Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.
A couple of weeks ago when I reviewed Rope, I was trolled because I said that Hitchcock was a one-trick pony. That certainly overstated my case, but there’s still some truth behind what I said. Hitchcock did like to reuse the same plot. A case in point is Notorious. In that strange way that happens, I find this film reminds me of one that came after simply because I saw the older film first. To put it in historical order, my favorite Hitchcock film, North by Northwest is Notorious with the added twist of mistaken identity.
Notorious, as befits the earlier stage of Hitchcock’s career, is simpler than his later (and greater) film. We begin at the end of one story, a trial in which a man is convicted of treason. We focus then on his daughter Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman). She is naturally the target of the press and longs to escape. At a small party, she is introduced to a man who turns out to be a federal agent named Devlin (Cary Grant). Devlin, we get initials but never a first name, is interested in recruiting Alicia to help round up a gang of Nazi collaborators working in Brazil—a gang that her father was once a part of. She demurs, but eventually agrees.
The two begin a passionate affair that is broken up when the assignment given to Alicia is called in. Her task is to seduce a man named Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), who is one of the head officers in a German company in Rio de Janeiro and a suspect of the ring of Nazi spies and businessmen. As it turns out, Alex Sebastian once had a crush on our Miss Huberman, and so the wheels are set in motion. Neither Devlin nor Alicia are willing to admit their love for each other, and she goes ahead and “reacquaints” herself with Alex, eventually marrying him.
Through all of this, there is a great deal of suspicious activity concerning a bottle of wine. Further investigation reveals that in Alex Sebastian’s wine cellar are many vintage bottles as well as a number that are filled with uranium ore. Discovering this requires that Alicia and Devlin fake a rendezvous, which throws suspicion on her, leading to Alex’s desire to eliminate her as carefully as possible. So now, Devlin must find a way to rescue the woman he loves without admitting there is anything between them, and still manage to corner the collaborators he has been sent to capture.
It’s an interesting plot, and a film that twists in a number of fun directions. It’s also a film that shows just how subversive Hitchcock could be. In the first real romantic scene between Bergman and Grant, Hitchcock manages to walk the letter of the law of the Hays Code and at the same time produce a scene that is so completely against its spirit that I can’t help but sit back in awe of the man. The code mandated that men and women could not kiss for longer than three seconds. This moment of real passion between the two contains no kiss of longer than three seconds (the letter of the law) but the two are in a clinch that lasts for minutes with moments almost lurid between these kisses. It’s a moment of petulant brilliance, subverting the rule by creating something more passionate than a longer kiss would have been.
Like many films of the era, much of what happens in Notorious is centered around a romantic plot. In fact, the entire spy plot, the necessity of heading down to Rio, the German interest in uranium, all of this is there strictly to serve as impetus to focus and force the romantic story going on here. In a sense, the bottles filled with uranium are a Maguffin, but so is almost everything else that serves to stand in the way of Alicia and Devlin. It’s almost as if the romantic plot was somehow required, so he built the rest of the film around it as a way to do what he wanted while still following the letter of the law. In short, sort of like what he did with that scene of short kisses and passionate nuzzling.
This is a difficult film not to like. Ingrid Bergman is great, as always, and I’ve always had a soft spot for Cary Grant. The actor I sometimes forget about enjoying as much as I do is Claude Rains, who is as excellent here as he ever is. I’ll just call myself a Claude Rains fan at this point because I’m always happy to see him in anything.
Ultimately, I did enjoy this film. It’s always great to see these earlier works of Hitchcock that helped create the legacy of the man who will always be listed in the first sentence of great film directors. While I am of the opinion that Hitchcock was more consistently great later in his career, there are flashes of brilliance in films like this one, and for substantial parts of the film, long stretches that are as good as anything else he ever did. If anything, it reminds me of a film like The 39 Steps. It’s fun and tense, but perhaps a little too simple.
I’m reminded that Hitchcock frequently has the reputation of pulling off shock endings, and as I think about it, that’s an undeserved and unfair reputation. Certainly Psycho has that shock ending, but that’s the only one I can think of. Hitchcock was far too smart to rely on the sudden twist in the last five minutes. He’s all about the building of tension, and that often requires that we, the audience, know as much or more than the characters on the screen. We know in this film why Alicia starts getting sick before she does, and that’s what keeps the tension of those scenes building. It’s done well, and it’s done consistently.
Notorious wouldn’t work with a shock ending. It needs that slow build to keep us interested, and Hitchcock does exactly that. It still works, it’s still a fun watch, it’s still beautifully paced and filmed. It’s a worthy addition to his legend and to the canon.
Why to watch Notorious: Classic Hitchcock
Why not to watch: North by Northwest is the same plot, more, and better.