“Notorious” - Alfred Hitchcock (1946)

        Alicia:     “Say it again, it keeps me awake.”
        Dev:         “I love you.”
Those words near the memorable closing of Notorious (1946) represent Alfred Hitchcock’s most expressive screen moment and help make this film rank among the all-time best. The film is often described by reviewers as a noirish spy-thriller, with a compelling love story on the side. But actually the love story is the primary theme of this film – the suspense and adventure merely  provide narrative scaffolding around which this great love story unfolds.

The spy-thriller aspects of the story were about as contemporary as you could get. Shot in late 1945, fresh in the wake of World War II and the Hiroshima democide, the film concerns some post-war Nazi conspirators apparently seeking to build atomic weapons.  The story tells of a woman recruited by the US Secret Service to spy on these Nazi renegades, now operating clandestinely in Brazil.

Hitchcock liked one-word, evocative film titles, and this one refers to the tainted moral reputation of the main character – something that makes her a useful tool for the US Secret Service but damages her personal relations.  And throughout the watching of the film, the word ‘notorious’ hovers in the mind’s background.  Indeed the word relates in different ways to the film’s related themes of trust, duty, deception, and, of course, love.

The cast of principal characters for Notorious was ideal and one of Hitchcock’s most fortunate ensembles:
  • Ingrid Berman plays the role of Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a German spy convicted of treason, is sexually promiscuous and something of lush (as in virtually an alcoholic).
  • Cary Grant plays T. R. (“Dev”) Devlin, an upright and coolly confident operative for the U. S. Secret Service.
  • Claude Rains is Alex Sebastian, a wealthy German businessman living in Brazil and hosting the Nazi conspiracy meetings.  He is the one whom Alicia is assigned to seduce.
  • Leopoldine Konstantine is Madame Anna Sebastian, Alex’s dominating mother.

This combination of thespian talents was oddly perfect.  Ingrid Bergman, herself, was a unique combination – she was at once vigorous and sensuous, and at the same time sensitive, innocent, and vulnerable. She was one of the greatest and most captivating screen actresses, with many outstanding performances; but this one, in my opinion, was her very best. Cary Grant was also a complicated mixture  – here of sturdy masculinity and hesitant circumspection.  As the supposed villain Sebastian, Rains gives a nuanced and reflective performance that makes him almost a victim of circumstances. Leopoldine Konstantine was an apt choice for the role of the menacing mother.  Even though she was only two years older than Rains, she comes across naturally as a strict matron overseeing  the life of her aging “mama’s boy” son. It would be a recurring motif for Hitchcock to portray single men tormented long into adulthood by domineering mothers (e.g. Strangers on a Train, 1951; North by Northwest, 1959; Psycho, 1960; The Birds, 1963). The pairing of the 5'9" Bergman with the 5'7" Rains (and in stark contrast to the 6'2" Grant) was a further visual metaphor signifying Sebastians’s vulnerability.

As with some of Hitchcock’s best narratives, the story structure of Notorious has something of a twisting, serpentine character.  One might compare it to the mythology of the “Hero’s Journey”, as articulated by Vladimir Propp, Joseph Campbell, and Christopher Vogler [1], but I am not going to go down that path here.  We can say, though, that it rapidly weaves back and forth between the love story and the spy story – both of which are confounded by deception and mistrust.
1. Introducing Alicia
For the first fifteen minutes or so we are introduced to the somewhat dissolute life of a young German woman in the US, Alicia Huberman. The opening sequence shows her father being sentenced by a US court to 20 years in prison for treason as a Nazi spy. Later we see Alicia hosting a drunken gathering at her place that includes a mysterious, taciturn  party crasher, T. R. Devlin, to whom Alicia is physically attracted. We see from these early scenes that Alicia is wantonly promiscuous and a heavy, almost compulsive, drinker. When she wakes up the next morning with a severe hangover, her hair bun that has fallen onto her pillow symbolizes her lifestyle of superficiality and deception.

Devlin is a US Secret Service agent who has come to recruit her to spy on some Germans. He argues that if she does so, she can clear her disreputable (notorious) reputation as the daughter of a traitor by serving her country.  Since it just happens to be the case that Alicia is indeed a patriotic American, she immediately agrees to the mission, and soon she and “Dev” are flying down to Rio de Janeiro, where the planned espionage is to take place.

2. Madly in Love

Alicia and Dev rent an apartment in Rio, and the openly amorous Alicia challenges the hesitant Dev to respond, which he does pretty quickly. Though for Dev, Alicia is not a “respectable” woman, he cannot resist her sincere expressions of affection. Hitchcock is not really famous for his love scenes, but this sequence of a little more than ten minutes is truly exquisite  – particularly the memorable two-minutes-and-forty-five second kissing sequence. To get around the Motion Picture Code restriction that a kiss should not last longer than three seconds, Hitchcock had Bergman and Grant continually exchange passionate kisses and nibbles that collectively are much more erotic than a long, single kiss. Even when their kissing is interrupted by a phone call for Dev, they continue their amorous love play while Dev listens on the phone.

3. The Espionage Assignment
That phone call summoned Dev to the US government office to learn the specifics of Alicia’s spying mission: she has been assigned to sexually seduce her father’s former German former colleague, whose past amorous interest in Alicia make her ideal for this task. When Dev returns to their apartment and explains the assignment to Alicia, their relationship begins to unravel.  During this third part of the film, which lasts about thirty minutes, the spy story dominates, and the love story falls apart. 

Dev wants Alicia to refuse to prostitute herself, and Alicia is shocked that Dev raised no objections in front of his superiors to her being given such an assignment.  Each of the two is insecure and looking for commitment from the other – each wants the other to say, “no”.  When Devlin goes silent, Alicia is crushed by his cold reserve and pours herself a stiff drink.  Their relationship has come to a crashing halt.

By a contrivance, Sebastian meets Alicia and Devlin, and he is informed that they are just casual friends who met on the plane coming down to Rio. Thereafter Alicia dutifully takes up her role as a seductress and sets about charming the wealthy German (and secret Nazi), Alex Sebastian. At one dinner gathering of the German group of Nazis that is hosted by Sebastian, Alicia observes that one of the men, Hubka, makes an odd commotion about a wine bottle lying on top of a cabinet.  Hubka is quickly ushered from the room, and Alicia subsequently reports to Devlin at a clandestine meeting that there is apparently something important about that suspicious wine bottle. Alicia later learns that for this simple faux pas, Hubka was killed by his Nazi colleagues for potentially revealing one of their secrets.

Alicia and Devlin now occasionally arrange meetings at a public park bench so that they exchange information.  But they also use these occasions to trade sardonic accusatory barbs about each other’s faithlessness and disrespect.  Finally, Alicia reports that “you can add Sebastian’s name to my list of playmates” – just the kind of thing to sting Devlin. Soon thereafter Sebastian proposes marriage to Alicia, and they later depart on their honeymoon.  The Alicia-Dev relationship is finished.

4. The Party
But the espionage story goes on and is coming to a head [2].  Devlin wants to learn more about just what’s in Sebastian’s wine cellar, so he urges Alicia to get Sebastian to throw a party to which he can be invited and then sneak down to the cellar to see what’s there.  The large party is duly scheduled, but first Alicia has to steal Sebastian’s key to the cellar, which she manages to do.  On the night of the party, Hitchcock cinematically introduces the scene by employing a justly celebrated overhead crane shot of the party gathering – from its high overlooking position it then quickly tracks in and down to a closeup of Alicia’s closed hand clenching the stolen key.

Alicia then surreptitiously passes the key to Devlin, and the two of them steal their way down to the wine cellar and rummage around. Devlin discovers that some of the wine bottles there are full of granulated uranium ore – a revelation that would have meant nothing to audiences a couple of years earlier but one of ominous portent by 1946 [3].  Just as they are about to leave the cellar and head back upstairs, though, Alex Sebastian comes down to the cellar looking for wine and sees them from some distance away.  To cover their spying, Alex suddenly grabs Alicia and kisses her passionately, pretending that he had drawn Alicia downstairs in order to put the make on her. Though it is all pretense in order to divert Alex’s attention, Alicia responds passionately to the kiss and melts in Devlin’s arms, showing that she still really does love him.

When Alex confronts them, Devlin says that he tried to seduce Alicia, but failed and that Alicia is still faithful to Alex.  He says to Alex, “I knew her before you, loved her before you, but I wasn’t as lucky as you.” But although Alex seems to accept this statement of contrition, it should have been evident to him that it is a lie, since earlier Alicia had told Alex that she had only just met Devlin on the plane coming into Rio.  This is a continuation of the film’s theme of deception and authenticity. Devlin and Alicia, the protagonists in this tale, have continually lied to and deceived Alex, who, in contrast, comes off in this stage as relatively sincere and innocent.

5. The Reversal
But now Alex does become suspicious and begins to lie to Alicia. He figures out that Alicia and Devlin had snooped around in the wine cellar and correctly guesses that Alicia is a hired informant. Knowing that his Nazi comrades will kill him, like they killed Hubka, if they discover that he has married and hosted a US spy, he consults his coldly calculating mother for advice. She proposes that they kill Alicia slowly by secretly poisoning her coffee so that her death will appear natural and not attract attention.

Alicia quickly begins to weaken from the poisoning, and Dev can see her deterioration when they meet secretly at the public park bench.  But their exchanges are sill larded with nasty insinuations.  Finally, Alicia is bedridden and becomes a prisoner in the Sebastian mansion. When she doesn’t show up for her next appointment with Devlin, his worries about her intensify.

6.  The Rescue
Determined to find out what’s wrong with Alicia, Devlin visits the Sebastian mansion and is luckily admitted by the butler while Alex is busy meeting in a closed room with his Nazi colleagues. He makes his way to her room, where he sees her drugged to near unconsciousness in the bed, and there ensues their memorable romantic scene.  She smiles rapturously,
Alicia:  "I’m so glad you came.”
Dev:     “I had to. . .I couldn’t stand anymore waiting and
               worrying about you.” 
When he finally tells her what she has always wanted to hear – that he loves her – they have this exchange:
Alicia:  “You love me.  But why didn’t you tell me before.”
Dev:       “I know. but I couldn’t see straight or think straight. 
                   I was a fat-headed guy full of pain. 
                   It tore me up not having you.”
. . .
Alicia:  “Oh you love me.”
Dev:      “All the time, since the beginning.”   
He needs to get her out somehow and have her sufficiently awake so that she can walk.  So he  tells her to keep talking to stay wake.
Alicia:    “Say it again, it keeps me awake.”
Dev:        “I love you.”
Alicia:    “Don’t ever leave me.”
Dev:        “You’ll never get rid of me again”
Alicia:    “I never tried to.”
How they manage to get out of the mansion I will leave to your viewing, but I assure you that it is very dramatic.
Although there are not a lot of action sequences in Notorious, Hitchcock’s mise-en-scene and cinematic skill is in full evidence.
  • Rear-projection shots. Hitchcock employed rear-projection cinematography to a significant degree in this film. In fact all the scenery from Rio was obtained by a separate film crew that traveled to Brazil and shot background footage that was then used for rear-projection shots. The cast never left Los Angeles. Thus the outdoor scenes showing Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant always show them in the foreground with a scenic landscape in the background. 
  • Moving-camera shots. The rear-projection footage could have had the danger of making the film too stagy and static, but Hitchcock interspersed a number of effective moving-camera shots throughout.  I have already mentioned the moving-crane-shot that tracked in on Alicia’s hand holding the key at the party.  There were also frontal, medium-closeup tracking shots following Alicia and Dev around in the party scenes.  The best, of course, was the extended, near-three-minute kissing shot that I mentioned in connection with Section 2 (“Madly in Love”).
  • Music.  The background music, which can often be intrusive for films of this period, is excellent in Notorious.  Hitchcock wanted to have Bernard Herrmann score the film, but he wasn’t available, so the music was done by Roy Web.  The result was less dramatic, but moody and highly effective.
  • Iconic Artifacts.
    Hitchcock often has physical artefacts that seem to serve as axes around which the narrative revolves.  They are sometimes referred to as the “MacGuffin” for the film, and in this case there was more than one.  
    1. Dev’s scarf that he gives to Alicia when they meet in order to warm her bare midriff is one.  Later when their relationship crumbles, she returns his scarf to signify she is cleaning house. 
    2. The mysterious wine bottle that proves to contain uranium power is another artefact that commands our attention through much of the film.
    3. The key to the cellar, with the name “Unica” written on it, is a powerful visual symbol that provides the occasion for Alicia’s heroism and also her downfall.

To conclude, let me return to the main themes of deception, trust, and love. Alicia is a habitual deceiver who lies in order to charm people. This gets her into trouble when she wants to convince Dev that her love for him is sincere.  Later, she spends her time deceiving Sebastian. Dev, of course, is a professional spy and thus in the business of deception. So he is probably naturally distrustful of everyone else, particularly a “notorious” man-killer like Alicia. Curiously, the Nazi traitor Alex Sebastian seems to be, by comparison, innocent and trusting. But later, he reveals his perfidious nature when he agrees to have Alicia poisoned to death. Anyway, love is not dependent on trust; true love is a higher order that goes beyond trust.

So what brings Devlin back to the house to save Alicia? Does he suddenly trust the woman who went off and had yet another carnal relationship with a man he despised?  No, he realizes when he looked inside himself that he doesn’t have more trust for her – he loves her.  And that is all that really matters.

  1. Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey, 2nd Edition, Michael Wiese Productions (1998).
  2. In fact this point is what Vogler or Campbell would call “entering the inmost cave”.
  3. Our present-day blasé attitude about nuclear threats is more due to wilful ignorance than to acquired experience.


Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Great film analysis, one that compels me to revisit the film right away... I wasn't really impressed when I had watched it the first time around!!!

tuttabellamia@aol.com said...

Good morning. I discovered your blog last night when I Googled Ingmar Bergman's THIRST. When is your next entry planned for?

I'm especially interested in Ingmar Bergman and Louis Malle's THE FIRE WITHIN.


tuttabellamia@aol.com said...

I see you have an old entry on Bergman's THE SILENCE, and I''d love to post a comment there, but is there any point at this stage? Will anyone read it or care?