“You could have stopped me with one word, but no, you wouldn't. You threw me at him!”
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 classic romantic spy thriller has tried to be imitated many times by lesser films over the decades, but nearly 70 years later its style and fabulous camerawork continues to leave its mark on audiences everywhere. The master of suspense lived up to his name once again with a slightly different film focusing more on the characters than on the thrills. Set in 1946, with the Second World War recently over, Ben Hecht’s screenplay captured the spirit of the era where the fear of a nuclear war breaking out was eminent. American spies were focused on hunting down the remaining German Nazis that had spread throughout the world. The story begins in court where Alicia Guberman’s (Ingrid Bergman) father is convicted of being a German spy. Alicia has a reputation of being a heavy drinker and dating many men, and she is ashamed of her father’s activities. During one of the parties she hosts at her home she meets Devlin (Cary Grant), an American spy who falls for her beauty and charm, but isn’t willing to admit it. He convinces her to travel with him to Rio de Janeiro using her father’s connections to spy on his friends. She’s asked to approach Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), an old family friend who they suspect is also involved with other Nazis in the area. Alicia wins his affection easily, but at the same time it distances her from Devlin who she has feelings for. Once she’s in Alexander’s home she begins uncovering their secrets, but risking her life at the same time.
Notorious relies heavily on the romantic chemistry between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, two of the most talented actors of their era. Honestly, I found the romance between the two of them was rushed, and I didn’t buy into it very easily. One has to consider the restrictions however (the Hayes Code for example which restricted kisses to less than three seconds on screen) so there wasn’t much more they could do. But that was what made the on and off kiss between the two actors all the more passionate for audiences at the time. Today, however it doesn’t have the same effect. I had a difficult time buying into the romance and that affected my enjoyment of the film during the first half. But once the plot settles in Rio de Janeiro, the film has a couple of thrilling scenes. The wine cellar scene was one of the most gripping moments of Notorious and Hitchcock masterfully combined different camera shot and edits to build the suspense accompanying it with Webb’s suspenseful score. The final ten minutes also had me at the edge of my seat so the second half of the film made up for the tedious first half. Notorious isn’t among my favorite Hitchcock films because he’s mastered the suspense in other better movies like Psycho, Vertigo, or Rear Window, while I found his work in Rebecca a more compelling character driven film.
Notorious does bank from the strong lead performances from Grant and Bergman, who despite not being able to sell the romantic element at first, they still give engaging performances. Devlin’s stubbornness and unwillingness to share his feeling for her, and Alicia’s attitude towards his indifference becomes the soul of the film. Claude Rains plays Alexander extremely well, and he gives the strongest performance in the film. He falls in love with Alicia very quickly and that prevents him from seeing what his mother has suspected all along. The influence of Alexander’s mother over him is a trademark from Hitchcock and in this film Leopoldina Konstantin plays the mother better than most. It’s a fascinating story that slowly builds up to a memorable finale.