Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production: RKO; black and white; running time: 102 minutes: length: 9,136 feet. Released August 1946.
Producer: Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay: Ben Hecht, from a theme by Alfred Hitchcock; assistant director: William Dorfman; photography: Ted Tetzlaff; editor: Theron Warth; sound: John Tribby,
Ingrid Bergman (
); Cary Grant (
); Claude Rains (
); Louis Calhern (
); Leopoldine Konstantin (
); Reinhold Schunzel (
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* * *
Notorious (1946) is a key film in the Hitchcock canon, one which builds upon thematic elements gradually developed in a series of British ( Blackmail , 1929; Sabotage , 1936) and early American ( Rebecca , 1940; Suspicion , 1941; Shadow of a Doubt , 1943) pictures. But Notorious significantly extends Hitchcock's fascination with men and women bonded in relationships, real or imagined, of an unholy nature. The film takes his portrayal of obsessive behavior in a direction that anticipates Vertigo (1958), Marnie (1964), and, notably North by Northwest (1959), in which, again using Cary Grant in the male lead, he replays Notorious 's chief romantic relationship but reshapes its brooding, uncharacteristically humorless intensity into the format of vibrant comedy.
On its surface, Notorious appears to exploit the period's patriotic fervor by connecting the post-World War II hunt for escaped Nazis to such narrative staples of classic Hollywood cinema as the damsel in distress and the "bad" woman redeemed by the love of a "good" man. In fact, Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht artfully interweave those plot elements to conceal Notorious 's true subject: sexual betrayal which poisons several sets of criss-crossing relationships within the world of the film.
Paramount among those relationships is the one between Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the daughter of a man convicted for Nazi war crimes, and T. R. Devlin (Grant), a federal agent who convinces her to atone for her father's sins by spying on a Nazi group based in Rio de Janeiro. Alicia performs her role too well: Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), the primary target of U.S. surveillance, proposes marriage. In one of the screenplay's dark ironies, Alicia accepts the offer because Devlin fails explicitly to dissuade her from doing so—thereby infuriating the already jealous Devlin by acquiescing to what she thought he wanted her to do in the first place. Though she clearly loves Devlin, as he loves her, she proceeds with her action largely to spite him. ("Love" and the self-serving uses to which that word is put formulate a primary element in the Notorious narratology.)
The romantic relationship between Alicia and Devlin continually undermines 1940s cinema conventions. The couple is kept apart for long stretches of the film, limited to fleeting meetings in which wounded pride prevails on both sides to deny the articulation of true feeling. In Grant's against-type performance, Devlin is cynical and unyielding, a man whose cruel willingness to believe the worst of Alicia inflicts pain almost as lethal as the poison administered to her in the last section of the film. Much of the dialogue between them (within allowable limits of the period's censorship code) is as abusive as any spoken by a romantic couple in the Hitchcock canon. (Alicia: "You can add Sebastian's name to my list of playmates." Devlin: "Pretty fast work." Devlin: "You almost had me believing in that little hokey-pokey miracle of yours—that a woman like you could ever change her spots" Alicia: "I see, some kind of love test." Devlin: "You look all mashed up. Must have been quite an evening.") Moreover, an abrupt ending fails to certify a permanent union, or even that the heroine will reach the hospital alive.
Alex Sebastian is jealous too, with justification. He functions in the narrative as another figure betrayed by the person he adores. (Devlin feels betrayed by Alicia; Alicia feels betrayed by Devlin and by her father; others in the film believe that Alicia has betrayed her Nazi father by refusing to testify on his behalf; Alex's mother feels betrayed by her son's marriage to Alicia: all are variations on the film's central preoccupation.) The presence of Alex's mother, the Nazi dragon who rules his roost and one of those oedipally inclined mother figures in the Hitchcock universe, enables Alex to become a relatively sympathetic figure, an extraordinary risk for a film released in 1946 and a major instance of Hitchcock's development of the complex villain figure. Positively exultant when she learns from him that her suspicions have been confirmed ("Mother . . . I am married to an American agent"), Madame Sebastian assumes the major burden of spectator hostility by reclaiming her authority over her son and directing the attempt on Alicia's life. The film's final shot reasserts Alex's importance to the narrative by forcing the viewer to speculate on the future of this villain manqué, another Hitchcock son who, in Norman Bates's words 14 years later, learns that "a son is a poor substitute for a lover."
Notorious emerges as a major film in the critical debate weighing charges against Hitchcock's alleged misogyny. Like Melanie Daniels at the end of The Birds (1963), Alicia Huberman is rendered virtually catatonic, near death at the film's conclusion; and it is only when she reaches this state that Devlin appears able to treat her with compassion. (See, for an illuminating and balanced reading of this issue, Tania Modleski's The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory , 1988.)
Camera movement and frame composition repeatedly reinforce Notorious 's major themes of stealth, mistrust, and betrayal. Notable among many examples of the film's visual virtuosity are distorted point-of-view shots to reflect the effects of Alicia's drinking early in the film and her poisoning toward its conclusion; pans to and closeups of keys, wine bottles, and coffee cups, props which function as instruments of violation in a film that explores the invasion of privacy on numerous levels; the frequency of intense closeups; the device of photographing Devlin with his back to the camera to deny the spectator full access to him; the justifiably famous shot in which the camera glides from a high perch downward to record the presence of a key in Alicia's hand. In a genuinely imaginative way, Notorious links its form tightly with its content.
—Mark W. Estrin