Notorious: Hitchcock, Claude Rains, Cary Grant, and Ingrid Bergman (Hooray!)



Notorious (1946)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

RKO Radio Pictures, 101 minutes, Not-rated (made before ratings system)





Alfred Hitchcock, Claude Rains, Cary Grant, and Ingrid Bergman…. What could go wrong? Not a blessed thing, though I am prejudiced. If all Ingrid Bergman did in a movie was sit by a tree and eat a sandwich, I’d watch it.


Notorious is more than that. First, it’s a period piece; in the days during and immediately after World War Two, Hollywood made numerous movies with Nazis or ex-Nazis cast as villains. Notorious was one of them. (Bergman also made one in 1942. You might have heard of it: Casablanca.) Second, it’s everything we expect in a film from Hollywood’s Golden Age: glamour, attractive leads, exotic locations, intrigue, and snappy dialogue. These make it easier to overlook contrivances.


Bergman is Alicia Huberman, the daughter of an unreconstructed Nazi arrested for espionage in the film’s opening scene. On the surface, Alicia is a world-weary, snarky, and apolitical. Is she? Can she be trusted? That’s a question T. R. Devlin (Grant) needs to assess. He works with the Secret Service* and reports to Captain Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern), with whom he is working on rumors a Nazi enclave in Brazil is working on something “big.” All that is known for certain is that Alicia’s dead father–he committed suicide in prison–had contact with them. Devlin’s job is to recruit Alicia to help crack the case. “Dev” meets Alicia at a party and quickly falls in love with her–how not? –though she warns him she’s not exactly been a Girl Scout in her past. This, not the Nazis, is the source of the film’s title because: (a) It’s 1946, a time in which sexual mores were more restrictive, and (b) It builds tension for what happens next.


It’s off to Rio, where Alicia makes contact with Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a former lover. As Alicia does her job, Dev becomes increasingly jealous and cool toward her. He even gives his go ahead when Alicia tells him and Prescott that Alex has proposed, and ignores her pained expression. If you think that’s where matters end, you really need to watch more classic films!


The script for Notorious was written by Ben Hecht, one of Hollywood’s most celebrated writers. He was nominated for six Oscars and won two, including one at the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1927. Check out his Wikipedia page and you’ll be stunned by the titles with his name on them. You can thus assume that Notorious has good dialogue, frisson, and twists. It is often called film noir in style and there are elements of that, though I’d call it a noir/spy thriller hybrid. Because it’s a Hitchcock film, you can anticipate there will be skewed perspectives, psychological tension, and things that happen in shadows. For novices, Hitchcock always appears as a split-second cameo in his own films. (I’ll help you this time. Watch the party scene in Alex’s Rio mansion. Hitchcock comes to the table, tosses back a glass of champagne, and walks off camera.)

Hecht was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar for Notorious, but didn’t win. That was just, as without top-shelf acting, the film wouldn’t have worked. Hitchcock famously said that in each of his films there were parts that made no logical sense but, when he made them well, no one noticed. It’s child’s play to find logical inconsistencies in Notorious, most notably the failure of Alex or his Nazi friends to draw conclusions about why Dev is always hanging around when Alicia claimed only to have met on the flight to Rio. Or Alicia’s claim she was forced to kiss Dev when her smooch was obviously not coerced.


One watches Notorious because its eye candy is irresistible. Grant and Bergman were beautiful people, and Hitchcock and cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff knew their way around cameras. Notorious is in black and white, but their work helps make the case for those (including me) who argue that it’s often more emotionally impactful than color, especially when one wishes to bathe shots in shadows. The rear projections of Rio suggest another way the world has changed: Notice how relatively empty it was.


Notorious is a pas de deux between Grant and Bergman–a ritual of attract-repeal-attract. At several junctures, minor characters remark on what a lovely couple they make. Yes, they do. Rains, though, deserved his Best supporting Actor nomination, as his was the harder part to play. We know he is wrong for Alicia, but Rains has to thread the needle between ruthless Nazi, lovesick husband, and mother’s boy. On that score, Austrian actress Leopoldine Konstantin–better known for silent films– was terrific as Madame Anna Sebastian, Alex’s mother. She turns on a dime from imperious and unapproving mother to Nazi panther.


Notorious is usually ranked among the top 100 best films in English. One might argue there are more than 99 better ones, but not I. Because. Ingrid Bergman.


Rob Weir


* If you wonder why the Central Intelligence Agency wasn’t on the case, it wasn’t founded until 1947.









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