Notorious: Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman scorches the screen in Hitchcock’s dark romantic thriller

Alfred Hitchcock’s Masterpiece Notorious(1946) is many things; Its a Spy thriller, its a Love story, Its a Melodrama, Its also a Menaced-Women Noir. But above all, its an exercise in pure cinema in the great Hitchcock tradition that showcases the hitherto unseen side of  Star\actor Cary Grant.

Alicia Huberman (beautiful, young, spoiled, playgirl, daughter of a convicted Nazi sympathizer), played by Ingrid Bergman is in the midst of a wild party at her Miami home. She is seen flirting and drinking heavily with the guests. Her main object of affection is a handsome gentleman- framed  with his back  to the camera- sitting in front of her. There is a dissolve, as the camera pans in a semi circular angle and reveals the face of the gentleman. It is Cary Grant and he is looking unusually subdued and serious, though as handsome as ever. Alicia invites him for a drive and they go out driving in the cold night of  Miami. On the way they are stopped by the police for over speeding, but Grant shows them some identification and they are let through. Alicia, believing that he is a cop sent to trail her after her father’s conviction, fights with him, but he gives her a smack and take over  the driving himself. Next morning, Alicia wakes up with a heavy hangover. She see this sinister figure of Grant, silhouetted against the doorway and standing in front of her. As she tries to get up, Grant walks towards her  and in her vision, Grant’s image gets more and more grotesque and devilish until it turn upside down.

This scene  could be considered a meta moment, vis-à-vis Cary Grant’s image . Up until Notorious, Cary was the quintessential romantic comedy actor. An image that he acquired with The Awful truth,  released about 10 years before Notorious. He was  Someone who excelled in both  physical and subdued comedy; someone who is not afraid to make a fool of himself – Like putting on a dress in “Bringing up Baby” or manipulating his ex-wife Rosalind Russell in “My Girl Friday”, or being a scion of a mad family in “Arsenic and Old Lace”. Grant was both the lovable buffoon as well as the comic lover; both madcap and sophisticated, who always got the girl at the end. A major change in his image was in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels have wings, where he played a serious role. The first Hitch-Grant collaboration, Suspicion brought out the darkness in Grant, as a husband who may or may not be trying o kill his wife. But even there, he remained the lovable joker ,who clowns around for most of the film. Notorious was a major change of image. He is romantic and sophisticated here as well , but also dark, sinister, egotistical sadistic and romantically apathetic. Someone who turns his back on his own emotions, and as if to signify this- in a lot of the scenes- Grant is framed with his back to the camera.

In Notorious, Cary Grant plays United States Secret Agent T.R. Devlin who falls in love with Alicia Huberman, daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, But then has to recruit her for a mission to break up a Neo-Nazi spy ring operating in Brazil. The spy-ring is headed by a friend of Alicia’s father, Alex Sebastian(Claude Rains), who always had a crush on her. The idea is that Alicia will bed (but ends up wedding) Alex  and report the workings of his organization to Devlin and his agency. Of course, it’s not Devlin’s idea, but his agency’s, but Devlin, who is a deeply conflicted individual; between his personal romantic duties and his professional patriotic duty, does not stop the mission from going through. There is also the case that he is not yet fully sure of Alicia’s loyalty towards him and the country, as well as his own feelings for her. He wants her to prove her love for him  by turning down the mission on her own. His line of thought is:

A man doesn’t tell a woman what to do. She tells herself.

Though a secret agent, Devlin is much more closer to Heath cliff and Hamlet than James Bond or Ethan Hunt(or maybe not, the plot of this film was recycled for Mission Impossible II).  In another instance, he jumps to the defense of Alicia, when Beardsley, a member of the agency makes derogatory remarks about her referring to her as “a woman of that sort.” Devlin turns and confronts him with an angry yet restrained comment:

Not at all, not 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.

It is interesting to note that this is he only time he defends her and that too in her absence, showing his conflicted emotions for her.

And it’s no coincidence that his name rhymes with ‘The Devil’. He would  play the devil in Alicia’s life, alternatively seducing and tormenting her. He will continue to torture her soul through the course of the film, due to his indecisiveness, suspicions and jealousy. Until the point when Alicia is dying and he is forced to confront his true feelings for her. This again is a major change as far as the Grant persona is concerned. Usually, Grant romantically duels and steals his girl from his rival. But here, he passively watches or rather passive-aggressively pushes his lady love into the arms of his rival who is also the enemy of the state, and rather than makes amends for his actions, he keeps pushing her away by acting distant and  remote; he covers up his cowardice and self-loathing with cruelty and indifference toward her and his devotion to official duty.

If the role in Notorious was a stretch for Cary Grant, then for Ingrid Bergman, this is familiar territory. She is basically playing a composite of two of her most famous roles; Ilsa from “Casablanca” and Paula Anton  from her Oscar wining performance in “Gaslight”. As in the case of Ilsa, she is caught between her husband and her lover; a jilted lover who is hell bent on tormenting her for her (assumed) betrayal. And as in Gaslight, she is physically tortured and poisoned by her husband to death. Alicia is portrayed as a puppet, who has no control over her destiny, pulled in different directions by the men in her life. First, it’s her father: his betrayal caused her to lack self-respect and she became a self-destructive, hard-drinking, promiscuous, ‘notorious’ playgirl. Second, its her lover Devlin: who never vocally confirms his love for her ; as a woman who has dealt with a plethora of unfaithful lovers, she takes Devlin’s attitude in the same vein as the rest of the men in her life. Then finally, there is Alex Sebastian her husband: whom she is forced to betray to prove her loyalty towards both her country and her lover. And to further extrapolate this condition of hers, she’s seen going through the film in an ‘intoxicated’ state, and never fully in control of her senses; always under the influence of something: first it was alcohol, then it is love and finally its poison. Even at the end of the film, it is never sure whither she will survive and will have a happily ever after with Devlin.

Its interesting to note that Alex is perhaps the most charming, sensitive and lovable person in the film, except for his profession. And as played by Claude Rains, he is exquisitely suave and smooth. He is blinded by his love for Alicia and falls for her and even proposes marriage without thinking things through. And when he finds out the truth about her, he has no alternative but to silently poison her and dispose her off, lest his Nazi partners finds out about his fatal mistake; the punishment for which will be death for Alex. And just like Alicia has daddy issues, Alex has Mommy issues; he being dominated by his mother, who is a typical Hitchcockian character; a mix of Mrs. Danvers and Mrs. Bates. who is over possessive and over protective of her son and disapproves of his relationship with Alicia. She later becomes co conspirator with her son in poisoning her. Devlin, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have any family, except his agency ,but his  boss, the leader of the Allied espionage team named Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern) is his father figure. He knows exactly what’s going on with Devlin and Alicia, but he never brings it up , always giving prominence to the mission.

Notorious is undoubtedly one of Hitchcock’s masterworks; it’s a very unique film, even by Hitchcock’s standards. It’s a film that’s about spies, counter espionage, Nazis, making atom bombs, and yet the film doesn’t have a single Gunshot fired, no explosions, no violence, nobody gets killed – at least on screen. The most deafening sounds in the film is that of a wine bottle breaking into pieces and a car door being locked shut in the face of the antagonist. A film where the greatest suspense is not whether the intelligence agency will be able to eliminate the Nazis, but whether the hero and heroine will be able to realize their true feelings and get together. And yet it is as suspenseful and thrilling as any film that you can get from the master of suspense. It’s also a film where the hero is a puritan when it comes to woman and sex- there’s a scene early in the film where Devlin ties a scarf over Alicia’s bare midriff- but falls in love with a promiscuous, sexually aggressive woman. This love ‘reforms’ her, but then in the next instant, he forces her to ‘prostitute’ herself for the country.  Because she loves him, she does that too, and he ends up hating her for it; and continues hating her for it as she gets married to his arch (romantic and professional) rival. Despite all these complications, the film is one of the greatest love stories of all time, where every frame pulsates with the passion of these two lovers. It’s the magic of Hitchcock , screenwriter Ben Hecht and the two divine leads that makes it possible. It would take Hitchcock to find that sinister, sadistic edge in Grant’s dead pan dialogue delivery as well as a trance like stillness in his body language. The Grant-Bergman chemistry is scorching to say the least and its one of the greatest movie star pairings on film. Bergman always has that quality where she seems to need (or is constantly looking for) reassurance from her (leading) man, particularly in her facial expressions. It was there in the pivotal scenes of “Casablanca” with Humphrey Bogart, it’s put to really good use here by Hitchcock.

Though Basically a romantic thriller\melodrama, this film has strong Noir tones . It was made at the time when the Noir aesthetic was in full bloom  Hitchcock’s films are not  considered pure Noirs, but his films, particularly the Black &White ones, have strong Noir Influences. It’s very evident in the visual design of the films, with high contrast visuals and morally ambiguous characters. It’s the same with Notorious too. it belongs to a Noir sub genre called menaced-women noirs (just as Bergman’s previous film Gaslight).  In this kind of Noir; instead of women being the menacing Femme fatal, women are menaced by the men in their lives (often their husbands), as in this case, Bergman is slowly poisoned to death by her husband and his mother. The character of Devlin, with his moral conflicts and hard boiled nature, seems to be inspired by the prevailing noir aesthetic.

Hitchcock, the pure cinematic genius and visual artist, is in superb form in this film. He conjures up some bravura visuals; like the shot where The camera zooms down from above the chandelier of a crowded ballroom to the precious key clutched tightly in Ingrid’s hand. The key is to the locked wine cellar, in which the  bottles containing uranium ore are kept. But the two scenes that are most famous and the most extraordinary are two ‘love’ scenes. First is the one between Grant and Bergman when they had just fallen in love. It is considered the ‘the longest kiss in film history.‘ The kissing scene between Devlin and Alicia in her apartment lasts almost three minutes, beginning on a the Rio balcony, entirely shot in a tight close-up of their faces. They rapidly alternate passionate kisses with dialogue, first on the balcony, and then continuing on, as they walk from the balcony to the telephone and then to the front door. The second scene is the final scene of the film, where Grant comes to rescue Alicia who is dying due to poisoning. He first confesses his love for her and apologizes for treating her badly. Then he gathers her into his arms and, under threat of disclosing Rains’ secret to his associates, compels Rains to help him take her out of the house and to a hospital.  In the end, It is indicated that Rains’ companions learn the truth and would soon be eliminating him, Thus, Devlin has delivered a double whammy: successfully eliminating an enemy spy  as well as his romantic rival, thereby, bringing about a resolution to the personal vs professional conflict existing in him. The moments of him coming down the stairs with Alicia, accompanied by Alex and his mother, is amplified to the point that it becomes unreal in relation to time and space. We have just seen Cary go up those stairs in a matter of few seconds, but the coming down the stairs, which is the climax of the picture is extended to about 5 minutes. It’s the  quintessential Hitchcockian moment, where he dispenses with the natural laws of times and space to provide the ultimate cinematic experience in suspense.

Grant and Hitchcock would team up two more times; for To Catch a Thief(1954) and North by Northwest(1959), both of them iconic films and major highlights in both Grant’s and Hitchcock’s careers. Hitchcock called Grant “the only actor I ever loved” and it’s more than obvious that Grant was at his best in Hitchcock’s films; the 4 Hitchcock films Grant made goes a long way in defining the legendary ‘Grant’ persona, and his performance in “Notorious” is what i consider his greatest. Ingrid would do just one more film, Under the Capricorn(1949), which will not be a memorable outing for either of them. Notorious remains the high watermark of their collaboration, and one of the greatest films from the golden age of Hollywood. Grant and Bergman would go on to become great friends, and he was the only one who supported her when she was blacklisted in Hollywood following her adulterous affair with Roberto Rossellini. Though Bergman had her grand Hollywood comeback with her Oscar winning, Anastasia(1956), Grant was equally instrumental in getting her back to Hollywood, when he did Indiscreet with her in 1958. He also ensured that she got a percentage of the gross receipts from the film, as she was in a poor financial condition post her divorce from Rossellini. By the way, After filming that very famous scene with the keys to the Wine cellar: where the camera swoops down the spiral staircase to zero in on the key in Bergman’s hand, Grant stole the keys and kept it as a souvenir. He kept it for more than 10 years, till he give it as a present to Bergman, and Bergman kept it for more than 20 years, and finally in 1979, when both of them got together to present Hitchcock with his AFI lifetime achievement award, Bergman gifted it to Hitchcock.

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