Nazis in hiding! Smuggled uranium! Espionage! All minor distractions from the central tantalizing mystery that keeps the audience in delicious suspense: Does Cary Grant’s character really love Ingrid Bergman’s or not? It’s all there in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 classic Notorious.
The plot: Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman, in one of her career-defining roles) is the alluring daughter of a Nazi sympathizer. She has a notorious reputation as a drinker, party-goer, and sexual libertine. After the war ends, her father is convicted of aiding the Nazis. At a party where she deep in her cups and flirting with all the men, she meets a handsome, mysterious secret agent who is appropriately named Devlin (Cary Grant, just perfect…again). Devlin eventually persuades Alicia to go investigate Nazis who are now hiding out in South America. Does she agree out of patriotism, guilt over her father’s crimes or growing love of Devlin? He seems at times to love her back, by why then does he seem not to care when her assignment requires her to bed and wed an old friend of her father’s (Claude Rains)? The mystery of the Nazi plot and the maddening complexities of Devlin and Alicia’s relationship become intertwined as the thrilling story unfolds.
This movie vividly demonstrates how the presence of stars can shape how audiences react to characters. Without Bergman’s high-wattage stardom, audiences might have viewed Alicia as a pathetic, boozy, scrubber. Without Grant’s fame and on screen magnetism, audiences might have viewed Devlin as a cold, calculating bastard (Indeed, if Claude Rains weren’t a Nazi, the audience might have rooted for him to get the girl — after all, at least he loves her unreservedly). The instinctive liking the audience had for the stars allows the two film icons to develop multi-layered characters rather than having them rejected out of hand. Quite simply, Bergman and Grant tear up the screen here and they get tremendous support from Rains and from Leopoldine Konstantin as a memorably terrifying mother (even by Hitchcockian standards!).
In the eyes of many film buffs, Notorious is the pivotal film in Hitchcock’s career, and not just because he famously managed to make Grant and Bergman’s Production Code-allowed three second kiss last for several minutes. When David O. Selznick sold the film to RKO to deal with a money crunch, Hitchcock finally didn’t have to choose between a big budget and production control. From this film onward through the rest of his U.S. career, he was able to be producer-director of marquee projects with A-list stars. Notorious also showcased The Master’s maturing ability to handle grown-up romantic story lines. There were love stories in his earlier films (for example The 39 Steps which I recommended here) but they were generally frothy and light-hearted. The love triangle in Notorious — scripted by the brilliant and prolific Ben Hecht — has much more psychic weight, adding a new dimension to Hitchcock’s work to accompany his already matchless ability to keep an audience on the edge of their seats. Last but not least, Hitch’s visual style, already impressive, took a major leap forward with this film: It’s enthralling to look at and comprises some of his most memorable images.
There’s only one Hitch, and Notorious is among his best works. Do not miss this classic romantic thriller!
p.s. Watch VERY carefully as Cary Grant ascends the stairs to Bergman’s room and compare what you see to the nerve-wracking conclusion as he and Bergman descend the same staircase. Why are there more steps on the staircase in the latter? Because Hitchcock knew how to string out excruciating tension.