs at all and even if present, all in poor quality..So many to watch but unable to do that now, with the language barrier (for Sanju). Actually, she thinks she cannot understand; must introduce her to more of non-Malayalam, as the kid grows up...

  3.  It is interesting,isn't it, that even though we know the ending, the films you mention still manage to build up the tension? That shows you how well-made they are.

  4.  The Hay's Code was a set of moral guidelines that governed the production of films from around 1930 to the late 60s. It was the first 'censorship' - guidelines were laid down about no profanity, no nudity (not even in silhouette), no mention of drugs/drug trade, no mention of inter-racial sex, and many other things. It was quite rigid,a nd film-makers began to look for ways to get around most of the stupid guidelines.

    If Sanju has a problem with the accents, DVDs usually have sub-titles - use them. I remember finding it very difficult when I was a child to understand American accents (I didn't have a problem with British films as much), and it led to some really hilarious dialogues (or what I thought they said). :)

  5. Heard about the film, will check it out, alongwith revisiting Hitchcock's 'I confess' which I seem to have forgotten. Thanks for the review.

  6. It's been many, many years since I watched Notorious, though I remember not liking it very much - despite the fact that I am a fan of Hitchcock, Grant, and Bergman. Perhaps I was too young to appreciate the nuances of the film when I saw it - and too used to watching less nuanced Hitchcock films (like The Lady Vanishes or The 39 Steps) to understand this one - or like it - as it should be. But your review makes it sound good enough for me to give it a second try! :-)

  7.  You're welcome. I watched I Confess so many, many years ago, I've forgotten all about it. That was an unusual Hitchcock though. In that, there was absolutely no suspense.

  8.  Many Hitchcock fans do not like Notorious - I have never figured out why. Because Grant is not as 'heroic' as he should be? Because Bergman doesn't deserve the end she gets? I liked it simply because of the very human angle to the  tension (which was beautifully built up). If you get the time, please do watch, Madhu, and tell me what you think of it now.

  9.  I will, Anu - as soon as I get the time!! :-)

  10. Anu, of all the Hitchcock movies Notorious is my least favourite in spite of my great favourite Cary Grant in it. I guess I found the pot too complicated.  One of the main charms of Hitchcock is the simplicity of his narrative in the great films you have mentioned, or the others like Frenzy,The Man Who Knew Too much etc. Your excellent review also does not enthuse me enough to make the effort to see it.  Sorry about that.

    I have caught up with your absloutely outstanding reviews of Anatomy of a Murder and The Japanese Wife.  Even though I have not seen them yet, I 'know' these are going to be my great favourite movies.

  11.  Thank you for the compliment, AK, and no, you don't have to like it. :) To me, the very human characters made it a very intriguing film. Not to mention the acting. But I can understand how people can like some films and not others. Do tell me what you think of the other films when you get around to watching them.

  12. This is my Favourite Hitchcock. Yes, I like it more than Psycho, Vertigo, North By Northwest and Rear Window and all other usual Hitchcockian suspect. Pairing of Grant and Bergman is what made this movie for me. Despite being the leading pair of the movie, there is so much longing in it that it actually hurts to see them on the screen together.

  13.  here is so much longing in it that it actually hurts to see them on the screen together.

    Oh, so true!

  14. I'm going to agree with everyone who said this was their favorite Hitchock film- it certainly is mine! Mostly because of the main couple and their chemistry :D What can I say, I am a hopeless romantic. Plus, the character development was spectacular and somehow the ending really suited me. No action packed fight scenes here, only suspense and a subtleness that allows the viewers imagination to convey more than the movie actually does. Also, this was my first Hitchcock.

  15. Thanks for commenting, AvG. Yes, the character development was great. I'm glad you were introduced to Hitchcock through this film.


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