Alfred Hitchcock loved one word titles. ROPE, MARNIE, TOPAZ, VERTIGO, PSYCHO, FRENZY, SPELLBOUND, SUSPICION. When I was researching Hitchcock as a child, browsing through the Encyclopedia Britannia at my school library, these film titles from his filmography seemed mysterious to me. There was another single word title that Hitchcock directed called NOTORIOUS. The name conjured up images of a wanted criminal. But when I first saw Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS (1946) as a teenager on late night TV, I was not able to juxtapose the title with the plot of the film. To me, it was an arbitrary, sensational title to hook a viewer.
NOTORIOUS refers to Ingrid Bergman's character Alicia Huberman who's father is declared a traitor for his role as a German sympathizer in post WWII America. Alicia is notorious for her reputation as a party girl, a woman of loose morals who drinks too much, who throws a party after her father is convicted for treason and sleeps around with other men. The plot is bold for 1946. The original screenplay is written by the great Ben Hecht who also wrote SCARFACE (1932), HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), and Hitchcock's previous film SPELLBOUND (1945). Producer David Selznick loaned Hitchcock out to the RKO studio for NOTORIOUS and Hitch flourished without Selznick interfering with him.
NOTORIOUS is also the beginning of a thirteen year window where Hitchcock paired some of the great actors and actresses in cinema together in some of his best films. Some may argue it began a year earlier with Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman in SPELLBOUND (1945) but I think the Cary Grant/Ingrid Bergman duo is much sexier and NOTORIOUS a better film. He would go on to team Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart with his iconic blond heroines Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Doris Day, and Eve Marie Saint.
NOTORIOUS opens inside a Miami courtroom in 1946 as Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) watches her father convicted as a traitor. Alicia's the Paris Hilton of her day and this socialite throws a small party that night to drown her sadness in alcohol and music with a few friends. One guest stays after everyone has left: the handsome stranger Devlin (Cary Grant). Devlin works for American Intelligence (perhaps OSS the precursor to the CIA). Devlin's boss Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern) wants to use Alicia to infiltrate a group of Germans (i.e. Nazis) hiding out in Rio de Janeiro who Alicia's father associated with. The Germans are up to no good and Prescott wants to find out what. Devlin and Alicia wait for the final orders and begin to fall in love until the assignment comes through. Alicia is to reconnect with an old flame Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), whose house in Rio the German are meeting at.
Devlin arranges for Alicia to accidentally run into Sebastian at a riding school in Rio. Sebastian is instantly smitten by Alicia again and a whirlwind romance begins. Sebastian invites Alicia to his ocean front mansion one night for dinner where she meets Sebastian's suspicious mother Madame Sebastian (Leopoldine Konstantin) and some well dressed Germans including 'Dr. Anderson' (Reinhold Schunzel), Eric Mathis (Ivan Triesault), and poor Emil Hupke (Eberhard Krumschmidt) who pays for making a scene about a certain wine bottle by disappearing later that night, never to be seen again. The next day at the horse races, Alicia reports to Devlin about the dinner guests and that she and Sebastian have consummated their relationship. Despite Sebastian's mother's protest, Sebastian and Alicia get married and Alicia moves into Sebastian's mansion.
As Alicia gets the lay of the house, she discovers that Sebastian has the keys to all the closets and doors. The cellar door in particular is off limits. Devlin suspects whatever the Germans are doing, the secret is hidden in the cellar. Alicia secretly takes the cellar key from Sebastian's key ring. Devlin asks Alicia to convince Sebastian to throw a big dinner party and invite him so he can go down into the cellar and investigate. With Sebastian distracted by guests, Devlin and Alicia sneak down to the wine cellar where they accidentally knock over a wine bottle and discover the mystery hidden inside: uranium ore. It is Dr. Anderson who is experimenting with the rare mineral. Later that evening, Sebastian discovers his wine cellar key is missing. The next morning he investigates the basement and finds glass shards. Sebastian reveals to his mother his worst fear. Alicia is a spy.
Fearful Sebastian's error in judgment will be uncovered by the hyper suspicious Germans, Sebastian and his mother Madame Sebastian begin to slowly poison Alicia. Alicia becomes almost bed ridden. Even Dr. Anderson becomes concerned about Alicia's health. Devlin requests a transfer out of Rio, unable to watch the woman he loves Alicia with another man, regretting he's sent her to sleep with the enemy. But when Alicia misses several of their clandestine debriefings, Devlin grows concerned. Prescott recalls Alicia not feeling well on her last visit to him. Devlin begins to suspect Alicia's cover had been blown and drives up to Sebastian's mansion at night to see Alicia. He finds Alicia clinging to life. Devlin begins to take Alicia down the grand staircase to his waiting car but Sebastian and the Germans emerge from the dining room, their curiosity aroused by the commotion. Will Devlin and Alicia make it out alive?
Hitchcock is at the top of his game in NOTORIOUS, exploring familiar themes and motifs. Hitchcock introduces us to the mother/son relationship in NOTORIOUS that we've seen in other films, most notably in PSYCHO (1960). Alexander Sebastian is a man-child, a little boy in a tuxedo, playing Nazi games with his German expatriates. When he sees his former girlfriend Alicia, he develops a school boy crush on her all over again, his feelings for her clouding his better judgment. Sebastian gets jealous when he sees Alicia with Devlin, who he believes is a rival. Sebastian even acknowledges he's "behaving like a stupid schoolboy." He uses sex to make Alicia prove to him she's not interested in Devlin. But when he discovers the woman he's sleeping with is an American agent, he comes running to his Mommy. Madame Sebastian is a good Nazi mother. She wants to see Sebastian climb the ladder of a new Fourth Reich. She knows Sebastian's mistake could cost them both their lives. But she's devious and ruthless. They will remove Alicia by slowly poisoning her. "We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity," Madame Sebastian tells her son.
The MacGuffin (Hitchcock's term for a plot device that drives the story) returns for NOTORIOUS this time as the uranium hidden in the wine bottles. This is what sends Devlin and Alicia to Brazil to investigate the Germans. In PSYCHO, the cellar hid the mummified Mrs. Bates. But in NOTORIOUS, the cellar hides a less gruesome mystery, yet still dangerous. Uranium is an element needed for nuclear bombs. Hitchcock was so ahead of his time with the uranium idea that he claimed the FBI followed him for three months because of it. Once again, Hitchcock's villains are handsome, sophisticated, well-dressed, and urbane. Sebastian may be one of Hitchcock's most sympathetic bad guys. He treats Alicia well, fawns over her almost too much until he realizes he's betrayed. In the finale, as Devlin helps Alicia escape, raising the suspicions of Mathis and the other Germans, Sebastian helps Devlin and Alicia to his car, begging them to take him with them but Devlin won't have it. The audience (including myself) almost roots for Sebastian to get away. But Devlin's a tough cookie. He leaves Sebastian to face his fate with his Nazi conspirators. If you're a Sebastian fan, one can only hope U.S. Intelligence will barge in soon before he gets killed. Sebastian would probably turn state's evidence against his German friends. We will never know.
When Hitchcock works with great writers like John Michael Hayes (REAR WINDOW), Ernest Lehman (NORTH BY NORTHWEST, FAMILY PLOT) or Thornton Wilder (SHADOW OF A DOUBT), he seems more assured as a director. Working with writer Ben Hecht, Hitchcock is at the top of his game in NOTORIOUS. Story wise, Hitchcock and Hecht are masterful in laying out the story in pieces, never quite giving away everything all at once. Devlin is introduced in silhouette, his back to the camera at the party, making him mysterious. When Alicia is pulled over for speeding early in the film, Devlin shows the cop his I.D. We never see his identification but from the cop's reaction, we know Devlin is important. Sexual innuendos are prominent as we know Alicia has a reputation. "You can add Sebastian to my list of playmates," Alicia tells Devlin. Hitchcock is known for great set pieces like the crop duster chase in NORTH BY NORTHWEST or the shower murder in PSYCHO. The party scene in NOTORIOUS may be one of Hitchcock's most underrated suspense scenes. Devlin and Alicia need to sneak into the cellar but Alicia needs to keep Sebastian distracted. To make matters worse, the bar is running out of bottles of champagne which could send the bartender down to the cellar. Who would have thought a party running out of champagne would be so nerve wracking?
Camera wise, Hitchcock is innovative and creative, using amazing camerawork to propel the story not just show off. NOTORIOUS has Hitchcock's amazing crane shot at the party scene where the camera starts high above the hallway as Alicia and Sebastian greet arriving guests and cranes down to an extreme close up of Alicia grasping the cellar key, waiting for Devlin to arrive so she can hand it to him, all in one fluid take. Hitchcock would use a similar crane shot in an earlier film called NUMBER SEVENTEEN (1932). Hitchcock brought over with him some of the Salvador Dali influences from his previous film SPELLBOUND for NOTORIOUS. He tilts the camera cockeyed to make the audience feel Alicia's drunkenness when Devlin checks on her early in the film. Later, as the Sebastian's poison Alicia, Sebastian and his mother's twin images become sinister from Alicia's point of view, black and white shapes trying to kill her.
What elevates NOTORIOUS are the three lead actors: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains. Grant had primarily done comedies or played romantic comedic roles (BRINGING UP BABY, MY FAVORITE WIFE) prior to working with Hitchcock on their first film together SUSPICION (1941). But NOTORIOUS may be one of Grant's best dramatic performances as American agent Devlin. He's torn between duty to his country and falling in love with woman he's recruited to infiltrate a den of Nazis in Rio. Devlin seems cold and manipulative, even striking a drunk Alicia when she gets out of hand. He's snide to Alicia when she does what she's asked: to sleep with Sebastian to win his loyalty. But Devlin's professionalism hides his true feelings for her. When the intelligence bureaucrat Walter Beardsley (Moroni Olsen), visiting Rio, makes a derogatory comment about Alicia's character, Devlin goes off on Beardsley. "Miss Huberman is first, last, and always not a lady. She may be risking her life, but when it comes to being a lady, she doesn't hold a candle to your wife, sitting in Washington, playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue." Grant solidifies himself as the quintessential leading man and perhaps the precursor to James Bond.
Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman is a provocative performance, one of many Bergman would give. In CASABLANCA (1943) Bergman's Ilsa had a relationship with Bogart's Rick Blaine while she was still married (later we learn she thought her husband Victor Lazlo was dead. He's not). Bergman also played a barmaid/prostitute in DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE (1941). In NOTORIOUS, she's a woman with a reputation, trying to find her identity, the daughter of a traitor who jumps at the chance to redeem herself by helping the US government even if it means sleeping with a man she doesn't love. Alicia doesn't seem to realize the danger she's in and if it wasn't for Devlin, the country she's trying to help might just let her die. I liked Bergman's performance more in the first half of the film as she and Grant toy with each other's affections, hurting each other with words, deeply in love but following their mission. In the second half of the film, I thought Bergman overplayed the nervousness a little too much. In real life, Bergman would be a bit notorious in her private life when she left her first husband and daughter and fell in love with Italian director Roberto Rossellini in 1949. Bergman would also make SPELLBOUND and UNDER CAPRICORN with Hitchcock but NOTORIOUS is her best film with Hitch. Director Stanley Donen (who would make a couple of Hitchcock like thrillers himself with CHARADE and ARABESQUE) would reunite Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman for the comedy/drama INDISCREET (1958).
Rounding out the superb cast is Claude Rains as Alexander Sebastian who receives about as much screen time as both Grant and Bergman in NOTORIOUS. Rains is perfect as Sebastian, the childish, petulant, and very jealous beau of Alicia. Sebastian is the villain of the film yet he's extremely sympathetic. He's not as good looking as Devlin yet he gets the girl ... temporarily. He's small in stature, like a little boy, which plays wonderfully when he sits at the foot of his mother's bed to tell her he has married an American spy. He behaves like a child when he sees Devlin and Alicia together at the horse track, behaving immaturely afterward. "I'd like to be convinced. Would you maybe care to convince me, Alicia, that Mr. Devlin means nothing to you?" Rains and Bergman were part of the famous cast of CASABLANCA (1942). Rains proves once again what a fantastic supporting actor he is. I wish he had done more films with Hitchcock.
Two others key supporting actors to acknowledge in NOTORIOUS are Louis Calhern as Devlin's boss Captain Prescott and Leopoldine Konstantine as Alex's mother Madame Sebastian. Interestingly, both play parental roles although only one is an actual parent. Prescott is a father figure to Devlin, sending him out to woo Alicia and reel her in, reminding him that duty calls over feelings. Calhern does a great job with his eyes, no words, recognizing Devlin is in love with Alicia just by glancing at the champagne bottle Devlin leaves in his office after learning Alicia's role in the mission.
According to the Internet Movie Data Base, NOTORIOUS is the only American role the Austrian born Konstantine would play as Alex's domineering mother. She is scary in every scene she's in, her senses on full alert as Alicia weaves her way into her son Alex's life. She doesn't trust Alicia and as a Nazi on the run, who can blame her. She's like a black widow spider, watching her web of Germans as Dr. Andersen experiments with uranium to create something dangerous. But she's the good mother, doting yet reprimanding Alexander like a mother should and when she learns Alicia is a spy, she assists her son in slowly poisoning her daughter-in-law.
NOTORIOUS is the beginning of what I like to call Hitchcock's sophisticated section of filmmaking. Whether it was spies or murderers, his characters dressed to the nines, drank the best wines and champagne, and lived or traveled to exotic locations like Rio, New York, or the French Rivera. NOTORIOUS boasts Hitchcock at his most confident both with his filmmaking and with his actors and story.