Alfred Hitchcock Triumphs with “Notorious”

19 09 2010

“The story of ‘Notorious’ is the old conflict between love and duty. Cary Grant’s job – and it’s a rather ironic situation – is to push Ingrid Bergman into Claude Rains’s bed. One can hardly blame him for seeming bitter throughout the story, whereas Claude Rains is a rather appealing figure, both because his confidence is being betrayed and because his love for Ingrid Bergman is probably deeper than Cary Grant’s. All of these elements of psychological drama have been woven into the spy story.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock reached a new peak in moviemaking with “Notorious,” released by RKO Pictures in 1946. Playing on fears that lingered in the new, postwar era, “Notorious” wraps together romance, espionage, suspense and glamor. As Hitch mentions above, the movie starred Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant and Claude Rains, with a script by Ben Hecht from a short story that had been set in World War I.

Hecht and Hitchcock moved the story into the days just after World War II. Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, whose German father is found guilty of treason against the United States as the story begins. As her father is thrown into prison, Huberman gets drunk with her houseguests, trying to forget that she, too, is under suspicion. When she awakens the next morning, one guest is left: T.R. Devlin (Grant), an FBI agent who needs her help. The agency has learned that some of her father’s German compatriots have relocated to Brazil, and they need Huberman to infiltrate the group and find out what they’re planning.

After Devlin says that her service could help her father, Huberman agrees, and they fly to Rio de Janeiro – but during the flight, Devlin tells Huberman that her father died in prison that morning. It’s this kind of manipulation that characterizes the whole film. Devlin and Huberman fall in love while waiting for her assignment to begin, and when her orders come through, Devlin is visibly disgusted, as she has been instructed to get close to one of her father’s friends by seducing him. Knowing her reputation for partying and sleeping around, Devlin turns cool, making snide remarks about how it will be easy for her to draw on past experience to get close to Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains). Sebastian will be easy prey, as he was in love with Huberman years before.

Devlin’s behavior could be a ploy to motivate Huberman into the assignment, or to protect her by pretending he never really cared about her – or he could just be lashing out, frustrated at what’s being asked of her and powerless to do anything about it.

Huberman, with Devlin at her side, meets Sebastian while horseriding, and soon Huberman and Sebastian are a couple. Sebastian is suspicious of Devlin, though, who keeps showing up wherever they go; he’s getting information from Huberman, but she tells Sebastian that he’s an old flame she now detests. Sebastian asks her to prove that he means nothing to her by marrying him.

After the wedding, Huberman reports to Devlin that the only place she hasn’t been able to search for evidence of the German group’s activities is the wine cellar. Only Sebastian has the key, so Devlin tells her to suggest a party, during which they can get into the wine cellar.

The tone of the movie shifts with the party; the romance (and romantic frustrations) of the first half of the movie give way to sheer suspense: First, Huberman must steal the key; then, during the party, they have to slip away to the wine cellar. The pressure escalates as the guests drink champagne faster than expected, which means Sebastian will have to get more bottles from storage.

Rummaging around in the wine cellar, Devlin knocks a bottle from a shelf, revealing that it holds not liquid but what turns out to be uranium ore. With Sebastian coming down the stairs, Devlin and Huberman kiss, then explain that he forced himself on her. Sebastian doesn’t believe him, and when he returns to the cellar for champagne, he finds the remains of the broken bottle – proof enough that Devlin and Huberman are against him.

Concerned that his comrades will kill him if they find out the truth, Sebastian wants to murder his wife, but his elderly mother says it has to be gradual. They begin poisoning Huberman, and when she misses her meeting with Devlin, he becomes concerned. He breaks into Sebastian’s home and finds her in bed, more dead than alive. Sebastian finds Devlin making his way out of the house with his wife, but because his friends are on hand, too, he can’t reveal what really happened. Devlin and Huberman make their escape, leaving Sebastian in the company of his ruthless friends, who have already figured out that there’s something strange about the situation.

The original ending of “Suspicion,” made five years earlier, was supposed to have Joan Fontaine write a detailed letter about Cary Grant’s crimes, then ask him to drop it in the mail. He was then going to kill her and go ahead and post the letter. That didn’t happen in the film, of course, but Hitchcock got to revisit that kind of sophisticated ending, in which the audience has to consider the outcome for the cast, in “Notorious.” We assume that Huberman will be cured, because Devlin said he’d take care of her; we assume that their love wins out, and we assume that Sebastian will be killed by his comrades. By implying all this rather than showing it, Hitchcock creates a more intelligent ending than, say, having the villain fall to his death as in “Saboteur.”

“Notorious” boasts a phenomenal cast, of course. Cary Grant is grim throughout – he almost never cracks a smile, except when he’s putting on an act, making the viewer wonder about his own past. Ingrid Bergman is desperate but determined to do right for her country and herself. The most chilling moment of the movie comes when Devlin finds Huberman sick in bed. Holding her close, he asks what’s wrong, and she whispers, “Oh Dev, they’re poisoning me.”

As a villain, Claude Rains is rather pathetic – he’s manipulated by Bergman and Grant, his friends, and, most of all, his mother. (One of my favorite moments in the film happens when Sebastian starts to tell his mother that he’s been betrayed by his wife. Before the wedding, she had warned him that Huberman was not marriage material; later, when Sebastian starts to explain the situation, his mother smirks at him, expecting him to say that Huberman is cheating on him. When he instead says that he’s married to a U.S. agent, his mother quickly turns off her “I told you so” look and takes control of things.)

Hitchcock tells this story in a sure, simple way, with few of the flourishes that had charaterized his earlier films, other than Huberman’s distorted vision on waking up after a night of drinking, and, later, when she’s succumbing to the poison. Ben Hecht’s script – which was sharpened a bit by Clifford Odets – crackles, although some of the patter might be hard to believe coming from non-American actors less talented than Bergman and Grant.

“Notorious” features a scene that’s famous for working around the production code while subverting it to his own ends. In a scene near the start of the movie, Bergman and Grant are shown in a hotel room, kissing and holding each other. As they continue to kiss – briefly, but continuously – they make their way across the room toward the ringing telephone. The quick kisses were Hitchcock’s way around the production code, which dictated that screen kisses could only last a few second. The finished scene conformed to the guidelines while creating a scene that was far more erotic than the Hays code had anticipated.

The uranium ore found in the wine cellar is among Hitchcock’s most famous McGuffins, one which was only decided upon late in the production. Selznick reportedly didn’t understand its significance, and probably assumed that audiences wouldn’t get it, either, but by the time the film premiered, radiation and atomic bombs were front page news.

This was the second to last film Hitchcock made with producer David O. Selznick, who sold distribution rights to RKO to help him finance his own over-budget “Duel in The Sun.” Although Selznick was distracted by “Duel,” he did have some input, notably making Sebastian’s mother a stronger character.

Hitchcock was credited as producer on “Notorious,” a role he’d play more and more in years to come. Also, as the trailer below shows, he’s now being called “The Master of Suspense,” a nickname that came into use in the late 1940s, which would stay with him for the rest of his career.

Hitchcock would still make one more film with Bergman and two more with Grant. Claude Rains would appear in several episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

Next, we’ll take a look at the “Paradine Case,” starring Gregory Peck, Ann Todd and Charles Laughton.

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4 responses

19 09 2010
Noel

Did Hitch have a cameo in this one?

19 09 2010
adamphilips

Hi, Noel – thanks for asking. Hitchcock did appear in “Notorious.” During the party scene, he’s getting a glass of champagne as Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman approach the bar.

23 10 2010
john hardman

Much of the “Rio” seen in the film is,of necessity,back-projection/studio/U.S.location work,yet the meeting of Alicia and Sebastian at the riding club seems an arcane and extravagant way of bringing the two characters together “accidentally”when a more low-budget plot-contrivance might have been subsituted.Could the director have wanted to get Bergman on horseback for some Freudian reason (think of the shots of Marnie on Forio (mostly on a fake horse) and the fox-hunting gear that she wears at the end of the film. Any views?

24 10 2010
adamphilips

Mostly, I think Bergman was the most glamorous movie star in the world at that time, and the story was set in upper crust Rio, so it just fit the story. Yes, Hitchcock used riding and hunting here (I haven’t seen Marnie yet) as he did in earlier films such as “The Farmer’s Wife.” But I think it’s more because riding and hunting were everyday events for the upper class of his native England than anything else. I’ve seen nothing to suggest anything too kinky on Hitch’s part. Thanks for the great comment, though!

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