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Notorious (1946)

October 24th, 2007 · 5 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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Following a guilty verdict in her father’s trial for treason in Miami, German American Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) drowns her despair in booze. Feeling that a man might be what she really needs, she takes one her party guests – the tightlipped Devlin (Cary Grant) – on a drunken drive down the coast. After he sobers her up, Devlin reveals he’s a government agent. He has a job for her in Brazil. Alicia protests that she’s no stool pigeon, but Devlin knows Alicia is more of a patriot than she’ll admit.

Arriving in Rio and waiting for their assignment, Alicia puts her days of wanton drinking and lust behind her. Devlin doesn’t want to believe she’s changed, but falls in love with her regardless. Their romance comes to an end when Devlin’s superiors notify him that Alicia is to seduce Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a friend of her father’s who was instrumental in financing the German war machine. He’s hiding in Brazil now, plotting something.

Outraged that her lover wouldn’t turn down the assignment for her, Alicia throws herself into it. She accepts a marriage proposal, an arrangement that permits Alicia to meet the fugitive scientists working in Sebastian’s house. His mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) doesn’t trust Alicia. She gains Devlin access to a wine cellar, and finds uranium ore hidden in the bottles. Once Sebastian discovers Alicia’s duplicity, he plots to dispose of her, without tipping off his comrades that he married an American agent.

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Production history 
While working on Spellbound, director Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht began mapping a project loosely based on a 1921 serial by John Taintor Foote appearing in the Saturday Evening Post. It concerned an American theater producer approached by federal agents who want an actress he was once involved with to infiltrate a network of saboteurs. Producer David O. Selznick – whom Hitchcock and Hecht owed a picture to – owned the property.

In August 1944, Hitchcock and Hecht decided to focus the story on scientists loyal to Nazi Germany hiding in South America. Cary Grant would play an American intelligence agent who manipulates the daughter of a traitor – to be played by Ingrid Bergman – into infiltrating the exiled fascists. For their Macguffin, Hitchcock arrived on the idea of an atomic bomb, based on rumors of a secret government program going on in New Mexico.

Selznick was not very enthusiastic about the project. The producer preferred Joseph Cotten over the expensive Cary Grant, and felt audiences wouldn’t understand or accept a mass weapon comprised of uranium ore. Selznick sold the package – Hitchcock, Hecht and Ingrid Bergman – to RKO for $800,000. The deal became finalized a few days before Japan surrendered, following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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Playwright Clifford Odets took a pass at the script, which Hitchcock rejected in favor of bringing back Ben Hecht. The film Hitchcock and Hecht envisioned would be torrid, politically as well as sexually. Following a year of writing, Notorious commenced shooting in October 1945 on the RKO lot in Beverly Hills. It was the first time Hitchcock served as his own producer, and when released August 1946, the film was greeted by critics and audiences as one of the darkest, most enthralling films of his career.

If this romantic thriller were remade – and it was, as Mission: Impossible II – the focus would be on high tech espionage and spectacle. The beauty of Notorious is how it almost completely ignores what the bad guys are doing to focus on the torrid affair between a double agent and her handler. Ben Hecht’s script is potent with tension and builds terrific suspense by involving us intimately with its characters from the beginning. This may be the best screenplay Hitchcock ever shot.

Notorious features two stars at their finest. Ingrid Bergman plays a lush and tramp who develops utter contempt for Cary Grant, who in turn, plays a right bastard with a mean steak, a man who knows just which words will eviscerate her emotionally. This isn’t a comic strip. By taking his characters into such dark corners, Hecht makes the light at the end all that more satisfying. Claude Rains is outstanding as always, while Hitchcock paints with restraint here, making a thriller that’s character – not gimmick – driven.

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Lisa Skryniarz at Crazy For Cinema writes, “Though Notorious has a pretty good plot, in the end, it’s nothing but a love story. Who really cares what the Nazis are doing with uranium? I just want to see Grant and Bergman make love to one another. In this case, you get what you pay for.”

Notorious is probably my favorite Hitchcock film. It displays not just a dark side of humans when it comes to murder, but darkness when it comes to love … It is a tragic drama that every true film buff should see,” writes Tom Blain at Jackass Critics.

Michael Scrutchin at Flipside Movie Emporium writes, “I’d place Notorious not far behind Vertigo as one of Hitchcock’s best films, and close to Casablanca as one of cinema’s greatest romances. I don’t think I’d be exaggerating to say that it’s as thrilling and suspenseful a romance as you’re likely to see.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Drunk scene · Golden Age of Hollywood · Mother/son relationship · Unconventional romance · Woman in jeopardy

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hedwig // Oct 25, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    I had this film on my harddrive for a month or so already – seeing you posted about it finally made me watch it. And I don’t regret it. Wow, do Grant and Bergman sizzle! Stomach pang level, especially towards the end. I especially like how strong and defiant Bergman’s character was, a tramp but not ashamed, a drunk but aware of that fact, openly in love with Grant but never crying over it, just lashing out.

    One thing though: I found myself sympathizing with Claude Rains most of all (and boy, did he age in the three years between Casablanca and this, seeing the two film shortly after one another makes you notice these things). Because so little emphasis is put on the nefarious Nazi plot, he’s really just a sucker falling for a girl who lies to him. When he finds out about her true intentions, it’s almost heartbreaking.

  • 2 Megan // Oct 25, 2007 at 3:13 pm

    Two shots (out of so many good ones!) that I especially like in this:

    The zoom in on the key in Bergman’s hand as she nervously flips it over and over, and the shot of Rains’ mom descending the staircase. I never understood why one is not supposed to look down at one’s feet, until I saw that.

  • 3 Damian // Oct 25, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    Despite the fact that I knew it was one of Hitchcock’s most revered films (it’s his daughter Pat’s personal favorite for example) Notorious was one of the last Hitchcock films I ever saw. I watched it for the first time less than a year ago and was completely captivated by it. What a wonderful movie. And you’re absolutely right, joe, in that Mission: Impossible 2 is essentially a remake of it (right down to the scene at the racetrack) and inferior in just about every way… well, except for slow-motion action sequences. In that arena, I’m afraid M:I-2 has the upper hand.

  • 4 Justine // Oct 27, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    Actually my favourite Hitchcock film, it’s short, fresh and endlessly fascinating. It’s the ending that always wins me. No need for exposition, just horror… outright cruelty by our “heroes”. Astonshing.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Oct 27, 2007 at 6:14 pm

    Hedwig: I’m glad you enjoyed Notorious and how strong Ingrid Bergman’s character was in it. So often in movies today we see characters airbrushed to be “likable”. All the rough edges are smoothed over and the result is not only unrealistic, but boring. Rains was anything but as well. Human is the word I’m looking for.

    Megan: The crane shot that begins high above the party and moves in on the key is one that has been employed in so many DePalma movies. I can’t recall the one of Leopoldine Konstantin that you mentioned, though. I was probably watching Ingrid Bergman too closely.

    Damian: Don’t get me started! M:I2 was a stupidity spectacle that tried to entertain everyone and thus guaranteed that it wouldn’t. I know that Robert Towne wrote the script, but it was just another piece of crap, one of many he’s turned out since 1974. I can’t recall that Tom Cruise or Thandie Newton were given characters to play, certainly not ones with any hard edges. And Dougary Scott was no Claude Rains.

    Justine: Thanks for commenting! It’s interesting that you sympathized more with the Claude Rains subplot than the Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman one. Any movie that ends with the male lead carrying away the female lead in his arms – I’m thinking An Officer and a Gentleman – rarely loses.

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