Without a doubt, Notorious (1946) is my all-time favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie. At its core, it’s a romantic spy thriller, but there is so much more to it than Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman sneaking three second kisses one after the other while engaging in espionage against the Nazis. Yes, it’s filled with suspense and sexual tension, but the film, at least for me, is also a surprisingly sharp analysis of human frailty and morality. As if the story weren’t enough, Notorious also has the best cinematography of any of Hitchcock’s black and white films (and some might argue, his entire oeuvre).
Ben Hecht’s intricately orchestrated Oscar nominated screenplay tells the story of an American espionage operation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil , where escaped Nazis are planning their next move following the Third Reich’s defeat. The Strategic Services Unit (SSU, which eventually morphed into, along with other clandestine groups formed after the dissolution of the OSS, into the CIA) recruits Alicia Huberman (Bergman), the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy (Fred Nurney), to infiltrate the Nazis in Rio. Alicia is a high-class notorious good-time girl—simply said, she’s a drunk and a tramp who comes from money. Yet, while awaiting her orders, Alicia falls in love with her SSU handler, Devlin (Grant), a man who does not have a very high opinion of her. Their budding relationship is compromised when she is asked to gain the confidence of her former friend (and perhaps lover) Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), a leading figure in the Nazi group living in Rio, by whatever means necessary. This, of course, means that Alicia has to use her notorious behavior to seduce Alex. When Devlin raises no objections to this plan, Alicia believes Devlin does not love her and so she sets off on her mission. She obviously does an expert job of this, because before long she is married to Alex and living in a house where Nazis regularly meet and a lot of doors are locked. One door in particular is locked by a key that only Alex has access to: the wine cellar door. Devlin and his superior, Captain Prescott (Louis Calhern), are sure this is where the Nazis are hiding something. An elaborate plan, requiring a huge party be thrown at the Sebastian house, is hatched which calls for Alicia to steal the key from Alex and then pass it onto Devlin, an invited guest. When this betrayal is discovered by Alex, he and his mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) enact a poisonous plan of revenge on Alicia.
The most important theme in Notorious is the idea of trust, which makes sense because it’s about tradecraft (spying). Still, the way the theme is developed and carried out throughout the story is quite clever. First, Alicia and Devlin’s first meeting is based on deception, as he pretends to be a party crasher at her home. Her notorious behavior as a first class tramp makes Devlin mistrust any changes that she attempts to make in her character. Has she stopped boozing it up and making conquests? Does she love Devlin, or is he a passing fancy? As such, he withholds his love and trust from her, even when she begs him to do otherwise, and raises no objections when she is asked to prostitute herself to get the goods on the Nazis. In turn, Alicia feels betrayed by the man that she loves and sets about proving to Devlin that she’s an accomplished whore. Her manipulation of Alex’s trust in her, which he gives ever so easily and freely, only exacerbates Devlin’s mistrust in her. Hopefully, the irony is not lost on anyone that the most trusting person in Notorious is Alex, who is an unwitting pawn in Alicia and Devlin’s twisted game of Truth or Dare. This is why Alex Sebastian is Hitchcock’s most sympathetic villain. When he learns the truth about Alicia his world is shattered, and you can’t really blame him for wanting to kill her after what she’s done to him. Still, his stupidity, as noted by his mother, was enormous.
The love story between Alicia and Devlin is extremely complicated and comes off as an indictment on society’s rules on morality. There’s a reason why Alicia drinks and sleeps around—it’s how she learned to cope with her father being a Nazi spy. There is a very small scene in the film where after Alicia has learned of her father’s suicide that she says, “When he told me a few years ago what he was, everything went to pot. I didn't care what happened to me. Now I remember how nice he once was, how nice we both were. It's a very curious feeling, a feeling as if something had happened to me, not to him. You see I don't have to hate him anymore or myself.” It is not a coincidence that Alicia attempts to mend her “wicked” ways after his death and that she allows herself to fall in love with a decent man like Devlin. The problem is that Devlin can’t forget her past, as evidenced by this exchange:
Alicia: The time has come when you must tell me you have a wife and two adorable children and this madness between us can't go on any longer.
Devlin: Bet you've heard that line often enough.
Alicia: Right below the belt every time. That isn't fair, Dev.
Of course, the worst part is that Alicia is recruited as a spy because of her notorious reputation. The Government has no qualms about prostituting this woman for their political aims precisely because she is a known tramp, but, for some reason, those pimping her out seem to think that it’s okay to defame her in their private conversations with one another. Worse yet, Devlin throws her past character flaws in her face every chance he gets. Don’t he and his colleagues bear some responsibility for her behavior? It is precisely Alicia’s emotional frailty that drives her to seduce and manipulate Alex. She wouldn’t have taken the assignment in the first place if, as she says to Devlin, “If you only once had said that you loved me.” In what world does Devlin have any right to be pissed off the entire time that Alicia is risking her life to spy on the Nazis? Surely someone willing to risk imminent danger deserves a little more respect than constant reminders that she’s a whore. And, really, hadn’t Devlin used his own charms on Alicia to get her to go to Rio? Didn’t he engage in an affair with her and then have the audacity to ask her to seduce Alex? He could have told his superiors that they were in love and that she was out of the spy business, but he didn’t. How was his behavior any better than hers? Yet, because she is a fallen woman she is the one who is open to ridicule and judgment. Plus, Devlin’s refusal to believe that Alicia is capable of change is ultimately almost what gets her killed (and, who really knows what happened after that car pulled away from the Sebastian mansion at the end?), as he believes she’s back to boozing when she comes to a meeting gaunt, unsteady, and clearly unwell.
Cinematically, the most striking thing about Notorious is the camerawork. This was Ted Tetzlaff’s last picture as a director of photography, and while he was never as highly regarded as Gregg Toland, Jack Cardiff, Robert Krasker, John Alton, Stanley Cortez, or probably Hitchcock’s favorite cameraman, Robert Burks, he probably shot the best black and white film Hitchcock ever made. While there are several scenes we could discuss, three in particular stand out for me.
The first scenario is what I like to refer to as the hangover scene. The scene opens with a close-up of a glass of Alka Seltzer, with Alicia in the background, lying on a bed. The camera then zooms out and switches to what Alicia sees. Hung over and seeing things cockeyed, she sees a man, at a titled angle, standing in the shadow of the doorway. As he comes closer, and she is lying on her back in obvious pain, the camera flips upside down and we see a fuzzy, backlit Devlin. Without a doubt, this is probably the most creatively shot hangover scene ever.
I also find the tea cup scene (yes, they were drinking coffee, but it’s looks like a tea cup), or what I call “Tea is served”, near the end of Notorious to be exceptionally well done. By this point in the story the tea cup has become it’s own Hitchcockian motif, and the audience is aware that Alex and his mother are well on their way to killing Alicia with poison. Again, drink of some sort seems to be Alicia’s undoing. Just as the fizzing Alka Seltzer is the starting focal point in the hangover scene, the tea cup is shot in the forefront of this scene, which opens with one of the Nazis commenting about how poorly Alicia, dressed in black, looks, and then the focus of the scene shifts from the conversation to a tea set sitting in front of Mrs. Sebastian and then to a particular cup that she brings to Alicia. After a slight shift back to the conversing people, the cup is shot from an ominously low angle with Alicia in the background. When there is a mix up with the cups and Alicia realizes what’s going on, a single, innocent shot of a tea cup moves directly to a bewildered Alicia to a sweeping close-up of first her mother-in-law and then Alex. As she gathers herself up to leave the room, her two poisoners dissolve into shadow figures and seem to be guarding her from the door. Once out in the foyer, her deteriorating health, not to mention her now-altered emotional state, is echoed through the use of distorted images. She then passes out on the checkered tile, which looks a lot like a chess board. Is it just me, or do tea cups and chess boards make you think of Alice in Wonderland? Is this an overlooked theme by film critics… Or was Alicia a sacrificed pawn in the Government’s chess game with the Nazis?
Perhaps the most famous sequence in Notorious is the infamous wine cellar key swap. Once Alicia swipes the key from Alex it becomes the focal point of the next few minutes of the film. First, Alicia’s closed hands (one containing the key) must elude Alex’s kisses. Next, Tetzlaff uses a crane to do a sweeping shot from the top of the massive staircase to the bottom of the steps where Alex and Alicia are greeting guests and to Alicia’s nervously fidgeting left hand which is gripping the key, anxiously awaiting Devlin’s arrival. When he does finally arrive, the camera focuses in on Alicia’s hand as Devlin kisses it and she passes him the key. All of these elements are seamlessly completed but done in such a way that it heightens the viewer’s anxiety.
I could go on and on about why I’m such a fan of Notorious. Every character was expertly cast, with no one giving a false performance. The story was well paced and quite believable (especially when you consider how many Nazis did end up hiding in Brazil and planning a resurgence of the Reich) and, like almost every Hitchcock picture, meticulously constructed into an edge of your seat thriller, and, in this case, right down to the very last minute on screen. All of these elements, as well as the ones discussed above, are why I am such an admirer of Notorious. Oh, and the MacGuffin is a wine cellar full of wine bottles filled with uranium…thought I’d add that for all the hardcore Hitch fans out there.