Nazis, Rio, and the CIA are like Lincoln logs for a good spy story, but what happens when you spike the mix with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman? You get Notorious, a thriller as lush in romance as its heroine – Bergman’s Alicia Huberman – is at the outset soaked in booze and despair. Alicia’s father, you see, was a convicted Nazi spy, whose, ahem, notorious stain has shaped her into a lady of ‘loose morals,’ but also makes her valuable to a US Intelligence sting op lead by Grant’s Agent Devlin. The sum of the plan is for Alicia to use her sultry wiles on a Nazi conspirator with the rather ungermanic name of Alexander Sebastian (played by the rather ungermanic Claude Rains). This, naturally, complicates the circumstances under which Grant and Bergman start making out with each other.
Leaving the plot aside for a moment, this is an absolutely gorgeous film, y’all. It has all the shadowy elegance of a noir without the violence of that genre’s angular lighting patterns. Shots are breathtakingly specific – probably the most famous is a flowing crane that moves from high view of a party in full swing to a key clutched in Bergman’s trembling fist, which may or may not unlock the secret’s to Sebastian’s nefarious schemes. Hitchcock allows you to see everything – and see it beautifully – except the thing that carries deadly significance. In an odd way, it actually magnifies the stakes that Bergman’s only hope of survival is so small it fits into her palm.
Both Toby Jones and Anthony Hopkins would have you believe this winter that Alfred Hitchcock is the master of cinema; it is in his unerring precision that Hitch proves it here. A rack focus on a glass and aspirin gets called back later with another rack on another glass we know is spiked with arsenic; characters walk down a grand staircase to freedom, and others walk up to their doom. Notorious is an example of a director in complete control, conveying as much information visually as possible (without deflating the suspense), and cutting to maximize a specific emotional response (without loosening the tension). Bastard.
I’m sexy and I know it.
The tension within the film hinges on the truth of Bergman’s character, whether she actually is as notorious as her reputation. Devlin is probably one of the sappier cynics in fiction, perfectly aware of what (and who) Alicia does, and because of that is unwilling to accept that she loves him, and so pushes her into the arms of another man. Sebastian, on the other hand, accepts and trusts Alicia implicitly, yet is deeply jealous over her and eventually plots to poison her so as not to arouse the suspicions of his co-conspirators. Bergman, for her part, does a fantastic job balancing the two men, cool and resigned with Rains, wounded and desperate with Grant. It’s never, ever unclear who Alicia loves and where her loyalties lie, but Bergman and the film both do a good job of showing why Grant might be in doubt.
The answer is still super obvious.
The rest of the plot is a classic McGuffin quest for evil things that Nazi scientists would be cooking up to wreck revenge on the Allies; the most interesting part about that is the nuclear implications of the substances being sought after, so close on the heels of WWII. But the meat of the film is in Grant and Bergman’s battle for trust. It’s reflected in an early love scene between Alicia and Devlin; that sequence involves Grant and Bergman discussing everything from dinner arrangements – “I’ve got a chicken in the icebox and you’re going to eat it,” is delivered like an innuendo but I really hope it isn’t – to the state of their sudden romance, while kissing across the apartment, from the balcony to the door. The fact that the kisses are so constant but continually interrupted by stupid things like ‘logistics’ and ‘missions’ and ‘telephones’ gives the scene a rhythm and the romance a stolen, urgent quality. It’s a picture of two people being kept apart both by circumstances but also by each other at the same time that it’s four minutes (!!!) of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman making out.
That’s the beauty of Notorious. It’s a thriller. It’s a romance. It’s a thriller-romance, and each aspect of the film is so completely bound up in the other that they’re impossible to separate. The justly renowned final shot reflects both tendencies – the comforting dark into which the lovers can escape, the staircase bathed in light that means anything but safety for the man who walks towards it.
Probably the most gorgeous movie Alfred Hitchcock ever shot, Notorious is a must-see for any fan of the director, of thrillers, or of champagne.
Take a Drink: when Ingrid Bergman takes a drink.
Take a Drink: when Ingrid Bergman makes an obviously terrible decision.
Take a Drink: when Cary Grant says something harsh or hard-boiled, but it doesn’t matter because he’s still Cary Grant.