Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Ben Hecht
I’ve mentioned a second tier of Hitchcock greats before, which includes films that any other director would be proud to call the very best work they’ve ever done. Notorious is often mentioned as the very top of that tier for very man film lovers, citing it as one of Hitch’s very best overall sometimes. It doesn’t have the notoriety (wink) of his largest films, but it has star power, craft, and intrigue to propel it to the top of many people’s secondary lists. I was once one of those people as well, overwhelmed by the filmmaking of it, the performances of it, the subject matter of it. As a film I have seen before, I approached it with a fresh eye, as I try to any film I’m revisiting, and while I still found that same expertize throughout, for some reason the film did not connect or resonate with me the same way it had before, the same way it has many Hitchcock fans who place it among his very best. I think with Notorious was have a case of a film I enjoyed a great deal, but left feeling disappointed it wasn’t as great as I wanted it to be. Perhaps that’s my own shortcoming, and not the film’s.
Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) is the American playgirl daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, but after her father is sent away for his crimes, she befriends a government agent named Devlin (Cary Grant), who recruits her for help on an assignment in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. By the time they arrive in Rio, Alicia and Devlin have fallen in love, overwhelmed by each other, but soon they discover the true mission in Rio: Alicia is to seduce Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), the leading member of a group of Nazi’s who have fled to South America, and a friend of her father’s who showed Alicia affection once before. Upset by this personal mission, Alicia believes Devlin to have seduced her into the mission, not truly loving her, prompting her to marry Sebastian for the sake of the mission. Sebastian begins to be suspicious of Alicia and Devlin, making it a pact she might soon regret.
If you’re following along, you’ll notice I’ve skipped over Spellbound for the time being, as it was not readily available to me so I marched on, but with that in mind Notorious seems the first film that represents what will becomes a Hitchcock hallmark: the marriage between his own virtuoso filmmaking and the star power of the casts he’ll come to work with. Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains are among the best talent he has worked with to this point, and the performances show that. Ingrid Bergman in particular is spectacular in the role of Alicia, adding such depth of emotion to the character. Claude Rains too is marvelous, as I’ve always loved seeing him pop up in any older movie I’ve seen. He plays Sebastian with the right balance of charm, evil and sympathy. Cary Grant is charming as ever, but I must admit that he seems overpowered and outperformed by the other two here. I’ve always been a Grant fan, but something about Devlin feels very cold and kept at arm’s length.
Returning to this film, I think what struck me the most was just how slight the whole film felt to me. It lacked the same punch I had remembered from the first viewing. Quite honestly, the first half of the film kind of slogged by as we were getting to know Alicia, Devlin and Alex. The romance between Alicia and Devlin felt rushed and unearned, perhaps somewhat due to Grant’s performance, but also because just all of a sudden they were in love. It was confusing, especially so since it took up so much of the time. And the famous kissing scene, constructed to circumvent the code rules of how long a kiss on screen could last, was kind of awkward and fake I thought. But once the film turned to the relationship with Alex, things began to pick up, especially as we were treated to the classic Hitchcock suspense of the party, wherein the slight of hand with the wine cellar key and the intrigue of the contents of the wine bottle bubble to the top.
Of course it all works as a sort of MacGuffin. We never get a great explanation it all, other than to serve as some nefarious activity that proves Sebastian and and his associates’ guilt of being evil Nazi’s. I like the idea of tracking down Nazi’s in South America, but none of that really comes through much. It never feels like a grand espionage thriller, instead defaulting the romance between Alicia and Devlin, and the dynamic of jealousy with Alex. If it weren’t for the performances, I would say this film is a disappointment altogether, but they keep it just interesting for long enough to overcome this. Of course, Hitchcock is also delivering his usual visual flare, which enhances so much of the cinematography. I never for a second thought this was a bad movie, but as much as I tried to see the great one so many people talk about, I couldn’t get there with Notorious. I hope maybe someone can help shed some light on what I missed, but still, I enjoyed the experience of one of Hitchcock’s very good movies, nonetheless.