U.S. spymaster Capt. Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern) needs a way to get an agent into the midst of some surviving Nazi conspirators operating out of Rio De Janeiro, and comes up with the answer by recruiting Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the daughter of a convicted traitor. Emotionally disturbed by the revelation of her father's crimes, Alicia volunteers mainly because of her attraction to agent T. R.Devlin (Cary Grant). Their romance is cut short when Devlin discovers Alicia's role is to play Mata Hari with the enemy. In Rio, she 'meets' secret industrialist Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), and swiftly marries him. After more or less seducing Alicia into the role of sex-spy, Devlin's attraction for her is perversely communicated in insults and bitter resentment. Professionally, Devlin and Huberman get close to Sebastian's secret, which has something to do with uranium ore hidden in champagne bottles. But Sebastian is beginning to suspect there's something amiss with his new wife, and his calculating mother Madame Konstantin (Madame Sebastian) is certain of it. And Devlin's low opinion of Alicia, besides adding to her misery. is beginning to put her at risk.
Almost perfectly constructed by writer Ben Hecht, Notorious combines pitch- perfect Hitchcock direction with excellent casting. Even now it's the kind of film that, if you start it, will grab passers-by in the house and hold their interest until it's done. Hitchcock's visual command is totally in the service of the story, and in the suspense sequences, even the editing is of the not-one-frame-more, not-one-frame-less variety. The movie is a model of understatement and intelligence - a rarity in a film made during the war.
The characterizations and casting are fascinating from several points of view. Ingrid Bergman's Alicia actually does what her character tried to do in Casablanca, feign love and sleep with a man for a higher principle. In the queasy postwar years where the morality of victors and defeated alike seemed in question, her past promiscuity and personal shame are terrible burdens to bear. Agent Devlin's unpleasant situation, watching as his woman romances another man, adds another level of doubt and tension. Seeing Cary Grant carry out such a coldblooded affair is faintly disturbing - these are complicated characters, and so are our reactions to them. Even 'villain' Claude Rains adds to the growing interpersonal tension. As the romantic fall guy, he's more than sympathetic, and viewers probably identify more closely with his predicament than with Bergman and Grant's.
Julie Kirgo in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (still the best book on Film Noir) brought out the truly perverse angle in Notorious, where a man encourages his lover to sleep with another man, only to despise her 'low morals' when she does. The resulting strange triangle acknowledges a weird undertow in the concept of 'romance'. People raised in a repressive society can be completely hypocritical when judging one another, and the burden on women to be saints and sluts at the same time creates a tangle of crossed messages and emotional barriers. I've had several good discussions with people afterwards, about what men expect from women and what women expect from men. The two sets of expectations are usually not very compatible.
The MacGuffin in Notorious is uranium ore, which Hitchcock claimed he was aware had something to do with a superbomb secretly being made in New Mexico - in 1944! Although it was just a hook for his story, Hitchcock liked to hint that he was investigated by the FBI for a while during production. The same year's Gilda also took as its plot hook the notion that Nazi-sympathizing industrialists were conspiring in South America; the object there was to corner the world's supply of Tungsten. The idea of counterpointing twisted political intrigues against twisted sex relationships worked well in that film, too.
A decade later, when postwar jitters had condensed into a Cold War that everyone took for granted, Hitchcock and writer Ernest Lehman revisited the central idea of this film for one aspect of their North by Northwest, much of which plays like Notorious on the move. Cary Grant 'redeems' himself with Eva Marie Saint for his ungallant behavior with Ingrid, by not being such a priggish jerk about the fact that a love interest might be independent, might sleep with another man. Again showing their maturity, in NxNW they shift the hypocrisy to the C.I.A., with the groundbreaking line that if America can't fight communism without sending their women off to sleep with the enemy, "Then maybe we ought to start losing a few Cold Wars." Good show.
Anchor Bay's DVD of Hitchcock's Selznick classics aren't being touted too much, and that's a shame. They simply look great, as if someone finally went back to the best materials. Anyone who saw Notorious in a college film school on dull 16mm will be suitably impressed here. It looks better than any of Universal's b&w Hitchcock releases. The sound is also clear and free of jumps or pops. No, there aren't any extras (a 'features' text box on the back boasts, 'Full- Frame Presentation'!) but there's also no shortage of books on the Master of Suspense and David O., to help you fill in the blanks.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Notorious rates:
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: March 17, 2001