WFTB Score: 17/20
The plot: When the Americans need to get inside the house of suspicious German Alex Sebastian in Brazil, they call on good-time girl Alicia Huberman to rekindle an old flame and discover what’s going on. The only trouble is, she may just have fallen in love with her contact, Agent Devlin; and even a girl with her reputation might struggle to love with two men at once.
With her father looking at the wrong end of a long prison sentence for treason, it’s little wonder that renowned loose woman Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is determined to live down to her reputation and drown her sorrows with booze and fast living. However, the American government needs Alicia to do them a favour, and sends handsome agent Devlin (Cary Grant) to ask for it. She reluctantly agrees, even withstanding the news of her father’s suicide on the way to Rio de Janeiro where she and Devlin are to find out the nature of the job.
First of all, they have time to fall madly in love, which makes Alicia’s errand a little awkward: she’s to use her wiles and acquaintance with Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) to find out what a group of Nazi sympathisers are cooking up in his big house, with its many locked doors and his highly suspicious mother (Madame Konstantin) in residence. Devlin, doubting Alicia’s supposedly reformed character, won’t stop her from going ahead with the plan, and she won’t refuse to do it without Devlin saying he loves her; so to their mutual pain Alicia becomes Sebastian’s lover and later, his wife. However, despite Devlin’s coldness he stays around to act on Alicia’s discoveries. Although Sebastian loves his wife dearly, he can’t be blinded by his passion forever, which spells danger for all concerned.
Of all the many yawning gaps in my film knowledge – hey, it’s a big subject – my ignorance in respect of Alfred Hitchcock’s prodigious output is perhaps the most unfortunate. I’m not completely clueless – I’ve seen the original Man who Knew Too Much, The Birds, Rebecca, Spellbound – but I’m clearly no expert. The point to this preamble is that Notorious is a film that so amply demonstrates Hitchcock’s genius that I’m dying to find out if everything else I’ve heard about – Rear Window, North By Northwest, Vertigo – can possibly be as good (I didn’t get on with Psycho, but I’ll try again).
But let’s get to the film itself. There are many reasons why Notorious works so well; chief amongst them is the fact that we’re never certain that events are going to pan out as we want them to. While the star power or lazily-written heroism of many so-called ‘thrillers’ essentially guarantee that it’s all going to be okay, you never get any sense of that here. Right up to the final frame, the tension builds and builds as the balance of power keeps shifting: initially, Sebastian is blinded by his desperate love for Alicia, but once her secret is out she becomes unknowingly vulnerable.
The viewer, knowing that she doesn’t know that they know that she knows what’s afoot, is constantly on edge. Even before the brilliant climax, there’s the tension of the central set-piece, Devlin’s snooping in the cellar counted down by way of diminishing champagne bottles. Throughout, too, there are all kinds of film techniques and tricks that are wonderful to find in a ‘boring old’ black and white film: close-ups, distortions, crazy angles, forced perspective.
That said, the real brilliance of Notorious lies in the convincing and incredibly nuanced relationship between Devlin and Alicia, a couple whose every glance is layered with passion and meaning. They are clearly insanely in love with each other, yet the position they find themselves in makes their romance all but impossible, concentrating the passion still further.
The counterpart of their love is a violent, spiteful hatred: Alicia hates Devlin for failing to acknowledge that he loves her, for putting her in this predicament; Devlin hates Alicia for her past, for her willingness to take the job; and neither will admit their weaknesses to anything but the camera lens. Bergman is statuesque, luminous and runs the whole gamut of emotions, while the muscular, authoritative Grant keeps his almost entirely under wraps. Together, they absolutely burn up the screen. This isn’t to diminish the supporting cast: Rains, Konstantin, and Calhern (as Prescott, the man in charge of affairs (so to speak)) all do really good things, but the impact of the film is as a two-hander, with Bergman shading the contest on points.
There are, arguably, a couple of negatives. You never really get a keen sense that the action is taking place in the heat and light of Brazil, and it can’t be down to the film’s vintage, or lack of colour, because Casablanca expertly portrayed Morocco and Paris without ever leaving L.A. Also, while Hitchcock gave us the term McGuffin (or however it’s spelt), it doesn’t mean his use of one automatically goes unchallenged. The contents of Sebastian’s wine bottles are evidently of vital importance – indeed, they’re the cause of the whole plan; that being the case, I would have liked to know a little about what becomes of them, of Sebastian, his mother and all his strange “friends”. On the other hand, it’s not as if the ending is exactly ambiguous.
There are those who will never be persuaded to watch old monochrome movies, but they should be nagged and nagged until they sit down to enjoy movies like Casablanca and this one instead of the latest noisy tat. Notorious is exciting, fresh, beautifully paced, and overflowing with passion and tension. I may or may not fall in love with Hitchcock’s work as a whole, but I’m a huge fan of Bergman – and I’ll admit to having a soft spot for Archie too.