One of the Master of Suspense’s best is a darkly romantic take on patriotism & patriarchy.
Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For Thanksgiving, we’re going off the beaten path this month and asking contributors to write about the movie they’re most thankful for experiencing. Read the rest of our coverage here.
As someone who makes her living writing about people falling in love, there is no better fuel to the love story narrative than angst, and none better than in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 masterpiece, Notorious. For a movie made over 70 years ago, it has some wildly modern ideas about masculinity, feminine power, and what it means to be “a woman of that sort.”
Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia Huberman is the unequivocal hero of this film, and like all the best heroes she is deeply flawed, an indulgent party girl whose flamboyant lifestyle is window dressing for a deep and aching loneliness. She is the daughter of a German war criminal, a woman who is determined to live for herself, acting on her own wants and needs alone. The government agents reward this independence by throwing her to the Nazis the way one would throw a bone to a pack of dogs. No big loss, you know, a woman of that sort.
Enter agent T.R. Devlin, played with cold intensity by Cary Grant in what is one of the greatest and most layered performances of his career. The first glimpse of him in the film shows him as a dark presence at the fringes of a party, the back of his head and shoulders the only thing visible to the audience as he sits, silently observing the debauchery around him. The next scenes will show him as warm and playful, but that’s the act. It’s this version that is the real Devlin, the well-dressed ice sculpture, the remote observer.
The spark of attraction between these two is so immediate and so intense, the viewer might feel as drunk as Alicia herself as she closes her eyes and giggles, swaying slightly. “There’s nothing like a love song for a good laugh” she croons, not knowing how soon she’ll be changing her tune. The about-face comes the next morning, after some wild drunk driving and an impatient sock to the head by Devlin (what a guy!). Alicia wakes up to a new reality, one that is painful, out-of-focus, and completely upside down. Standing at the center of it all is Dev, shown as a dark slash across Alicia’s hazy vision, all his affable charm gone. Here Grant’s continental accent is used to icy perfection, each clipped word as sharp and vicious as the point of blade.
The film takes a cockeyed view of patriotism and America as a land of opportunity. Devlin and his shadowy government agency are only too happy to exploit Alicia’s love of her adopted country for their own purposes. Alicia is persuaded—already half in love with Dev—and goes to Rio to be the American’s trojan horse into the Nazi war machine still operating in South America. Alicia sees this as an opportunity for a new beginning, a fresh start, something most of us understand and yearn for ourselves. Devlin, appalled to find himself falling for Alicia’s lush vitality, pushes her away as much as he’s able, belittling her efforts to better herself. “Why won’t you let me happy?” she asks, pain and desire fully alive in her eyes.
The spark of attraction between these two is so immediate and so intense, the viewer might feel as drunk as Alicia herself as she closes her eyes and giggles, swaying slightly.
It’s only a matter of time before he gives in to his feelings, giving us one the most sexually charged moments ever put to film: a long, tracking scene of Dev and Alicia kissing and nuzzling, whispering with their lips against the other’s skin. It’s a scene so voyeuristic and intimate it’s almost difficult to watch, so much so that when the camera cuts to the next scene and Dev’s hand slamming against the desk in his superior’s office, we feel like we’re the ones being slapped. The honeymoon, as they say, is over. Devlin is tasked with giving Alicia her new assignment, to cozy up to debonair IG Farben businessman Alex Sebastian, played with surprising empathy by Claude Rains. Sebastian was once in love with Alicia, Devlin is informed by his superior. “I didn’t know that,” Devlin practically spits in response. Devlin feels tricked by his own sentiments, and throws all that cold male fury back onto Alicia.
The hat trick of Notorious is in making Sebastian such a sympathetic counterpart to Devlin. He is kind and gallant towards Alicia, forthright in making his desire for her (however unwanted) explicitly known. It would be too easy to call these characters opposites, instead they both seem to exist in the same grey area. Both men covet Alicia, one openly and the other reluctantly. When Alicia informs her American handlers that Sebastian wants to put a ring on it, Hitchcock wisely keeps the focus on Alicia and Dev, her eyes openly begging him to speak up for her, to fight for her, as he all but flees the room. Now that’s good angst.
What I love about this movie is what a capable agent Alicia is, even when the powers that be in the American government express doubts on the abilities of “a woman of that sort.” But Dev comes to her defense, comparing her bravery to that of a senator’s wife, “a fine lady” attending tea parties from the safety and comfort of Washington DC. Dev’s every word drips with venom, and when the senator takes offense, Grant delivers the most hilariously insincere apology in the history of cinema. And he’s right about Alicia, her incredible courage and quiet intelligence.
In every scene when she’s not smiling and playing the part of the doting newlywed, the pain and misery is front and center in her eyes. When Dev pulls her into a kiss, she breaks away and whispers Dev’s name, a plea of raw and delirious need. It’s meant to be a diversion, a bit of theater to protect her cover, but she can’t help break through the surface of the moment, reveling in the feeling of being in Dev’s arms. None of this delicious torment prevents Alicia from doing her job like a boss. She knows what questions to ask, she remembers every name and every face. She even filches the key to the off-limits wine cellar where the IGF goons are storing their McGuffins. She stays on task, even after Sebastian realizes Alicia’s duplicity and begins poisoning her with the help of his mother (a terrifying Leopoldine Konstantin).
The third act of Notorious takes a refreshingly modern view on masculinity and male pride. Sebastian, realizing he’s been cuckolded and spied upon, immediately thinks murder. And not the slow, subtle death by poisoning his mother plans. “Alicia, I’ll take care of her myself. I stood looking at her while she was asleep, and I could have…” Silenced before he can finish the thought, the violent rage is still evident in his distant expression, his trembling hands. Up until this point Alex has been patient, kind, attentive to the point of possessive, but civilized. When he finally gives in to his male pride, he watches the woman he supposedly loved slowly withering with no emotion save a concern so insincere it borders on treacly.
In the end, it takes Dev putting aside his pride and jealousy and simmering rage to save Alicia, and to admit that he loves her. It doesn’t matter that she married someone else, he finally decides, it doesn’t matter that she’s a woman with a past. He isn’t changed in essentials, as we see the cold, quiet fury he’d been holding on to is still there, just now directed on Sebastian. Dev, willing at last to admit that some things are more important than his pride, gets the girl and drives off into the sunset (or, in this case, to the hospital) leaving Sebastian to his doom.
There is a lot I could say about the brilliant camera work and editorial touches in this movie (like how the characters begin smoking when entering into a morally grey area). I could praise the way this movie deconstructs the myth of American excellence post-WWII by having them literally prostitute a woman for the sake of military superiority, but for me, Notorious is at its heart a love story. A dark, twisted love story for sure, but a love story nevertheless. And we need those now more than ever.