Notorious is my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film. If I ever have a doubt about that, after maybe seeing Rear Window or North by Northwest, I am reassured when I see Notorious again. I saw it again over the weekend for at least the fourth time, and I was enthralled as I was the first time. It is suspenseful, scary, and, perhaps most importantly, sexy.
Hitchcock didn’t often do sex, or when he did it was fucked up, like in Psycho or Marnie or Frenzy. But Notorious, behind it’s story of Nazis and an American agent deep, deep undercover, is two attractive people who want to jump each other’s bones.
The notorious character in Notorious is Alicia Hubermann, played by Ingrid Bergman. In something of a departure for her (she had just played a nun in The Bells of St. Mary’s) she is the daughter of a Nazi war criminal who is being sent to jail. She is tailed by police and paparazzi, and puts on a show, as she is what used to be politely called a “party girl” (an earlier draft of the script had her as a prostitute). She throws a shindig after her dad gets sent up the river and there’s a party crasher she’s attracted to. We only see him from behind, but any film buff knows the back of that head–it’s Cary Grant.
Grant is T.R. Devlin, an agent of some sort (probably the O.S.S., forerunner to the CIA) who, after engaging in a drunken car ride with Bergman, proposes a job for her. She used to date a man named Alex Sebastian, who is now in Brazil and collaborating with Nazi scientists (interestingly, the word Nazi is never used). Bergman is to seduce him and get into the house and find out who’s there, etc. She agrees after Grant shames her, but it goes so well that Bergman actually married Sebastian (a terrific Claude Rains), who plays a number one sap.
Problem: Grant and Bergman have fallen in love. They exchange one of the greatest kisses in film history. There was a time limit for kisses in those days, something like three seconds, so Hitchcock got around it by having the two, in extreme close-up, talk to each other about dinner and what not while punctuating almost every word with another kiss. The camera follows them from the balcony to another room in a single take, neither one more than six inches from the other’s lips. It was probably the hottest scene since the pre-Code days.
Anyway, the two get into a passive-aggressive thing. Grant is appalled that Bergman accepted the job, while Bergman wanted Grant to stand up for her (the bosses, mainly Louis Calhern, think of Bergman as a slut and have no idea Grant is warm for her). Grant acts like a shit, but remains loyal, especially after Bergman is found out by Rains and his gargoylish mother, who slowly poison her to the point of incapacitation.
Notorious has all the things we love about Hitchcock: the monstrous older woman (played by Leopoldine Konstantin, a famous Austrian actress), a McGuffin–a key to a wine cellar, held by Bergman, the focus of one of Hitchcock’s most famous shots, a crane shot that zooms from the top of the stairs all the way to the key in Bergman’s palm, and making the banal suspenseful. An entire party scene, which lasts about ten minutes, has us on the edge of our seats wondering if the champagne will hold out. That scene ends with Grant and Bergman covering up their snooping in the wine cellar by clinching while Rains watches (Grant is posing an an airline executive who is hot for Bergman). This allows Bergman to react with the full force of her sexuality, breaking down and murmuring Grant’s name as if she were at the peak of climax.
The rest of the film is just as wonderful. Rains figures things out in a beautifully-edited scene, and then Bergman figures out that they’re on to her in another great scene. Finally, Grant swoops in and rescues her, revealing how weak a man Rains is (he’s a glorified mama’s boy) and how superior Grant is to him in every way. A car door locking and Rains’ slow walk back into his house (to meet his doom) make for one of Hitchcock’s greatest endings.
While this is a Hitchcock film, great praise should be lavished on the screenwriter, Ben Hecht. It’s both funny (Grant, taking Bergman outside after her party, wonders, “Shouldn’t you wear a coat?” Bergman sizes him up and says, “You’ll do.”) and literate. Not one syllable seems out of place. The dialogue in the car at the beginning of the film is crackerjack, and the finale, when Grant and Rains talk sotto voce on the stairs with Bergman between them, is gripping.
My only complaint about the film, and it’s common in Hitchcock films, is that he seemed oblivious to how bad the background projection looked. Of course this was shot on a studio lot, nowhere near Brazil, so we get frequent and very bad process shots. It almost seems charming now, the genius’s one area of impairment, like Einstein not caring how he dressed. And Hitchcock is the cinematic equivalent of Einstein.