ORIGINALLY POSTED JANUARY 2013
I haven’t watched Rebecca in a few years, so at this point I’m declaring that Notorious is my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film (at the moment). There’s just so much to say about it, and yet I really don’t want to reveal too much so that you’ll go out and watch it for yourselves. On its surface, Notorious is a cryptic tale of double dealings and espionage, but underneath that is a twisted relationship of love and sex, femininity, and political and social betrayal. I’ll try to do a more analytic review for this one. Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant have never been better, and I’m confident in saying that their level of talent depicted is the peak of their careers.
Alicia Huberman (Bergman) is a German American citizen whose father has been convicted of treason. She’s approached by a government operative named Devlin (Grant) and asked to spy on her father’s Nazi friends. As Alice is tasked with delving deeper into the Nazi cabal, she’s forced to question Devlin’s blooming love for her, as well as her own loyalty to her country.
One must go into Notorious with the old adage that nothing is as it seems. Everyone is playing a role that constantly changes and adapts to the situation. Hitchcock makes his actors not only inhabit their chosen roles, but changes those roles throughout which I think enhances the level of paranoia the characters, and the audience are meant to exhibit. Something as harmless as drinking tea takes on an air of menace considering the double-dealing Alicia is doing. I think it’s funny that this film focuses on wine being lethal, whereas in Suspicion a glass of milk was made frightening (the latter film also starred Grant). Expectations are always being subverted, right down to what you expect these characters to be like.
Devlin especially is the one who is on the fringes throughout the entire movie. I think it was genius getting Grant to play this role because audiences are so used to him playing the romantic lead, and while he does have a relationship with Bergman’s Alicia, he’s aloof. You never know if he’s processing events from the perspective of a scorned lover, or of a CIA agent. He’s always running hot and cold. Just the name of his character, T.R. Devlin, makes you immediately think he’s a diabolical character, yet Grant oozes sex appeal. I don’t think its coincidence how close Devlin is to Devil. I find myself flubbing the spelling throughout this review. He has electrifying chemistry with Bergman, and yet their relationship is incredibly volatile. The first scene has Devlin covering Alicia’s midriff, repressing her sexual nature, and opening up the analysis about sexual relationships that this film delves into. As the movie continues, Devlin progresses into a jerk, especially once Alicia is told to start seducing wealthy playboy Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains).
The entire romance between Alicia and Alex is seen as a test by Devlin to uncover how much Alicia truly loves him (if this was a reality show we’d probably find these people to be annoying). Alicia knows what their “strange little love affair” is truly about, and I don’t know of any other movie that immediately mentions how strong sexual attraction can be. The kissing scene here is famously known for being a way to appease the censors, but damn is it erotic! It wouldn’t be a proper review if I didn’t include it. When Alicia and Devlin are placed in the same room, there’s several moments where Grant has his back to the camera, creating a distance between him and Alicia, but also showing how alone the woman herself is. Devlin is not used to love, and when Alicia takes her job to heart, he sees it as a betrayal. Alicia walks on eggshells not just because she is a double agent, but because she never understands how Devlin will react. Hitchcock weaves a relationship drama into this plot, and yet neither this nor the spy story dominates the story as a whole; they work together.
Of course, their romance is frustrating. Devlin is one of those men who “tests” Alicia without her knowledge. He takes everything she does and analyzes how it affects him, not her. Although Alicia is seducing Alex as part of her job, she doesn’t love him. Devlin believes that a part of her is okay with it (a big portion of the plot involves Alicia being a promiscuous party girl). I love Grant to bits, and while I hate to write it out, he does make calling someone a slut sound classy, “I threw you at nobody…a man doesn’t tell a woman what to do. She tells herself.” The one time Devlin defends Alicia is when other members of the government start calling her a loose woman; keep in mind, Alicia is not there to hear Devlin being kind to her. The Alicia/Devlin relationship works like a seesaw, they must work together, but their emotions are in flux due to Devlin’s distrust or Bergman’s melancholy. Eventually, Devlin starts to toy with Alicia’s feelings more than Alex ever does. Devlin tells Alicia to have a party, as a means of uncovering Alex’s dark deeds. He also hopes the party will rid him of his love for Alicia, but it only reinforces it. Again, the characters aren’t in control of their lives at all, and expectations are never met.
I mentioned Devlin being complex, but I actually think Bergman’s character is deeper, mostly because of how flawed she is and how she’s forced to pay for those flaws throughout the film. She’s introduced in the midst of a party where the liquor is flowing, and so is her mouth. She talks about “going for a ride” with various men, obviously with a double meaning intended. The entire movie involves lethal substances being used to escape a dark past/reality, whether it is the alcohol that Alicia drinks to find love or attention, or the poison that is eventually used to try to kill her. Her relationship with Devlin is fraught with Freudian subtext, and so is Alicia’s side love triangle between Alex and his mother. The review of this movie on FilmSite even says that a love for Devlin equals the love of America that Alicia is proving throughout. Bergman is perfect as the drunken party girl with a heart of gold. You never believe that Bergman is acting here, and it’s a far cry from the tragic Ilsa of Casablanca. She’s frank with her dialogue here, not coy or simpering. She understands what Devlin thinks of her, “once a tramp, always a tramp.” She calls him out on being “scared” of women, which is true. Alicia starts out the film very independent, and as the narrative moves forward she does find herself relying on men, which makes me sad but isn’t unexpected for a Hitchcock film. Of course, we must have Devlin’s love save and redeem Alicia by the end. If anything, the men seem to be the true villains of this film. The government mentions they want to use Alicia purely because she’s promiscuous, and men will fall for her! Alicia wants to escape her past, not just of her father’s sins, but of being a woman who has thrown her love around so easily. Ultimately, she can’t escape her promiscuous background as much as she can escape who her father is.
A further dichotomy is the struggle between Alicia and Alex’s mother Mme. Sebastian (Leopoldine Konstantin). I mentioned the Freudian connection, and it’s apparent that Alex and his mother have an Oedipal relationship. Alicia and Mme. Sebastian both love Alex in their own way, but Alex’s mother chooses to believe there’s bad in Alicia well before she discovers Alicia’s betrayal. When Alex discovers Alicia’s duplicity he goes to his mother, and conversely Mme. Sebastian is allowed to kill Alicia. If anything, this movie proves you should never piss off your mother-in-law. In a fun, Hitchcockian twist Mme. Sebastian starts poisoning Alicia, poetically “invading” Alicia’s body with a foreign agent.
We can’t forget Claude Rains in this equation. He ends the unholy trinity of this piece, and actually reteams with Bergman to play a completely different role from what I know him as. He’s the one you’re meant to fear, and yet his fear is in the right place. He’s well aware of Alicia’s lust for Devlin, and before he discovers Alicia’s secret, his issues are from a fear of losing her. He’s obsessed with Alicia, and it marks a plot about the dangers of love and control. There’s also a little kinky tension that pops up in the party scene when Alex discovers Devlin and Alicia kissing. Devlin tells Alicia that Alex wants to see them caught, and wants to watch her “betray” him.
I’ll cap the review there, or else I’ll start analyzing keys (a trope that I mentioned returns in Dial M for Murder), and continue to discuss the film’s anti-feminist leanings. There’s a lot worthy of discussion in this film, as it is with any of Hitchcock’s works. I absolutely love Notorious because there’s so much to analyze. You always feel as if you’re watching for the first time. Grant has never been better, nor has Bergman. Notorious is a tightly wound thriller with a mystery that’s engaging, suspenseful, and masks more domestic concerns. One of Hitchcock’s very best.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.