Notorious (1946)

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Claude Rains

Pain boils down to a loss of control. Something outside of our reach hurts, and for the most part there is nothing we can do to stop that hurt from coming, and above all else that’s what makes us crazy. Lingering deaths would be scary enough without pain—one does not walk where one cannot guarantee safe footing—but the thought of suffering is the real terror. The most effective scene in Dunkirk by a nautical mile is the one where it seems like a man is going to drown in the flooded cockpit of his crashed airplane; he is trapped, and we know it’s going to feel really bad. Notorious works on a similar basis during its last act, when Alicia (Bergman) is trapped by her husband, Alex (Rains) and his mother (Leopoldine Konstantin). Now that the two Nazis in hiding recognize that Alicia is working for the U.S. government as a spy and is not, like themselves, a sympathetic Nazi expat, they decide they must get rid of her. Poison is employed. Alicia is slow on the uptake, but during a quiet night with a family friend, he reaches for her coffee. “No!” cry the Sebastians, and it falls on Alicia like a ton of bricks once as she realizes it, and then again as she fails to even make it upstairs. There are scarier moments in Hitchcock, for sure, but I’m not sure there’s a greater expression of existential horror in his entire oeuvre. The only people who can help her are the ones who are killing her slowly and discreetly, and she is absolutely helpless to do anything about it.

Hitchcock’s moving camera is essential to the horror of this movie. The movie’s most famous moments are moving camera masterpieces. Of course, there’s the shot from the top of the stairs which takes in the whole party before finally honing in on the little key in Ingrid Bergman’s hand. Compared to that, it’s easy to forget or downplay the long shot of Bergman and Cary Grant kissing for fractions of a second while whispering to one another, but it’s a shot that maintains its place for a surprisingly long time. More than once the camera finishes a complete lap around its track, showing us an entire room and the mess that Alicia’s guests have made. Even the backgrounds are in a state of hustle and bustle, with people hurrying past and cars scooting by. The effect is that we are meant to live from Alicia’s point of view for the vast majority of the film. It is her hand holding the key; we face Grant more than we look at her while she’s sharing her kisses; our vision blurs when her vision blurs; we see, from her perspective, the Sebastians shouting “No!”

The movie’s most emotional moments carve out time to allow us to see how Alicia will react. We find out that the American government wants Alicia to get in with Alex so she can learn what she can about him and his Nazi friends twice. The first time, we do so through Devlin (Grant), who gets the assignment. The second time, it’s at the hotel where Alicia, indulging a contemporary femininity hitherto and henceforth unseen, has made a roast chicken (“It caught fire once”) for the two of them to eat on the balcony. Her disappointment becomes heartbreak when Devlin refuses to say what she wants to hear: bound by duty, he cannot tell her that he wants her to turn down the job. What we feel watching her is far stronger than what we feel when Devlin gets the news initially, and it’s a sign of where the movie has placed its priorities. There are other asides to Grant which make up significant chapters of the film, as when he pieces together the clues to realize that Alicia’s absence is a sign that something is terribly wrong, but for the most part this is Alicia’s movie. By 1946, Ingrid Bergman was quite possibly the most popular actress in America, and Hitchcock does not shy away from giving the people what they want. It’s a role that requires most of the people she could be; Bergman in her salaciously drunk maneating getup is less familiar on the whole than the wilting flower, but she is equally strong in both parts. It’s the jilted lover that she manages to sink her teeth into most; I’ve written about it before, but the scene where she smiles her way through a devastating series of updates during a horse race is an absolute triumph.

No one is going to mistake Hitchcock with Chantal Akerman, but there was a ten year period from 1936 to 1946 where his best films—SabotageThe Lady VanishesRebeccaSuspicionShadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, Notorious—were overwhelmingly about women, and took their part as sympathetic protagonists. Wives (Sabotage), new brides (Rebecca), and children (Shadow of a Doubt) are as important as the independent single gals (The Lady Vanishes) who are usually most prized because they can be set up with handsome men who may or may not stand in for many male moviegoers. Notorious is the apex of this little run, for no other movie privileges the vision of women so much as this one does, and no other movie asks us to look through the eyes of women so much as this one does. Other movies will follow women to uncover mysteries and build thrills, like The Lady Vanishes or Shadow of a Doubt, and Rebecca remains one of the great movies about women policing other women. Notorious takes Alicia squarely outside of her presumed gender role, literally removing her from her apron, and puts her into the male-dominated world of espionage to do a job that no man can do. (Louis Calhern, as Devlin’s boss, does not deign to recognize the chemistry between his inferiors; it goes unsaid that Devlin is supposed to take care of whatever his fling is with their Mata Hari.) Nor is she thanked for it. One of Devlin’s superiors makes a comment about Alicia’s slutty past. Devlin, in a moment as close to chivalry as one can get in this sort of circle, replies in the most satisfying way imaginable. “She may be risking her life,” he says, “but when it comes to being a lady she doesn’t hold a candle to your wife in Washington, playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue.”

In the midst of a somewhat fantastic plot, Cary Grant lays down a hardbitten performance in line with the film’s most noirish sensibilities. There cannot be another performance of his where he maintains such a stony visage. All the same there are wisecracks in this movie that would more easily have come out of Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum’s mouths, leading of course with that headshot for his boss. When Alicia asks him if he doesn’t have a wife somewhere, he replies, “Bet you’ve heard that line often enough.” And when she wonders how she’ll manage to nick the key to Alex’s wine cellar, he has a quip prepared: “Don’t you leave near him?” While nowhere near as sympathetic as Alicia, who he puts after country despite having some inkling of what she’ll be used for, he turns into a real person the more he admits he loves her despite a pair of ugly pasts: hers, and her Nazi dad’s. Playing opposite Bergman as well (and thus to some extent against Grant) is Claude Rains as Alex Sebastian. In his mid-late 50s when Notorious was made, Rains was fifteen years older than Grant and twenty-six Bergman’s senior. In a surprisingly fitting touch, Alex was Alicia’s father’s friend; it only makes sense that Rains was himself old enough to be Bergman’s dad. Compared to Grant’s muted expressions, or to Bergman’s combination of smooth features and expressionistic hair, Rains looks rubber-faced. There are bags under his eyes large enough to hide the magic dirt he keeps in his wine bottles. There’s too much sun in Rio (“Rio”) for him, which emphasizes his bloodsucking, if not undeserved, jealousy when he accosts Alicia and Dev at the racetrack. He is most at home indoors, in the shadows of his wine cellar or in softer light of the lamps in his sitting room. Light turns out to be dangerous for him in the end, too; in one of my favorite closing sequences ever, his Nazi friends, now understanding that his house was infiltrated by the U.S. spy corps, call him back into the house. In the darkness, Alex turns around and fades into the darkness of his steps while a blinding light shines just to his left and his will-be executioners patiently wait for him to come inside.

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