Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious begins with the bang of a gavel, which signifies the end of the world for Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), confirming with deafening finality the conviction of her father for treason against the United States. Alicia, whose reputation for drinking and promiscuity precedes her, is in the middle of drowning her sorrows when she’s recruited by American Secret Service agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) for a mission in Rio de Janeiro that would capitalize on her new status as the daughter of a Nazi spy—a chance to pick up the pieces of her shattered existence and reinvent herself as a woman extricated from the sins of the father.
What neither Devlin nor Alicia anticipate is that they’ll both have to suffer protracted, almost unbearable agony—they quickly fall in love, only to find that her assignment is to seduce Nazi Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), who himself was once in love with Alicia, in order to infiltrate and gather intelligence on his inner circle’s clandestine operation. Alicia waits for Devlin to tell her not to go through with it, but he remains silent, his mind poisoned by visions of her past. Love can’t expunge his sordid preconception of her—the many men in her life who came before him hang over his head like spectres. Why should she object all of a sudden to Sebastian becoming her latest conquest?
What unfolds is perhaps Hitchcock’s most pungent work, a film whose smooth, lugubrious style flows like wine but burns like vinegar. On a formal level, the Master was never more elegant, his camera balletic and ethereal, pirouetting around two lovers locked in an erotic embrace, and swooping down from above to isolate a cellar key clutched in an anxious hand. But there’s a nastiness to Notorious, coursing and seething just beneath its immaculate patina—a sadistic streak that rivals even those of Marnie and Frenzy.
It’s there in the writing;Ben Hecht’s screenplay is a thorny tangle of sensuality, stoicism, and subversions. The character of Devlin is a man capable of immense cruelty, a dispassionate manipulator who’s all too willing to push the woman he loves to the brink of immolation, ensnaring her in a “love test” to which there’s no right answer. If she does her duty and takes the job, she vindicates his suspicion of her licentious history, which he sees as an immutable, all-encompassing fact of her present, still her defining transgression:once a tramp, always a tramp. If she abandons her duty and turns down the job, she “proves” to him that she’s a changed woman whose love is genuine—but what would she be proving, really, to this man of such little faith? Merely that his perception of her is more important than her own sense of self-worth. Devlin embodies an especially pernicious brand of masculinity—disturbed by his own passions, tearing down the woman who makes him feel vulnerable, showing an iota of empathy for her only when she’s absent, rendering the sentiment meaningless.
Hitchcock and cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff reflect Devlin’s viciousness in their visuals, vitiating Grant’s star power, enveloping that classical magnetism in impenetrable darkness. Grant, whose face and expressive physicality had by this point made him one of Hollywood’s totemic leading men, is positioned here as if he were the villain, a predatory and sinister figure. His performance is formidable, his eyes like rapiers, his words like acid.Gone are the brio and big gesticulations of Only Angels Have Wings and His Girl Friday, supplanted by ominous inertia. Slight flickers threaten to breach Devlin’s poise, to betray his pain, but they quickly give way to steady hostility. Hitchcock composes his shots so that Devlin always seems like the most dangerous man in the room, lurking towards the sides and corners of the frame as if priming an ambush, his face either obfuscated in shadow while everyone else is warmly lit, or turned away from the camera, the back of his head an emblem of his emotional reserve, the frigid sheen that renders him inaccessible. In one of Hitchcock’s most memorable stylistic flourishes, the director shoots from Alicia’s point of view as she wakes up from a drunken slumber, the camera spiralling as Devlin approaches the bed so that at one point he appears upside down—the upended romantic lead made unnervingly literal.
Try as Devlin might to diminish and flatten her, Alicia proves to be utterly irreducible. Sensual, sombre, and above all else slippery, she’s perhaps Hitchcock’s supreme heroine, grappling painfully with her desires and convictions while eluding convenient pigeonholes and avoiding detection behind enemy lines. She’s a woman in constant, mercurial motion—in an early scene, we see her stepping through a doorway, emerging from shadow into light, which might signify some sort of simplistic conversion from whore to Madonna if she didn’t so easily shift back into ambiguity, as she does later when she slinks behind the gauzy veil of a curtain and indulges in a drink, after Devlin fails to admit that he wants her to decline the job offer. No two men ever see her in the same light; she presents an elastic image of herself as sleuth, seductress, and sacrifice, deftly morphing the shades and details of her identity, and one of the film’s great pleasures is watching her become more and more consummate in her craft.
None of that surface guile does anything, though, to attenuate the turbulence within. Bergman is the film’s beating heart, and in that ravishing face we see and feel all of the throbs and pangs that Alicia endures, the scars from Devlin’s mutilations etched into her brow, waves of anguish cascading over her glittering eyes whenever she allows her veneer to crumble. At times, when her defences dissolve, she’s almost kaleidoscopic—watch how, as Devlin ruthlessly castigates her for infiltrating Alex’s house and bedroom so effectively, Alicia’s expression tumbles from desperate hope, to horror, to hatred, before finally sinking into total resignation, all in the space of a minute.
At other times, it’s the exertion of sustaining the artifice that’s so moving. During her first dinner with Alex, Alicia executes an almost flawless opening salvo: her posture is inviting, leaning in as she speaks; her eyes and smile are luminous; her voice is warm and dulcet; her words of contrition for past misdemeanours are honeyed. Rains, who plays the sincere, deeply sympathetic Alex with such raw vulnerability that the Nazi’s eventual doom feels startlingly tragic, makes the past feel tangible here, luxuriating in the sight of a previously unattainable wonder, years of yearning erupting through his gaze. “It’s odd,” Alicia murmurs, her eyes rising slowly, entrancingly from her drink to Alex’s face, “but I feel at home with you.”
In that very instant, she secures her first significant triumph as a spy, entombing the love-struck Alex in a promise of flesh and devotion. But it’s a triumph that feels more like a defeat, alcohol turning to ashes in her mouth. She can’t quite sustain the act for the entire conversation—there are still those fleeting moments in which a sense of horrible realization suddenly crashes down upon her features, moments that Hitchcock captures in lingering, trembling close-ups. Watch how the corners of her mouth drop ever so slightly when Alex kisses the back of her hand, as if she’s suffocating the urge to recoil; how she fixates upon the bottom of her glass as he purrs his renewed affections for her; how her smile fades and her shoulders heave when Devlin’s name is mentioned. Bergman’s performance within a performance here might just be the finest, most complex work of her career, plumbing layers of subterfuge and interiority for intense poignancy.
For all of Hitchcock’s spellbinding technical bravura, it’s the precision with which he maps out the faces and gestures of Notorious that continues to burrow into and gnaw away at the mind. The film’s flourishes and intricate suspense sequences are famous for a reason, but the feelings that persist are generated by Hitchcock’s acute sensitivity to the bodies of his characters, who are forced to conceal the injuries of psychological destruction and reconstruction behind a series of excruciating disguises. “Dry your eyes, baby,” Devlin says to the tormented Alicia, “it’s out of character.” Which character is he talking about, exactly?