Next to “Shadow of a Doubt,” in 1943, “Notorious” is the other great Hitchcock film of the 1940s, and in many ways, his most fully achieved picture to date in every department, including the technical. The film boasts wonderful production values, particularly Ted Tetzlaff’s crisp black-and-white photography.
The scholar William Rothman has correctly pointed out that “Notorious” transforms the Hitchcock’s British thrillers of the 1930s, “The Lady Vanishes,” The Thirty-Nine Steps,” into a uniquely American work. Indeed, Hitchcock’s first American films, “Rebecca,” “Foreign Correspondent,” “Saboteur,” have all merits but they pretty much follow the pattern of his English movies.
While marketed to the public as a spy love story, for commercial considerations, the narrative unfolds as a deep and serious study of the nature and limits of sexual and emotional abuse as well as of political manipulation. In this, and other themes, “Notorious” was an audacious work in the 1940s, particularly when made right after WWII.
The stars, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, then at their most handsome and popular, lend immediate appeal to the picture. This was Cary Grant’s second film for Hitchcock, after “Suspicion” in 1941, and it was followed with two other star vehicles, “To Catch a Thief” in 1955 opposite Grace Kelly, and perhaps best of all their collaborations, “North by Northwest” in 1959 with Eva Marie Saint.
Released on August 16, 1946, “Notorious” was extremely popular with the mass audience, ranking as the eighth top-grossing picture, with impressive domestic rentals of $4.8 million.
The story begins in Miami, as the father of Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is sentenced for treason and criminal activities against the U.S. In the first scene, she is seen leaving court, embarrassed and humiliated, surrounded by nosy paparazzi.
In the next scene, we get to see Alicia’s fast life, a good party girl with a severe drinking problem, which becomes clear in a rapid driving scene (a staple in Hitchcock ‘s thrillers) with Devlin (Cary Grant), a guest in her party.
Talking the police out of giving her a ticket by showing his ID as an American agent, Devlin approaches with an offer to serve as a counterspy in Brazil, working with the American authorities in an effort to discover enemy secrets about Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a Nazi and former colleague-friend of her father’s.
Needless to say, Alicia and Devlin fall in love, though later on, when her mission becomes dangerous, he is unwilling, and more importantly unable to stop her further involvement with Sebastian.
One thing leads to another and Alicia marries the old, unappealing Sebastian, to the utmost satisfaction of the American agencies, which embrace the move selfishly, as a faster and more efficient way to get vital information about uranium.
Eventually, however, Sebastian and his domineering mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) find out that Alicia is their enemy. Their attempt to poison her is almost effective Devlin rescues her, and Sebastian has to explain these strange events to his colleagues.
The film offers a view of Cary Grant at his darkest in any Hitchcock—or other—film. Rendering a fantastic performance, Grant shows all the moods of his character, from a confident male whose pride was hurt, turning him (for a while) into a cold, cynical pro, who first manipulates in a calculating way Alicia before finally relenting, when the truth is revealed.
We never find out what’s the first name of Devlin, who is introduced in the most peculiar and original manner, showing his back to the camera at Alicia’s party; it takes several minutes before we see his face.
As Donald Spoto observed, Notorious” is a spy melodrama on the surface, but the espionage (including Hitchcock’s MacGuffin) serves as a pretext for more serious, abstract issues, such as the nature of love and sacrifice, placed against both personal and collective (nationalist) interests.
In the end, the movie, unlike Hitchcock’s later works, is rather optimistic about human nature, demonstrating the possibility of true love and genuine mutual trust in redeeming two lives from a state of fear, guilt, and meaninglessness. Alicia is transformed from alcoholism, frenetic sensuality and neurotic guilt for her father’s crimes against the U.S. For his part, Devlin seems liberated from his fear of women, showing capacity for affection and ability for personal growth.
The last image of “Notorious” is particularly effective, showing not the romantic reunion of Devlin and Alicia, as could be expected, but of Sebastian slowly going back to his house, knowing that he’s doomed. This image, like many other concluding ones in Hitchcock’s work, indicates irony and ambiguity rather the more conventional “happy ending.”
Among other qualities, “Notorious” shows extreme sympathy for its nominal villain, Sebastian(extremely well played by the character actor Claude Rains), who really loves Alicia. Realizing that, Hitchcock encourages audience identification with the gazes of both Devlin and Sebastian, two men in love with the same desirable femme.
Oscar Nominations: 2
Screenplay (Original): Ben Hecht
Supporting Actor: Claude Rains
Oscar Awards: None
In 1946, the other nominees for Original Screenplay were Raymond Chandler for “The Blue Dahlia,” Jacques Prevert for “Children of Paradise,” Norman Panama and Melvin Fran for “The Road to Utopia,” and Muriel Sydney Box for the melodrama, “The Seventh Veil.”
The winner of the Supporting Actor Oscar was Harold Russell for “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which swept most of the awards that year, including Best Picture, Director (William Wyler), and Actor (Frederic March).
Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman)
Devlin (Cary Grant)
Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains)
Mrs. Sebastian (Leopoldine Konstantin)
Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern)