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  • Post last modified:September 19, 2022

Notorious: Spy Games


Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Photo: RKO

In the mid-1940s, the legendary Hollywood producer David O. Selznick had plenty of opinions about the casting of Alfred Hitchcock’s upcoming thriller Notorious. He preferred Joseph Cotten over Cary Grant in the lead role, especially since he owned Cotten’s contract. In the end, he lost the argument. But Hitchcock himself was also close to making wrong decisions, hoping for Clifton Webb to play the villain. In the end, Claude Rains was chosen – thanks to Selznick’s lobbying. The success of a movie rarely depends on just one creative force. 

Investigating an organization of Nazis
Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) has just seen her father go to prison as a convicted Nazi spy, when she’s approached by T.R. Devlin (Grant). It takes a while before he tells her what his real job is – as a government agent, he’s been investigating an organization of Nazis who fled to Brazil after World War II, and he’s now recruiting Alicia. At first, she’s horrified but comes to accept Devlin’s reasoning; after all, she detests her father’s treason. She agrees to work with him and they both go to Rio de Janeiro where she is to catch the attention of Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a wealthy businessman who is one of her father’s old friends and also a member of the Nazi ring. 

In Rio, Alicia and Devlin fall in love but remain focused on the job at hand. She introduces herself to Sebastian while out riding and the businessman is immediately smitten by his old friend’s beautiful daughter… 

Breathlessly exciting
One of Hitchcock’s most successful and fondly remembered 1940s thrillers reunited him with Bergman from the previous year’s Spellbound, another film where screenwriter Ben Hecht took an interest in psychology. This time it’s evident in the emotional drama between Alicia and Devlin as she learns to trust this man of mystery, but also between Alicia and Sebastian as her life depends on him truly believing that she loves him. 

Breathlessly exciting is one way of describing this film that moves fast, through several intriguing facets of the spy game.

Breathlessly exciting is one way of describing this film that moves fast, through several intriguing facets of the spy game, right up to the unforgettable climax where Devlin tries to rescue Alicia. The final scene, leaving the traitor to his destiny, is just perfect in all its tragicomedy – and shot to great effect, which goes for many other memorable scenes in the film. Along with cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff, Hitchcock has us by the balls in a great tracking shot that leads us to the all-important wine-cellar key in Bergman’s hands, as well as that fantastic kissing scene between her and Grant that is sexy, sweet and seems to go on forever – even though it does follow the Production Code. Sometimes, true creativity is born out of oppressive rules and restrictions. I also love the way Hitchcock introduces Grant in the beginning, using shadows and shots of his back, as if to indicate that this may be the hero but he’s also a dangerous man. 

The casting is extraordinary; Grant downplaying his sense of humor, Bergman making it easy for us to identify with her, and Rains coming across as a complex villain, likable but contemptible for his Nazi sympathies (which are never directly expressed) and weakness. 

The story of Notorious may be simple at its core, but the film’s release was certainly timely considering its themes. Both critics and audiences recognized it for what it was (and still is) – a supremely crafted thriller. At a time when it seems like all I do is watch mediocre films, both at press screenings and at home, this classic (that I first saw as a kid) comes as a reminder of better times.

Notorious 1946-U.S. 101 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay: Ben Hecht. Cinematography: Ted Tetzlaff. Cast: Cary Grant (T.R. Devlin), Ingrid Bergman (Alicia Huberman), Claude Rains (Alexander Sebastian), Louis Calhern, Leopoldine Konstantin, Reinhold Schunzel.

Trivia: Mildred Natwick and Ethel Barrymore were considered for Konstantin’s role. Remade as a TV movie, Notorious (1992).

Last word: “The story of Notorious is the old conflict between love and duty. Cary Grant’s job – and it’s rather an ironic situation – is to push Ingrid Bergman into Claude Rains’s bed. One can hardly blame him for seeming bitter throughout the story, whereas Claude Rains is a rather appealing figure, both because his confidence is being betrayed and because his love for Ingrid Bergman is probably deeper than Cary Grant’s. All of these elements of psychological drama have been woven into the spy story.” (Hitchcock, “Hitchcock by Truffaut”)

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