Thursday, October 23, 2014


(August 1946, U.S.)

Alfred Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS marks a watershed artistic moment for the famed film maker, and represents a level of heightened thematic maturity. It's an American spy thriller and a serious love story in which three people's lives become intimately entangled during an espionage operation. For its specific genre, the film combines elements of gothic fiction (an imprisoned Ingrid Bergman), a woman's story of a love triangle with unworthy men, a spy film, and film noir with the classic femme fatale protagonist (Bergman again).

From its beginning the character of Alicia Huberman (Bergman) is portrayed as a helpless victim of circumstance, as her father, a convicted Nazi spy, has just been sentenced to imprisonment. Her shame and weakness are immediately apparent by her tendencies to drink heavily and even attempting to drive under the influence (possible suicide attempt?). However, even as we immediately get to know her personality, we're also immediately introduced to her male counterpart in the film by watching the back end of the mysterious man who sits in her chair at her party, studying her. Enter T.R. Devlin (played by Cary Grant in his second of four films with Hitchcock) who recruits Alicia to infiltrate an organization of Nazis who have moved to Brazil after World War II. When Alicia refuses to go along at first, Devlin plays a recording (on an actual vinyl record) of her fighting with her father and insisting that she loves America. It would seem that patriotic duty will win over in this situation, as well as the fact that Alicia and Devlin are slowly falling in love.

Now, if you've seen MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II, tell me if this sounds familiar - the assignment is for Alicia to seduce and infiltrate the life and home of Alex Sebastian (played by Claude Rains), a leading member of the Nazi spy group and discover what their ultimate plot is. Alex also happens to be a former relationship of Alicia's that he took seriously, but she did not. Ringing a bell? Yes, it would seem that John Woo liked these Hitchcock elements enough to virtually duplicate them in his 2000 Tom Cruise action sequel. Even the sequence at the race track is a direct copy (or homage, if you will). Learning of Alex's previous love interest toward Alicia, Devlin puts up a stoic front when he informs her about the mission. She concludes that he was merely pretending to love her as part of his job. Maybe true, maybe not.

Love interest and spying inevitably go all the way when Alicia agrees to marry Alex. This will give her full access to the home, but clearly drive a tighter wedge between herself and the man she truly loves (Devlin). However, because this is primarily a spy film, there are key elements in both story and filming that one cannot ignore. In one of his most famous shots, Hitchcock starts the camera high and wide on a second floor balcony overlooking the great hall of a grand mansion. Slowly, he tracks down and in on Alicia and finally ends with a tight close-up of a key tucked in her hand; a key that will ultimately grant her access to a locked wine cellar where the true diabolical secrets lie. And that secret...well, let's just say by our modern film standards of today, it may seem rather lame. But bearing in mind that this is the year 1946, a time after World War II and before the Cold War, the idea of hidden mineral ore that can be used to make potential deadly weapons by our enemies, would have been considered an element of pure intrigue back during that era.

Any spy thriller also always means the danger of our hero becoming exposed. It's not too long before Alex realizes his stupidity in marrying an American agent and must now plot to do away with her, with the help of his diabolical, old mother. Slow poisoning through coffee seems to work here and it's now a race against time to see if Alicia will be rescued by the man who truly loves her. Cinematic cliché clearly dictates the answer to that question, but when it's done in the great tradition of Alfred Hitchcock, it's always just a bit more relevant and enjoyable than what the surface generally offers.

The plot line of NOTORIOUS is the old, classic conflict between honorable duty to one's country and old fashioned love. Devlin's job, in a rather strange twist of irony, is to push Alicia into Alex's arms and into his bed. So one can hardly blame him for turning bitter and resentful throughout the film, whereas Alex is rather appealing in his figure, both because of his love for Alicia and the fact that he also knows he will ultimately be betrayed by her, as well. These elements feature psychological drama that have been woven into the traditional spy story. It's key to remember, though, that Hitchcock was also a master storyteller of psychology, as well as suspense. The dramatic action is smooth and very sure of itself with its characters and the intensity of their emotional appeal towards each other. It's one of Hitchcock's best during his early period as a director in America, during a time when America and patriotic attitude toward America was about to come into question by those who occupied its soil.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Alex Sebastian: "I am married to an American agent."

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