In 1946, when Notorious was released, Alfred Hitchcock and stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman were at the top of their game. Since his first American feature, Rebecca, in 1940, Hitchcock had in the past six years made Foreign Correspondent (1940), Suspicion (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Spellbound (1945), among others. As for Grant, in the past half-dozen years he had starred in His Girl Friday (1940), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Penny Serenade (1941), Suspicion, Destination Tokyo (1943), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and Night and Day (1946). And Bergman, having also just worked with the director on Spellbound, was primarily known for Casablanca (1942), Gaslight (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary's (1945). Now this is more than just a laundry list of excellent American films. When the trio was united for this Ben Hecht-scripted thriller, they were bringing with them a past marked by renowned and hugely popular movies. Notorious, to say the least, had a lot going for it. And boy does it live up to those expectations.
(Did I mention the film also costarred Claude Rains? He would receive his fourth Oscar nomination here.)
It’s a classic Hitchcock plot: Alicia Huberman (Bergman) is the daughter of a man convicted of treason against the United States. While she may not agree politically with her father, presuming that she would nevertheless have connections to his disreputable and dangerous associates living in South America, the US government, specifically agent T.R. Devlin (Grant), asks her to spy on the group. Perhaps she can infiltrate their circle and head off whatever plans are brewing. As luck would have it, one of the leaders of this shady assemblage is Alexander Sebastian (Rains), who just so happens to have had a fancy for Alicia. It’s perfect. She can get close to him, see what’s going on, and all’s well. Only it’s not. Alicia and Devlin inevitably fall in love; she’s reluctant to do everything her relationship with Sebastian might entail, and Devlin grows jealous at the thought of the same. In the middle of this are of course the familiar tropes of government secrets, suspense, spies, and sex. There is also the frequent Hitchcock device known as the “MacGuffin,” in others words, the item the characters are after but the audience doesn’t really care about.
Notorious has everything. It’s a masterfully crafted film, full of wit, intrigue, romance, and tension. There are at least three sequences in the picture that stand out among Hitchcock’s best (and that’s saying something given his body of work!).
As per the production code of the time, on-screen kisses could only be just so long. To undermine this, the perennially clever filmmaker mixes in the requisite kisses between Grant and Bergman with intimate moments of charged embracing, subtle glances, and seductive dialogue. Over the course of several minutes, Hitch doesn’t break the kiss code; he does so much more.
Technical virtuosity was also something noteworthy in nearly every Hitchcock film, and in Notorious we get a brief shot that is simply amazing in its execution. Bergman has secured a key crucial to the development of the plot. It’s a small feature, but it’s vital. To accentuate this, Hitchcock begins an elaborate crane shot from several feet in the air, hovering above a party. Gradually, the camera moves all the way down, through the crowd to ground level, and eventually concludes in a tight close-up of Bergman’s hand grasping the key. It’s a flamboyant maneuver that may not necessarily add anything to the characters or the story, but it’s a stylistic feature that adds considerably to the visual design of the film and the mechanical showmanship of Hitchcock.
Finally, there is arguably the most suspenseful moment of the film. Grant and Bergman have descended to Sebastian’s wine cellar. They know something is amiss down there, and it probably has something to do with the wine. Eventually they discover bottles with labels that don’t match the others. Grant browses through the bottles, while unbeknownst to him one is getting pushed closer and closer to the edge of the shelf. If that falls, the jig is up. The glass will shatter, someone might hear, and the contents will go everywhere. It’s pins and needles until … crash! But it doesn’t contain liquid at all. It’s some sort of mineral ore - this is the MacGuffin.
Notorious was another film I saw at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival, and while I’ve always loved Hitchcock one really gets a sense of his skill when you see a film of his on the big screen with a crowd. It’s remarkable how, even after all these years, Hitchcock still commands his audience. The theater was brimming with anxiety, good humor, and rapt attention. During this wine bottle scene there was a palpable and audible sense of tension: squirms, gasps, the whole works. And many of these people, including myself, had seen the film before. We knew what would happen. But it’s still so powerful and effective. Hitchcock certainly knew what he was doing, and he did it better than anybody.