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WARNING: KEY SPOILERS
Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” is the greatest love story ever filmed between a cold bastard and a drunken whore.
That’s a joke and it isn’t. There’s the story we watch and there’s the way Hitchcock undercuts the story we watch. He smuggles all sorts of shit in. He gets America, this puritanical country, to care about these less-than-pure people.
The Hays code helped. In the first five minutes we learn that Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), whose father was recently convicted as a Nazi spy, drinks too much and sleeps around, but we only see her drunk once, and we never see her sleeping around—just flirting with Cary Grant, who, let’s face it, is Cary Grant, the Man from Dream City, etc., so who can blame her. The Hays code, by keeping Alicia’s more notorious activities discreet, keeps her sympathetic. When others bring up her past, it almost seems unfair, as if they were tarnishing her with rumors rather than agreed-upon facts.
As for the cold bastard? We first see Devlin (Grant) as the back of a head and wonder, “Why is Hitchcock filming the back of his head when the front of his head has Cary Grant’s face attached to it?” Answer: This is a man who reveals little. He’s a secret agent, CIA, or OSS, or whatever the agency was between World War II and the passage of the National Security Act of 1947. He doesn’t talk much but every third word is sneered. It takes a lot to drain the charm out of Cary Grant but Hitchcock does it masterfully.
The linchpin of the film is also masterfully, intricately created. Devlin recruits Alicia, this wanton, daughter-of-a-Nazi-spy, for an assignment in Rio de Janeiro, but before they get the assignment they fall in love. He loosens up and she looks like Ingrid Bergman again. It begins to feel like a traditional Hollywood romance. There’s even a famous two-and-a-half minute kissing scene that, by skirting the Hays’ code’s admonition of kisses longer than three seconds, relies on multiple, nibbling pecks, making it even sexier than if they’d been allowed to slobber all over each other.
Then the assignment arrives. She’s to infiltrate a gang of Nazis by throwing her charms at one of the leaders, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), who once had a crush on her. And by “throwing her charms at,” I mean “sleeping with.” Or “fucking.” All of which is discreetly implied with words like “playmates.” Hays Code to the rescue again.
So Devlin is torn. He’s a professional man but also a man in love. The man in love wants her to say “no” but the professional man knows the job is the job. Which side wins? The side that says nothing. He gets even more tight-lipped. Just when she wants him to talk.
She’s a woman in love but an amateur in this profession, so she goes along with the scheme, one can argue, for Devlin. He wants her to say “no,” but she says “yes” for him. Talk about cross purposes.
That’s how Hitchcock undercuts the traditional Hollywood romance. But “Notorious” is also a thriller, a post-WWII thriller about American agents battling South American Nazis, and the way he undercuts the film’s ostensible patriotism is even more brilliant.
Three scenes stand out.
In the first scene, early in the movie, Devlin recruits Alicia, not by appealing to her patriotism, but by revealing how patriotic she already is. Three months earlier, her father tried to recruit her to the German cause and she’d responded with a speech, straight out of a war-bonds fundraiser, about how much she loves America. Most of us reveal our best face to the world while doing what we do in private. She, apparently, is the opposite.
And how does Devlin remind her how patriotic she is? By playing a recording of that conversation with her father. The very government she’s defending on that recording, in other words, is in fact recording her. It’s spying on her. By showing her that she’s patriotic, he’s also showing her why she shouldn’t be patriotic.
All of which goes unsaid. The second scene, halfway through the movie, is more overt.
By this point Alicia has infiltrated Sebastian’s sanctum at great risk and personal loss—she loses Devlin—but here she’s about to turn up at agency headquarters, and the man in charge, Capt. Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern), worries. Another one of the higher-ups, Walter Beardsley (Moroni Olsen) adds, “She's had me worried for some time. A woman of that sort.”
During this conversation, Devlin had been showing us the back of his head to the room, but Beardsley’s remark literally turns him around. It forces him to reveal his true face:
Devlin: What sort is that, Mr. Beardsley?
Beardsley: Oh, I don't think any of us have any illusions about her character, have we, Devlin?
Devlin: Not at all. Not in the slightest. Miss Huberman is first, last, and always not a lady. She may be risking her life, but when it comes to being a lady, she doesn’t hold a candle to your wife, sir, sitting in Washington, playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue.
Hitchcock, of course, grew up in working-class London and maintained working-class suspicions of the oligarchy. There are people who work and people who don’t. There are soldiers and those who order soldiers into battle. Alicia, at this point, is a soldier. These old men and their wives who look down upon the Alicias of the world? Not. They call into question her character but Hitchcock, through Devlin, calls into question their character, and all they can do in response is be affronted:
Beardsley: I think those remarks about my wife are uncalled for.
Devlin (unapologetic): Withdrawn. Apologized, sir.
The third scene, near the end of the film, may be the strongest of the lot.
By this point, Alicia has actually married Sebastian and is living in his mansion with his domineering mother, whom he calls “Mother,” prefiguring Norman Bates by 15 years. At a party to introduce Alicia to Rio society, Alicia and Devlin discover the Nazis secret: ore, most likely uranium ore, hidden in wine bottles in Sebastian’s basement. It’s Hitchcock’s McGuffin, but unlike most McGuffins it’s not harmless. It actually anticipates (in the writing and filming) the A-bomb, which will transform the world.
To discover this, Alicia has to steal the wine-cellar key, a Unica key, from hubby’s keyring. Unfortunately, he notices it’s gone, then notices it’s back, and in the wine cellar he finds jig-is-up evidence of Devlin’s clumsy snooping. “I’m married to an American agent,” he tells Mother. But what to do? Killing an American agent can’t make up for having married her in the first place; that won’t sit well with the other Nazis, who, remember, killed poor Emil Hupka (Eberhard Krumschmidt—his only role in movies!) simply for having a lousy poker face.
So Mother concocts a scheme to slowly poison Alicia. It will seem, to the other Nazis and the rest of the world, as if she had an illness and expired. Alicia figures it out, but too late, when she’s too weak to do anything about it, and she’s led, as if in a nightmare, up to her bedroom, where Mother, with her thick German accent, says, “We’ll take the best care of her,” and Sebastian, feigning concern (and with the camera zooming in tight on Alicia’s helpless, stricken face), tells the butler, “Josef, disconnect the telephone, Madame must have absolute quiet. Take it out of the room.”
Then, in rapid succession, we see:
- Devlin sitting on a park bench, his meeting place with Alicia, looking at his watch.
- Alicia in bed, dying. Mother off to the side, knitting peacefully.
- Devlin, at night, pacing before the same park bench.
In our minds we’re going “Hurry! Hurry!” and finally we get a meeting between Devlin and Prescott. Most such meetings took place in Prescott’s office but this one is in Prescott’s hotel room. It indicates how worried Devlin is. He, like us, can’t wait for tomorrow.
The hotel room also allows Hitchcock to juxtapose Alicia, the solider, with Prescott, the general.
Like Alicia, Prescott is lying in bed. Unlike Alicia, he’s a picture of health. In fact, as Devlin reveals his concerns, and as we’re still shouting “Hurry!” in our minds, Prescott nonchalantly, infuriatingly, butters crackers and stuffs them in his face.
“Five days, eh?” he says, unconcerned. “That must be quite a binge she’s on.” Devlin figured the same—Alicia had lied to him about her sickness—but now he’s having second thoughts. Prescott has none. He even warns against Devlin checking up on her since he doesn’t want anything to jeopardize the mission. Then he picks cracker crumbs off his chest.
How far will you go for love or country? That’s one of the main dilemmas of the film. Love doesn’t do poorly in this equation, since, in the end, Devlin comes through, despite Alicia’s past, despite Alicia’s assignment. But country? Beardlsey represents the country. He thinks poorly of the workers. Prescott represents the country. He can’t be bothered to get out of bed. While Alicia is dying in hers.
There is, in general, great balance in “Notorious.” In one of the first shots, we see the judges and executioners of Alicia’s father framed in a doorway; and in one of the last shots, we see the judges and executioners of Alicia’s husband framed in a doorway. After Alicia is reintroduced to Sebastian, we see Devlin sitting alone at a restaurant on the left side of the screen. In the next shot, we see Alicia sitting alone at a restaurant on the right side of the screen. Balance.
But there is no balance as to our loyalties. The film’s second-most famous shot, after the kissing scene, occurs at the beginning of the party, when the camera, starting from the upper floor, sweeps down to focus on the Unica key in Alicia’s nervous hand. It’s a great shot. One can’t help notice, too, the checkerboard pattern on the floor, and how all of the guests, milling about, look like pieces in a chess game. Which they are. That isn’t a point of contention. Our problem is with the men moving this particular piece. They don’t know its value. They see a pawn. We see the queen.
November 14, 2010
© 2011 Erik Lundegaard