Notorious (1946)

Notorious (1946)

Notorious (1946). 102 minutes.  Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Starring Ingrid Bergman (as Alicia Huberman), Cary Grant (as T. R. Devlin), Claude Rains (as Alex Sebastian), and Leopoldine Konstantin (as Madame Anna Sebastian).

Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious is commonly described as an espionage thriller, but it is also a profound psychological drama and an ethical one, too—a movie that is not merely about notorious people but also about how we treat them.  It ranks with Vertigo and Rear Window as one of Hitchcock’s finest films.

At first we think we know who is notorious in this movie.  The film begins at the American trial of a famous Nazi spy.  We watch as his sentence is read, then see his daughter, Alicia Huberman (played by Ingrid Bergman) exit the courtroom. Surely the Nazi is the notorious one? But it turns out that the notorious person at the center of this story is not a Nazi: it is lovely Alicia Huberman.  We may come to the conclusion that Alicia is notorious because she is the daughter of a traitor.  We later discover, however, that she is also notorious because she is allegedly a loose woman: a party girl, someone who moves quickly with men.  This double helping of notoriety lands her in the hands of the United States government, which ultimately seeks to take advantage of her two reputations in order to advance the American cause against an old friend of Alicia’s father: the German Alex Sebastian, who along with his circle of Nazi acquaintances in Brazil has embarked on a mysterious plot to do harm to the world after the war.

Our early glimpses of Alicia are all compromised by issues of perspective. There is the shot (from the press’s perspective) of her moving through the flashing cameras outside of the courtroom as she leaves her father’s trial, clearly ashamed; the scene at her house where she pours drinks and jokes around with guests, which we see from the back of American agent T. R. Devlin’s head (from his perspective); and the woozy camera angles (again from Devlin’s perspective) after she has had too much to drink.  It is not clear whose perspective on her character is correct.  On the night of her father’s sentencing, we do see Alicia drunkenly driving a car with Devlin at her side; he seems to encourage her reckless behavior, with the result that both of them look careless and irresponsible.  Although a complex and sometimes unflattering picture of Alicia is developing, and we see Devlin is aware of her complexity, nevertheless while accompanying her to Brazil on their dangerous mission, he falls in love with her, quickly and completely.  Once they land in Rio de Janeiro, however, we first learn that the United States government wants Alicia to ingratiate herself with Sebastian.  It is strongly suggested that the Americans would like her to have a romantic affair with him for the benefit of the allied cause.  So although we might not be convinced of her sexual notoriety, the U.S. government is, and what is more, Devlin soon is, too. Eventually Alicia complies with the Americans, even marrying Sebastian for the sake of learning more about the exiled Nazi plot.  Weirdly, Devlin remains her government point of contact throughout this process, despite or because of his feelings for her.

Unlike some of Hitchcock’s other espionage pictures, Notorious is a passionate love story.  Before Alicia learns the full details of her assignment, she and Devlin share an intensely romantic evening together, during which he is clearly under the impression that her mission in Rio will be purely political.  They arrive in Brazil and in the privacy of Alicia’s hotel room exchange one of the most intimate series of kisses I have ever seen in a movie.  This sequence of short pecks, complete with sighs and heavy breathing, not only rapidly establishes for us Alicia and Devlin’s infatuation with each other; it is also a way of getting around the Production Code’s rule that kisses could not last for more than three seconds (their sequence of three-second kisses in this scene lasts for two and a half minutes).  But their bliss is short-lived: as soon as Alicia is told what she must do with Sebastian in order for the mission to be successful, Devlin turns on her and becomes very cruel.  It is hard to forgive him for his callousness, even when he and Alicia are reunited at the film’s conclusion.

In contrast, Sebastian embraces Alicia and her past fully: he has loved her since she was young and is clearly overjoyed that she now shows him affection.  We never hear disparaging remarks from him about Alicia’s sexual past.  Sebastian may be a Nazi, but at times his love for her seems to be greater than Devlin’s.  The result of this complex love triangle is that for most of the movie, Alicia does not experience the love of Devlin, the man she truly cares for, and she never fully loves Sebastian, in spite of their marriage and in spite of his love for her.  Of course, Sebastian is affiliated with an evil political body and is plotting some horrible deed with his fellow Nazi exiles in Rio involving a supply of uranium stored in the extensive wine cellar of Sebastian’s posh Rio estate.  But one of the strange things about this movie is that Sebastian the Nazi ringleader is nevertheless a very sympathetic character.

Interlinked with the love story is the espionage plot.  While the love story concerns the emotional lives of the characters, the espionage plot concerns the intense ways that they process information as liars and impostors searching for clues and who in a paranoid fashion read deep significance into so much of the world around them.  Notorious is all about small, meaningful objects and observations, and it flamboyantly demonstrates Hitchcock’s impressive balancing of the microscopic with the macroscopic, particularly in the Brazilian portion of the story.  For example, on the evening of a lavish party that Sebastian throws for his new wife Alicia, in one of Hitchcock’s most celebrated shots, the camera begins at the top of Sebastian’s spectacular staircase and descends past revelers to Alicia’s hand, to the small key to Sebastian’s private wine cellar that she clutches in her palm (the key is the film’s famed MacGuffin).  The party is a grand affair, but the indulgent production is all out of proportion with the very precise operation that Alicia is about to embark on in the cellar with the help of this tiny instrument.  The sweeping camera movement deliciously reveals that an epic undoing can result from the tiniest overlooked detail.

Notorious is particularly about the profound, wide-ranging data that the conspiratorial characters—trapped in a web of watchful suspicion—derive from such small details.  This is a story about artful readers, people who are constantly and actively engaged in private acts of interpretation.  We soon watch as the key is used to uncover the Nazi conspiracy.  Alicia and Devlin, still collaborators in the espionage mission in spite of their animosity towards each other, use the key to enter the forbidden wine cellar and explore its contents.  Sebastian discovers them embracing downstairs (this is a ruse to cover up their investigation of the cellar), and Devlin subsequently apologizes to Alex and leaves, feigning drunkenness.  After performing a quick check, Sebastian finds everything in order and has nearly resigned himself to believing that nothing is amiss, but then he happens to give a cursory glance at the sink as he turns to head towards the door and sees that someone has used it to wash up.  That subtle sign convinces him to look further, and he finds what his wife has really been up to: she has meddled with his wine collection, in particular several bottles filled with what we later learn to be uranium-laced sand.  It only takes Sebastian a moment to realize that Alicia and Devlin have disturbed the precious bottles and are American spies.  Moments like this one work to convince us that the most benign-seeming artifacts are potential harbingers of disaster, at least in the watchful, suspicion-laden world of these characters.   It is not a well-adjusted worldview, but it is probably an accurate depiction of the mentality of secret agents and conspirators.

In addition to depicting this anxiety over banal but potent details, Notorious also reminds us that we can control only so much as we plot and scheme our way through life: ultimately, in the world of intrigue, we are at the mercy of other people’s powers of observation and conjecture.  The final minor episode that produces a great and fatal interpretive opportunity of this kind brings about Sebastian’s demise.  When Devlin comes to Sebastian’s house to rescue Alicia from a situation he has finally deemed to be too dangerous (Sebastian and his mother, Madame Anna, have been poisoning Alicia’s coffee after learning that she is a spy), he helps her from her sickbed and down the stairs, followed by Sebastian and Madame Anna.  Sebastian and his mother are hosting Nazi guests on this evening, who have emerged from their meeting downstairs to find this scene transpiring on the staircase.  As the four characters descend the stairs together, Devlin whispers to Sebastian that if Sebastian does not permit him to leave with Alicia, Devlin will make a scene that will reveal all to the Nazis.  Sebastian complies, and Devlin and Alicia escape.

This scene moves so slowly—it seems they are descending for an eternity—but there is nothing remarkable happening, just people walking down a staircase and leaving a house.  Yet the Nazis who witness this scene conclude that something is wrong, that it has to do with Alicia, whom Sebastian brought into their lives, and that Sebastian has been compromised.  Earlier in the movie, they would not excuse the small outburst of Sebastian’s Nazi collaborator, who thinks he sees one of the uranium wine bottles on the sideboard at a small dinner party and reacts for just a moment with shock and nervousness (he is presumably killed on the way home from the party as a precaution). Sebastian’s associates will not tolerate the implications of the staircase scene either: as readers and interpreters, they are just as sensitive as Sebastian is and can read the clues of this scene as well as he could read the clues in the wine cellar.  Outside, as Devlin and Alicia prepare to drive off, Sebastian pleads with them desperately to let him into the car (“Please, take me, please, please please!”), but they speed away.  It is hard not to feel pity for him.

There is a strong tension between the film’s focus on small, specific details and its gestures towards universality.  While Notorious emphasizes small acts much as a certain strain of nineteenth-century novel does (I am thinking particularly of Henry James novels whose plots hinge on an interpretation of a mere glance or an artifact), it exists in another, very different sort of world: the world of fairy tale.  The film is about transplanted Germans, and as I watch I cannot help but think of the Grimm brothers.  When I see the palatial residence of Sebastian—allegedly located in a part of Rio de Janeiro but seemingly so antique and separate from that bustling city—I think of the isolated castles and palaces of fairy tales.  The precious cellar key that Alicia steals is also a very common folkloric symbol.  The generic poisoning, masterminded by the evil mother-in-law with the braided hair, speaks to this tradition as well.  Alicia’s mission and the subsequent trial that she endures, both romantically and in terms of her personal safety, resemble the quests of the Grimm heroes.  The rescue of Alicia by Devlin similarly reminds me of folklore: he recovers her from her bedchamber, and as he descends the staircase with her is met by adversaries (Sebastian, Sebastian’s mother, the Nazis downstairs) that he must subdue.  (To be fair, the French folktale Bluebeard is also relevant here: in that story, a husband tells his wife not to unlock a certain room in their house, but she cannot resist and learns a dark secret when she opens the door to this forbidden chamber.)

All of this suggests that while Hitchcock’s story is quite timely (the film was released in 1946, at a time when real Nazis were being tried and hunted in the aftermath of World War II), it also operates on a deep psychological and cultural level whose universal terms and motifs in many ways have been codified for us by Germans.  Notorious thus indirectly makes use of German material of lasting value with the result that we might come away thinking of the good that Germans can do in spite of their World War II legacy.  We see this both in the movie’s similarity to cherished foundational stories, such as the Grimm tales, and in the Alicia character, whom we see is genuinely good at the film’s end: she has risked her life to make the American mission a success, in spite of her notoriety.  Ultimately Notorious encourages us to reconsider the notoriety of many things and people, including the Germans as a whole.  It is a daring move for a 1946 film to make.