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.
I looooooove this movie; probably my favorite by Hitchcock. I love the seedy sadomasochistic relationship between Alicia and Dev, and I love how Claude Rains is the nicest, most sympathetic bad guy ever.ReplyDelete
Claude Rains is so wonderful, isn't he? Like you, I tend to forget how much I like him.
Loooove this movie too(I tried matching O's in siochembio's comment :D). Not only my favorite Hitchcock but one of my all time favorite movies. This pairing of Bergman and Grant in this movie might be my favorite on-screen pair, their slow-burning romance is amazing to watch and Hitchcock's camera work always gets me.ReplyDelete
It's not my favorite Hitchcock, but I can see why people like it. Perhaps if I'd been exposed to it before I was I would see more here. However, having seen North by Northwest multiple times and loving it, I see this as a simpler version of almost the same story. And it's even still Cary Grant.ReplyDelete
"Hitchcock was far too smart to rely on the sudden twist in the last five minutes" - yes,Hitch believes that suspense is telling everything to the audience,not withhold it.In this way,I think it's much superior than those whodunits.ReplyDelete
The most brilliant of this film is its ending,it's a tough scene to shoot.But Hitch handles the rhythm of those four stepping down stairs perfectly well by intercutting their dialogues and actions.It is the least studied scene in all Hitchcock films.
The end is good. I think it's a little unsatisfying in that a lot is still left hanging over everything--we don't see the sort of climax against the collaborators that we typically get. I imagine it's forthcoming in the world of the film, though.Delete
Still, we know what's going to happen in the immediate future, and that's pretty awesome to contemplate.
Steve, Notorious is right up there with North by Northwest as my favorite Hitchcock films. I don't think it's his most unique movie, but he's at the top of his game here. It also helps to have Grant, Bergman, and Rains to sell the material. Now you should watch Mission Impossible 2 and see how much Woo paid homage to this movie.ReplyDelete
I liked all the tension in this film. I agree with David that this film has a great ending to it.ReplyDelete
It does. I probably didn't give it enough credit. We don't see what happens, of course, but we know what will, and in this case, that's enough.Delete
Still, there are a lot of unanswered issues at the end.
I haven't seen NOTORIOUS, which is perhaps my biggest hole in Hitchcock cinema. For whatever reason, it's one of his films I'm having a hard time tracking down.ReplyDelete
By the way -- the site like different? Clean and simplistic.
Yeah, I made some changes. I was tired of the white text on a dark background. It made my eyes hurt if I spent too long looking at it, so I figured I should try something else. I like it better, so there's that.Delete
Notorious shouldn't be that hard to find. Any good library system should have a copy floating around in it. Certainly NetFlix has it, as does Hulu. It's worth seeing, but since it's very much redone with the superior North by Northwest, it might be a one-and-done film for you.
The greatest assets of this film I think is the suspense and Claude Rains. I was on the edge of my chair in those last scenes in the bed chamber, urging Devlin and Alicia to get a move on and get out of there before Sebastian and the Nazi horde showed up. Instead they were taking their good time and every second was sweet and painful. Also I wondered how on Earth they would get out without a swat team. It was not exactly a clandestine entry of Devlin. The blackmail solution was clever and unexpected. But poor Alexander...ReplyDelete
Claude Rains is an asset in anything he appeared in. I do love me some Claude Rains.Delete