“Say it again, it keeps me awake.” – Alicia (Ingrid Bergman)
“I love you.” – Devlin (Cary Grant)
Notorious was the first of Hitchcock’s American films to feel essentially American, a brewing pot of genres mixed together to create something sublime. It was his first post-war film, and thus the transitory picture that turned him from a filmmaker into a box office behemoth. The romantic thriller also showed the Master of Suspense playing around with techniques that were orchestrated so expertly, it did not take long before he earned that moniker.
His 1946 thriller was chilling and prescient in regard to the recent events on the world stage – the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of the Holocaust – but kept with the impeccable style and macabre sensibilities that made Hitchcock stand out even more from the film noirs of the period. It opens in a Miami courtroom in April 1946, as an American spy for the Germans receives a guilty verdict for treason. His daughter, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), walks out of the trial with little reaction. Instead of wallowing in misery, she hosts a soirée for her friends and family. There, she pours a drink for a man who the camera cloaks in shadow, his back turned to us for a full minute before revealing it is a sly cop named Devlin (Cary Grant).
Devlin and Alicia drink, tease each other and get in a bit of trouble – although Devlin’s badge keeps them in check. The cop reveals he had her bungalow wired for months during the trial to make sure she was not an accomplice to her father. The two fly to Brazil and fall deeper in love, although Devlin reveals he wants her to seduce Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), her father’s pal that the cop believes still has ties after the war. Sebastian was once in lover with Alicia, so she has what it takes to infiltrate his home and figure out if there are still shady dealings happening behind closed doors.
Notorious was Hitchcock’s most appealing film by that point in his career, mostly due to how many genres it crosses. There are elements of detective noir, suspense-thriller, spy flick and a romance with a love triangle. Working with a taut, terrific story from legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht, Hitchcock was able to keep the sinister undertones and the sly humour on the same page without having all the tones and moods feel uneven.
The key to making this cocktail go down easy is Grant and Bergman, who share some of the most scintillating chemistry that Hollywood audiences had ever seen. Due to the restrictive Hayes Code, kisses in American movies could only last for three seconds. In a few very erotic scenes from Notorious, Grant and Bergman intertwine in each other’s arms, nuzzling and feeling each other’s faces between these short kisses, keeping to the strict rule but feeling more intimate than much of what audiences had seen on the screen before. Hitchcock rarely cut when the camera was tight on the two actors – Grant and Bergman shared such an intoxicating chemistry that it seems like Ted Teztlaff’s camera does not want to separate them. The only times it pulls apart from the actors are when Alicia and Devlin are in disagreement.
As per the passionate romance, Hitchcock brought many of his most expressive techniques to make Notorious achingly romantic and stylish. The director uses some daring filmmaking tricks to display the enormous size of Sebastian’s home. When Alicia walks to the front door upon her initial visit, her shadow reaches the door long before she approaches and knocks, thanks to the noir-like lighting. In one glorious tracking shot, Teztlaff’s camera pans over the enormous lobby of Sebastian’s home before zooming in to a pivotal object clasped in the palm of Alicia’s hand.
Meanwhile, in one of the film’s climactic scenes, Hitchcock sets the action and observations on a long staircase the character walk down. Through careful editing, the director makes the staircase longer, holding the suspense while clearing up where the characters stand as they weigh the life-and-death options in their midst. By this point, the audience is so gripped by the wavering romantic tics of the love triangle that the stakes feel even more riveting.
Hitchcock adored telling stories about enigmatic, two-sided people, but he does not leave a twist that betrays the emotional purity of the love story. Alicia and Devlin are romantically involved more than the vast majority of the couples in the director’s films, and he manages to make the affair tender without piling on a sap that would offset the rich world of deceit and corruption he wanted to expose. In one of the most beautiful shots of the director’s oeuvre, Alicia slowly lowers binoculars while at a racing track, where she stand alongside Devlin – who she snuck away to see – to reveal tears. “Dry your eyes, baby,” her beau replies. “It’s out of character.”
Notorious is one of Hitchcock’s first films to have the wicked mother as antagonist. Sebastian’s nasty mom, played by German actor Leopoldine Konstantin, has an outstretched grip over her son and finds a terrible away to punish Alicia when she finds out his new wife may not be who she seems. The overbearing mother is a Hitchcock trope used most memorably in Psycho, but is just as potent here. His 1946 thriller is the filmmaker’s finest romance, but with such unforgettable characters and unbearable suspense, is also one of his most deeply satisfying slices of cake.