Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, written by Ben Hecht, is the quintessential Hitchcock film mastering many unique techniques that came into view for the first time. This thriller involves two lovers, Cary Grant as Devlin and Ingrid Bergman as Alicia, who start out as partners working to capture German scientist spies working in Brazil. Along with Claude Rains, Louis Calhern, and Madame Konstantin this film is made strong with actors who were on top of their game. Edith Head designed Ingrid Bergman’s gowns and was known as one of the best costume designers of her time.
The film opens in “Miami. Florida. Three-Twenty P.M., April the Twenty-Fourth, Nineteen Hundred and Forty-Six…,” in the court case of John Huberman, one of the German spys who have been working against the U.S. confesses to his work, ending his confession with a warning. “You can put me away but you can’t put away what’s going to happen to you and this whole country next time,” as his attorney silences him, he is sentenced and imprisoned. As the court adjourns his daughter Alicia Huberman is questioned by reporters and followed by the police. As a new target for the U.S. government, she decides to sail to Havana in the morning with friends to have ‘fun’.
“I hate low, underhanded people. Like policemen, pussyfooting after you. Of course, I’m a marked woman, you know. I’m liable to blow up the Panama Canal any minute now,” the drunk Alicia states. Devlin, a U.S. agent, and the guest that attracts her attention is first shown giving us his back, adding mystery to his character. As they continue talking and drinking, the guests of the party pass out and Alicia decides to go for a drive with Devlin. Caught speeding, an officer pulls her over, “Drunken driving. My second offense. Now I go to jail. The whole family in jail. Who cares?” Devlin shows him his government badge and she’s off the hook with the officer saluting him as he leaves. Alicia knowing he’s another cop after her tries to get him out of her car unsuccessfully. He knocks her out and later informs her that the government needs her to do a job.
“My department authorized me to engage you to do some work for us. It’s a job in Brazil. Some of the German gentry who were paying your father are working in Rio. Ever hear of the I.G. Farben industries? Farben has men in South America planted there before the war. We’re cooperating with the Brazilian government to smoke them out. My chief thinks that the daughter of a…”, “Of a traitor?” replies Alicia. “He thinks you might be valuable in the work. They might sort of trust you. You could make up a little for your daddy’s peculiarities.” She insists she’s not interested and Devlin puts on a record of a wired conversation with her and her father three months before the trial to which she defended the U.S. against the destructive work her father was doing. The recording begins to play and she hears, “I hate you all, and I love this country…I’ll see you all hang before I raise a finger against it. Now go on and get out of here, or, so help me, I’ll turn you in.” She doesn’t become enticed by the job proposal but by Devlin and decides to go with him to Rio. They spend time together and begin falling in love. She knows that he still thinks of her as the tramp he knew in Miami but tries to convince him that she had changed. As Devlin and Alicia proceed in their love affair she tells him “This is a very strange love affair. It may be the fact that you don’t love me,” “When I don’t love you, I’ll let you know,” “You haven’t said anything,” “Actions speak louder than words.” This is one of the most famous scenes where the camera follows the couple to the phone and the door as Devlin exits to get wine for their dine-in homecooked dinner.
When they finally get their assignment they realize the kind of work she was sent to do. Seduce one of the German spies, Alexander Sebastian, who used to be in love with her and knew her father. As the agency thinks she’s perfect for the job because of her past, she and Devlin become insulted. A “modern Mata Hari” she says, as Alex was part of the combine that built the war machine and hopes to keep on going, the group is suspicious of any newcomers and the government had everything set up and well planned to avoid such suspicions. Devlin’s jealousies grow as he finds out Alicia and Sebastian knew each other previously.
They promptly arrange a meeting and she’s brought into confidence with a dinner at his home. Here she meets many central characters that are in business together with Sebastian. Alicia meets his mother, who is jealous and hostile towards her, Dr. Anderson, one of Germany’s scientific wizards whose real name is Professor Wilhelm Otto Renzeler, Eric Mathis, William Rossner, Emil Hupka, a first-class metallurgist, and Mr. Knerr. As they are being seated for dinner in the dining table Emile sees a bottle of dark vintage wine and makes a scene out thinking there was something else in the bottle saying “That bottle doesn’t belong here.” As Alex calms him down, Eric decides they must do something about Emil’s slip leading to his death. Alicia having concluded that there must be something going on with the wine bottles informs Devlin. The old but ‘in-love’ Alex asks Alicia to be his wife and she is forced to accept.
Moving in Alicia finds the well-guarded room of the house to be the wine cellar. Devlin sends her on the mission to ask her now husband, Sebastian, for a housewarming party to introduce her to Rio high society and invite Devlin, giving him the chance to get into the wine cellar. The party scene devises two techniques that have become synonymous with Hitchcock; the count-down of champagne bottles…
…and the crane shot that sees the party from a birds eye view zooming into Alicia’s hand holding the key to the wine cellar.
As they run out of wine quicker than they thought, the need to get into the wine cellar promptly becomes the main problem for Devlin and Alicia. Managing their way down, Devlin find what they came for when he breaks a bottle of ‘wine’ finding it filled with metal ore. Having to leave everything as they found it, their delay is met by Alex who sees them leaving. Devlin and Alicia kiss to make Sebastian jealous rather than suspicious but the all-to-real-pretend-kiss finds them out regardless.
Alex, finding the wine cellar key missing, suspects Alicia especially when he finds the key back on his keychain early in the morning. He inspects the wine cellar finding the dark vintage wine bottle broken under the shelf. Now very worried, Sebastian goes to tell his mother what has happened. “They’ll find out what I’m married to. And I’ve betrayed them, I’ve bungled, and there’s no excuse.” Her response to the ordeal? “[Their] criticism of your talents wouldn’t go that far to imagine that you are married to an American agent. We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity for a time.” Knowing he’s in trouble Madame Constantine plots to make her sick.
Meanwhile, Devlin requests to transfer to Spain leaving Alicia and the operation behind him. Alicia, getting sicker as the days go by, doesn’t look good to Devlin who thinks she has been on a drinking binge. After she doesn’t come to see him for more than a week he becomes highly concerned and pays Alicia a visit at home. Devlin finds her extremely ill and finds out they have been trying to kill her ever since the party. “I’ve got to get you out of here.” He tells her the reason he was leaving to Spain… “No, I had to see you once and speak my peace. I was getting out because I love you. I couldn’t bear seeing you and him together…It tore me up not having you.” As he carries her out of her room, they see Alex. As his friends come out of the study inquiring what is wrong with Alicia, Devlin continues to carry Alicia out of the house. Alex, saving face, lies to the his friends as they watch Devlin carry Alicia out, as he plans to escape with them. One of them, knowing the situation is false, calls for him, “Alex will you come in, please? I wish to talk to you.” Seeing he has nowhere else to go, Alex goes back into the house to face his death.
Alex’s character is a curious one because even though he is the antagonist throughout the film we feel sympathy for his weaknesses and his end. His weakness to be loved, his political affiliations, and his social relationships don’t make him a person with desired qualities or virtues, but; instead, those of a lost endearing weakling who knows when he ‘bungles’ and doesn’t find excuses for himself. As Hitchcock states, “[Alex] is rather an appealing figure, both because his confidence is being betrayed and because his love for [Alicia] is probably deeper than [Devlin’s].” Alicia’s character as the ‘marked woman’ is also worth noting since the stereotypes of those women whom the society in the 1940’s deemed as calling ‘loose’ are not the same as those we perceive of today. We take Alicia’s character to an unconsciously extreme level but what used to be a ‘loose’ woman in 1940’s terms has little to no standing today, where many women lead a promiscuous life similar to that of Alicia’s and never get reprimanded for it as Alicia’s character did. Throughout the film, there are hints and suggestions that deter her reputation as a woman through her ‘drunkenness’ and ‘promiscuity’ and needing a man to stand up for her against this (a.k.a. Devlin), as when the U.S. government official says, “Yes, she’s had me worried for some time, a woman of her sort.”
Whether legend has it or not, Hitchcock’s famous historian Spoto states that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki took place soon before filming, affecting the atmosphere of the film and giving it an ‘of-the-moment’ and ‘of-the-essence’ importance to the plot and its themes. In particular to the “Macguffin,” a device Hitchcock used to further the plot without providing importance to the story itself; in this case, the uranium ore. Notorious, set and done in 1946, has its themes and struggles rooted in the larger narrative of the “American way of life,” making a deep connection to the audiences watching the film.
The nation’s security was being threatened with Russia’s “Iron Curtain”, the aftermath of World War II was striking to many, the fear of spies looming everywhere, and the Germans who were the bad guys that wanted to blow up the world, no matter how far from the truth that was. The audiences of 1946 were totally enraptured with WWII espionage thrillers. The excitement and destruction of war was still very prevalent in people’s minds, especially with the rise of Communism. From the end of WWII in 1945 to the quick beginning of the Cold War, 1946 presented itself with essential events. One of the being Winston Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech where the ideological conflict and boundary divisions took place with the “Iron Curtain” referring itself to the Soviet Union’s efforts in blocking itself from any contact with the western or non-soviet controlled areas. Another important event marking the global political instability of the time was the Vietnamese presidential election of Communist revolutionary Ho Chi Min that led to the Vietnam War, amongst the establishment of Sozialistic Einheitspartei: German socialist party of the communist, Neo-stalin, Marxist and Leninist democratic republic forms in East Germany spreading to other parts like the Deutschlands. Other events were still in the aftermath of WWII with the US sentencing 58 camp guards of Mauthausen concentration camp to death as the Nuremberg trials continued and the U.S. State Department released the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, outlining a plan for the international control of nuclear power. The event mentioned in the latter was the succession of nuclear testing, conducted by the US, analyzing its potency in experiments, such as Operation Crossroads in 1946 which was the first underwater atomic test. These tests led Indian Prime Minister Jawaharial Nehru to appeal to the US and USSR to end nuclear testing and start nuclear disarmament immediately, saying it could “save humanity from the ultimate disaster.” While the Cold War was still too new and obscure for people to fully grasp, the subject of war wasn’t and so Notorious presented itself in the context of WWII. The subject was romanticized and frozen in the recent past but did come quite close to the current, global happenings of 1945 and 1946. Notorious was perfect.