Notorious was Alfred Hitchcock’s second film to star Ingrid Bergman. Like the first, Spellbound (1945), it’s a perfect marriage of director and star. Later in his career, Hitchcock had a penchant for casting blond ice queens like Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren, so it’s easy to forget how good he and the brown-haired Bergman were when they worked together.
In Notorious, Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a German-American man convicted of spying for the Nazis. As soon as the trial is over, she throws a little party in her Miami bungalow and gets good and blotto. The sense of intimacy that Bergman creates in this scene is remarkable. She doesn’t slur her words or make a fool of herself, but through her drunken ramblings she reveals some of her innermost thoughts.
Not so with the handsome stranger (Cary Grant) who sits alone at her party. He remains an enigma for awhile. After she throws everyone else out, she takes him out for some good old fashioned drunk driving. (And all the herky-jerky rear projection stuff made me feel a little inebriated, too.) When a motorcycle cop pulls her over, the stranger flashes a badge of some kind, and the cop lets them go. Alicia’s mood sours. She hates policemen.
Alicia learns that this handsome stranger’s name is Devlin, and he’s a government agent. He has listened to the recordings of conversations she had with her father, and knows that she is loyal to the United States, despite her anger about his imprisonment. Because of her father’s espionage work against America, however, she is the perfect person to infiltrate a group of Nazis who fled to Brazil after the war.
While waiting to begin her assignment in Rio de Janeiro, she falls in love with Devlin. It happens — as these things tend to in the movies — quickly and with little explanation. Devlin seems to love her, too, but when it comes time to put her into the field he is all business. And since part of her assignment is to seduce Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), an old friend of her father’s and a member of the Nazi inner circle in Rio, Devlin chooses duty over love, and is cold enough to her that she eventually accepts Alex’s proposal of marriage.
Needless to say, living with a man she doesn’t love and his creepy, controlling mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) in a mansion in Rio, surrounded by Nazis who think nothing of killing traitors, is a dangerous proposition for poor Alicia, especially since her romance with Devlin continues to grow, despite both of their efforts to quell their own feelings.
Unlike Spellbound, which had all manner of baroque, Freudian lunacy, Notorious is an elegant and understated picture. The espionage plot isn’t overcomplicated, and it’s not really the focus of the movie. The love triangle is, as well as all the suspense and danger related to it. A sequence at one of Alex’s parties, in which Alicia and Devlin pass a key from hand to hand, achieves greatest emotional significance and more suspense than a complicated cryptography system or a series of twists and double-crosses ever could.
As a pure cinematic experience, I prefer Spellbound, despite — or perhaps because of — its craziness. Notorious is still a great movie, and Cary Grant is a less inert leading man than Gregory Peck. Ingrid Bergman is stunningly beautiful in this film, too. It’s not just the contours of her face, which are lovingly illuminated by cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff, it’s her intelligence and openness, and an ineffable quality of vulnerability.
Notorious was a critical and commercial success, and one of the biggest hits of 1946. Claude Rains was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor and Ben Hecht was nominated for best original screenplay, although neither won.