Among Alfred Hitchcock’s many great films, “Notorious” is one of his best, and yet I somehow get the feeling that it’s overshadowed by its more famous cousins from the 1950s and 1960s, such as “Psycho” or “The Birds.” Released in 1946, and starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains, the film utilizes brilliant camerawork, unconventional characters, and an excellent script to deliver a nail-biting thriller that leads up to a doozy of a final scene.
Cary Grant plays T.R. Devlin, a government agent tracing a cadre of Nazis to Brazil following World War II. To infiltrate them, Devlin recruits Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. Alicia is tasked with getting close to Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), a leader in the small Nazi group. Complicating matters is the growing love between Devlin and Alicia, which is realized on-screen in a now famous love scene that bedeviled the censors enough to allow Grant and Bergman to kiss nearly non-stop on screen for a full two and a half minutes.
Devlin cuts off the budding romance, though, and allows Alicia to marry Sebastian to further the investigation, which leads to a wine cellar at Sebastian’s stately manor, full of vintage bottles, and uranium ore. All of that is just a plot machination, the MacGuffin, as Hitchcock once referred to such devices, to keep the characters moving forward. Chasing down the secret stash leads to the film’s second most famous scene--Alicia has stolen a key from Sebastian, and at a lavish party thrown by her Nazi husband, the camera slowly zooms in from a high angle, all the way down to her hand, cradling the key.
Eventually, Alicia is discovered, and the consequences appear to be fatal. But once Devlin realizes what has happened, he comes to her rescue, leaving Sebastian to get his comeuppance at the hands of his friends.
“Notorious” is unique among thrillers in that it features two very non-traditional protagonists. Alicia is characterized as a bit of a loose woman that drinks too much, hardly the type of squeaky clean noble blonde that Hitchcock normally favored. As Devlin, Grant downplays his glamour and style, rarely smiling and even being downright cold and curt on occasion. After all, he has at one point to convince his lover to leave him and not only bed down with another man, but marry him, all for Uncle Sam.
Foreshadowing later Hitchcock films such as "Psycho," not to mention countless other modern thrillers, “Notorious” also detours from its unlikely heroes to follow Alex Sebastian’s own plight, and by the end of the film, we feel almost sorry for him, after continually being insulted by his mother, and then duped by Alicia and Devlin. The film ends not with a happy scene of Grant and Bergman driving off into the sunset in Rio de Janeiro, but with the lone figure of Alex Sebastian awaiting his almost certain to be mortal fate. Fittingly, Claude Rains was recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor (he lost to Harold Russell in “The Best Years of Our Lives”).
I don’t think Bergman has looked more beautiful on screen than she does in “Notorious.” Legendary costume designer Edith Head outfitted Bergman for the film. The full-length dresses she wears in both the party scene and when she uncovers the plot to do her in are stunning.
Even though Ben Hecht was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay, Hitchcock, true to form, uses the camera to tell much of the story in “Notorious.” From the aforementioned overhead zoom, to visual cues on objects like keys, champagne bottles, and lighting effects, and point-of-view shots that establish characters’ mental states, including bold experimentation with focus to heighten the illusion of illness, you can watch the film with the sound turned off and enjoy the movie as pure photography.
“Notorious” deserves to be as highly regarded among the public as it is with critics and scholars. After being under the thumb of Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, it’s clear that Hitchcock felt some freedom, and here delivers one of his best films, tough as nails.
"NOTORIOUS" ON BLU-RAY
A few years ago, a box set of eight Hitchcock films including “Notorious” was released by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment on DVD. That set was plagued by production errors that caused some discs to be unplayable. Now that Blu-ray players are more widespread, Fox has taken the opportunity to properly rerelease “Notorious” as well as “Rebecca” and “Spellbound” in high definition. The image looks good, and all of the special features from the old disc have been ported over to this new release, including two excellent commentary tracks. Film producer Rick Jewell’s narrative focuses on the history of the film and its cast, and USC Professor Drew Casper’s commentary is devoted mostly to the artistic merits of the film.
You also get a Making Of special feature, and archive footage of the 1979 American Film Institute tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, when Ingrid Bergman finally returned that famous key from “Notorious” to the Master of Suspense.
Finally, there are two audio treats; an interview with Hitchcock himself, and the complete 1948 radio play adaptation, starring Joseph Cotten and Ingrid Bergman.