Maddy over at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films is hosting the Second Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon on July 6 and 7, 2018. Here's my entry.
"Mother . . . I am married to an American agent”
It’s very hard to choose a favorite Hitchcock film - too many to choose from - but Notorious is certainly in my top 5. Hitchcock loved spy yarns and this one is filled with undercover spies, evil Nazis and a nuclear threat.
As in so many of his films Hitchcock used a MacGuffin to drive the plot along. MacGuffin was Hitchcock’s name for the story element that both the protagonists and the audience are concerned about though the nature of the item is incidental and of no direct plot relevance. It is a fabricated cause but nonetheless the reason everything happens. It could be a roll of microfilm, stolen documents, Hitler’s embalmed corpse…Here it turns out to be uranium and it’s at least somewhat of importance. Notorious was released within months of the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan.
Ultimately the MacGuffin though is nothing but a contrivance that allows a much more important story to play out. The espionage activities are a pretext for a twisted love story. Suspense and adventure merely provide the narrative backdrop for the question: Is love possible?
The jury is still debating whether Notorious is Noir or not. To me it is more a romantic spy intrigue with a little helping of Noir on the side. The film has some Noir elements, but the parts don't add up to full-fledged Noir. It has a femme fatale but one who accepts her assignment rather unwillingly. It has a sense of entrapment and alienation and the occasional Noir visual, but also a happy ending. Hitchcock made at least three movies that could be called straightforward Noir before he literally washed classic Noir down the drain with Psycho. Why care about semantics when Notorious is one of Hitchcock’s most elegant, polished and sophisticated films, full of emotional and moral complexity. Hitchcock - the ultimate auteur - is simply his own genre.
Notorious is that rare animal, the perfect film where you wouldn’t want to change a thing. This film has so many layers. It works perfectly on the surface as a suspenseful thriller, but pick up some stones and dig a little deeper and all kinds of kinky overtones, undertones and everything-in-between-tones may come out. The notorious Mr. Hitchcock threw a wicked little arsenal of deliciously twisted issues at the audience, to this day with ardent fervor psycho-analyzed to death by those who seem to be in need of a good shrink themselves.
Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) - daughter of a convicted Nazi collaborator - is recruited by American agent Devlin (Cary Grant) and his boss Prescott (Louis Calhern) to infiltrate a circle of her father’s Nazi friends now living in South America. The spy ring is led by Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) who once loved Alicia and is still carrying a torch for her. Alicia’s well-known and notorious reputation for drinking, partying and apparent promiscuity would seem to make her the perfect pawn for this Mata Hari assignment. Alicia, though in love with Devlin, accepts and succeeds admiringly. She soon becomes Mrs. Sebastian. Her new husband however finds her out and his coldly calculating mother suggests poisoning Alicia slowly. She knows that it is of the utmost importance that Alicia’s death appear natural so as not to attract the attention of their Nazi cronies who’d be simply overjoyed to find out that one of their own slipped up and married an American spy. It wouldn’t bode well for their long-term health. The Boys from Brazil don’t mess around with people who fall off the wagon as one of their own, poor Emil Hupka, had to find out to his detriment when he couldn’t keep the vintages of some wine labels straight.
Notorious is the anatomy of a love affair. Sexy, cynical and smoldering with a frank eroticism that burns up the screen, the affair is painstakingly dissected by the director for the audience’s pleasure.
Who says Hitch couldn’t do romance? Sure, the romance has a faintly perverse tinge to it but then it’s Hitchcock. The story doesn’t whitewash the darker aspects of love. No doubt there is something distinctly sado-masochistic about it. Only two people who love each other so madly could hurt each other so deeply. The French title of the film is Les enchaînés (The Chained Ones) which hits the nail on the head.
This is an adult romance. Grant is a rather dark and cold romantic hero and Bergman a neurotic boozy playgirl. The bastard and the whore. The joys of young love…ain’t they grand?
Notorious is crammed with risqué sexual innuendo aplenty, of course handled with sly subtlety to get around the pesky Production Code. There is nothing coy or bashful in Hitchcock’s dealings with sex. It’s at the same time hidden and blatantly out in the open.
There’s enough sizzling chemistry between the two leads to blow up a small country. The relationship between Alicia and Devlin carries an enormous erotic charge from the outset.
The film boasts one of the most famous and longest kissing scenes in movie history that must have got the PCA all lathered up. It made a mockery of the Production Code which forbade a kiss lasting longer than three seconds. So Hitchcock had Bergman and Grant alternate kissing with dialogue while never leaving one another's arms. Kiss for two seconds, break, talk, nibble and start again, until Hitchcock had his three minutes of extensive and steamy smooching. Joe Breen must have been laid up with a head cold the day this movie passed the board of censors.
Some viewers bemoaned the fact that Alicia and Devlin fall in love out of the blue. That’s not true at all if we just pay attention. From the outset the movie is peppered with more or less subtle hints about their attraction. The look Devlin gives Alicia as she leans across him in the plane descending into Rio is hard to ignore.
Hitchcock’s ideal woman had a hidden, not an in-your-face, sexuality. What intrigued Hitchcock was the hint of unbridled passion behind the cool facade, a pristine exterior that would mask startling depths of passion. In his own words he preferred “the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom”.
"Suspense is like a woman…The more left to the imagination, the more the excitement. The conventional big-bosomed blonde is not mysterious…The perfect ‘woman of mystery’ is one who is blonde, subtle and Nordic.”
|There it hits him right between the eyes|
The choice of Ingrid Bergman for the role was inspired. Obviously, In contrast to his later heroines, Bergman is not a cool blond but a warm brunette. It is of no importance. What is crucial is that she fits the type perfectly. She’s at the same time sensuous, provocative, demure, fragile, vulnerable and oddly innocent.
There was always something angelic about Bergman, no matter if she was playing saints or sinners, virgins or whores. She does a good job of arousing the noble and the carnal at the same time. We simply know Alicia is a good person and sincere in her love for Devlin, not because she is Alicia Huberman but because she’s Ingrid, the Divine. Bergman’s aura is the reason why the setup works. Even if Alicia is as pure as the driven, one feels oddly crude calling her a dame. Hitchcock came up with a great variation on the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold theme.
Whatever we want to call Alicia - perpetually sloshed good-time girl, lady of easy virtue and ill repute, tramp - it’s perfectly clear to herself that she lost that “heart full of daisies and buttercups” a long time ago.
As the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy she’s wrecked with guilt and she punishes herself for her father’s transgressions. “When I found out about him, I just went to pot. I didn’t care what happened to me.” She is full of self-loathing and so in a self-destructive move she tries to drown her sorrows in a haze of booze and bitterness. Everything looks better through the bottom of a whisky glass. On top of that she chooses her bed mates indiscriminately and is looking for kicks in all the wrong places.
Her tainted moral reputation has her looked upon with distaste and distrust by her spy masters but nevertheless makes her an incredibly useful tool for them. A woman like her wouldn’t mind being the honeytrap for a Nazi. Men fall in love with her left and right, the list of her conquests is long so why not one more? The Intelligence Agency who wants to recruit her (unnamed but presumably the OSS) comes off as callously opportunistic. They may be on the sight of right, but their morality is elastic and they have no scruples sending an untrained civilian into the line of fire. They look down on Alicia’s promiscuity while exploiting it at the same time. She’s the very definition of collateral damage. If she lives or dies is none of their concern.
|Hitchcock giving us all the angles|
Alicia is simply deeply lonely and insecure. And - most importantly - she’s fallen in love with Devlin.
Cary Grant’s introduction is wonderfully staged. He’s a gate-crasher at one of Alicia’s wild parties and at first we don’t see his face, we only see the back of his head while he sits in his chair, stoically watching. He’s a man in the shadows. T.R. Devlin, international man of mystery. His intentions and motivations are yet in the dark.
In a stroke of brilliance, Hitchcock subverted Grant’s romantic nice-guy on-screen persona - as he had done before in Suspicion. He saw a darkness beneath the handsome facade. Even the name, Devlin, suggests devil. Devlin mixes a big dose of cold ruthlessness with an even bigger dose of lethal charm and sex appeal.
Devlin has fallen for Alicia too but doesn’t quite trust her because of her notorious reputation. He’s willing to give it a try though when his superiors drop the bomb. Alicia is to seduce Sebastian. Devlin’s boss Prescott kept the true nature of Alicia’s assignment from Devlin who’s shocked. So is Alicia when she receives the news of her proposed mission: “Do you want me to take the job?” she asks anxiously. For Devlin it’s a love test. He refuses to respond frankly. Devlin wants Alicia to say no to the job because it would mean she loves him though at the same time she’d pass up the chance to right a wrong. If she says yes to the mission, she’s a patriot but she’d still be the old Alicia who’ll never change her ways. “Once a tramp, always a tramp”. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Alicia wants Devlin to forbid her to even think about prostituting herself, explicitly telling his superiors so. Something grand along the lines of:
“How dare you gentlemen suggest that Alicia Huberman, the new Miss Huberman, be submitted to so ugly a fate”.
Alicia considers herself reborn through love - not without some irony.
When Devlin doesn’t speak up he pushes her into sleeping with the enemy. He derides her for her loose morals though he basically threw her to the wolfs. He hates himself for loving a promiscuous lush as Alicia clearly sees:
“You're sore because you've fallen for a little drunk you tamed in Miami and you don't like it…in love with someone who isn't worth even wasting the words on."
One is reminded of Groucho Marx who refused to join a club that would have him as a member. Devlin simply cannot allow himself to show his vulnerably - not altogether unjustifiably.
To get back at him Alicia throws her love affair with Sebastian in his face. “You can add Sebastian to my list of playmates”. In times of crisis she does what she always does, hit the bottle. Their relationship crashes and burns, at least for a while.
The audience is never in doubt that both are sincere in their feelings, but this is Hitch showing the bomb on the bus without letting any of the passengers know about it. The couple’s love story would fall now under the heading of “it’s complicated”. They have more issues than a newsstand. A good smack on the head would do both of them a world of good. Maybe somebody should have paged Dr. Constance Petersen to stage an intervention.
Hitchcock almost hits us over the head with the main theme of this movie, distrust and betrayal. Devlin feels betrayed by Alicia. Alicia feels betrayed by Devlin and by her father. Sebastian is betrayed by Alicia, Sebastian’s mother believes that Alicia has betrayed her Nazi father by refusing to testify on his behalf and she feels betrayed by her son's marriage to Alicia.
Spelled out like this it all sounds like a silly over-baked Victorian melodrama with ludicrous plot contrivances. Thankfully the picture elegantly transcends those pitfalls and that has to do with a first class cast who play with great subtlety and understatement. Alicia Huberman is one of Bergman’s best and most sensual roles and she runs with it. She is believably trampy, loving, patriotic, frightened and grows throughout the movie.
Hitchcock saw female vulnerability as a powerful dramatic device and liked to place his heroines into situations of great danger. He’s right, it works like magic every time. Notorious is The Perils of Alicia. Hitchcock is so often glibly called “mysogenistic”, a criticism I find as stale as ten day old bread. It is simply a dogmatic knee-jerk reaction of people who see everything through the lens of their own ideological framework and are incapable of digging a little deeper because that would require some independent thought. Hitchcock was much more nuanced and broad-minded than this.
Notorious - and thus Hitchcock - take a remarkably compassionate and nonjudgmental view of Alicia’s predicament. The Lady may be a tramp but she also risks her life for her country as Devlin points out and a checkered past doesn’t change that. Not once does the audience feel compelled to condemn her for what she has to do. The depiction of her suffering is entirely devoid of disrespect. Instead it generates sympathy.
Hitchcock gives us a heroine who blatantly sleeps with a man she despises in order to win the love of another man. And for Hitchcock it’s alright.
As John Fawell in his essay Torturing Women and Mocking Men: Hitchcock's Rear Window writes, there is a "tendency in Hitchcock's films to be deeply empathic to women and often hostile to the men and critical of their treatment of women”. We’d simply like to give Devlin a kick for being such an oaf.
When Devlin’s superiors call Alicia’s character into question Hitchcock, through Devlin, calls into question theirs:
“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, sitting in Washington, playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue.”
In the end, Alicia does not have to pay for her “sins” because Hitchcock doesn’t need his heroine to be chaste, virginal and respectable. He can simply acknowledge her courage.
The third wheel on the wagon of this love triangle is Claude Rains who oozed charm and savoir fair no matter what he was playing. He always added that undefinable touch of class to any movie he was in.
It’s interesting that Hitchcock - one year after the War - portrays the Nazi as gallant, kind and in love - at least in the beginning - and Devlin almost as the villain, cold and dismissive.
The audience feels sympathy with the devil because Rains gives his character a deep humanity. Sebastian is a condemned man because of his love for Alicia. Out of self-preservation he has to kill what he loves the most but then her betrayal cut him to the quick.
Unfortunately he is also dominated by his mother. It cannot be ignored that Sebastian, when things don't work out, seeks counsel in his mother’s bedroom.
A special mention has to go to Madame Konstantin for her brilliant portrayal as Sebastian’s mother. She’s the Wicked Witch of the West, the Mother from Hell. It is a twisted unhealthy quasi-incestuous bond that binds them.
The mother-dominated son was one of Hitchcock’s favorite themes and seems to have been drawn from his own life as Hitchcock had ambivalent feelings about his own mother.
Behind the scenes Madame Sebastian pulls the strings in the house. It is interesting to note that it is her who holds the keys to every room in the house. Unobtrusively, she always sits by, completely undisturbed by any feelings, forever doing needlepoint. Like a spider in her web, weaving a web of lies and deceit.
She is a vulture, a monster who eats her young, if only figuratively. She hates Alicia from the first. “You’ve always been jealous of any woman I’ve shown any interest in” says her son who’s still tied to her apron strings. Norman Bates could have told her that a son is a poor substitute for a lover. With the demure hairstyle of a milkmaid, the look and demeanor of an Iron Maiden and a decidedly clammy charm she is in a league of her own when it comes to creepy. She is a portrait of selfless devotion…etched in acid. When she say encouragingly to her son: “We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity, for a time” it gives the audience a warm and fuzzy feeling. With a mother like her Sebastian doesn’t need enemies.
Presumably only once her son rebelled against her dominance by marrying Alicia. Mama isn’t happy. She suspects Alicia of infidelity though not of spying. But Sebastian comes running right back to Mama when things go south. In robe and slippers he goes to his mother’s bedroom to confess with utter dejection: “I need your help”. His entire crushing defeat is in that one line. Mother triumphs again. She was right about Alicia. Absolutely imperturbable she reaches for her cigarette case, takes one out and lets it dangle loosely between her lips. It is a moment of utter crassness and vulgarity, in stark contrast to the airs she gives herself when around people. It sums up her character with just one stroke. With chilling ruthlessness she decrees that Alicia must die, slowly by poison. Sebastian agrees. Her son has come to his senses and transferred his devotion back to Mother. He has finally come back to her, back to where he belongs…under her thumb.
Literally in the last second Devlin comes to the rescue of his damsel. He sees that Alicia was sick, not drunk and makes his way to her room where he finds her drugged and almost unconscious in her bed. Slowly descending the grand staircase toward freedom, Sebastian and his mother are powerless to stop them. They cannot give themselves away. Devlin gets Alicia out of the house into the car while Sebastian desperately tries to appease his conspirators. He then begs Devlin take him with them. But Devlin has locked the car door. Interestingly enough, Sebastian is perfectly happy in that moment to throw his Mother under the bus by leaving her behind with his partners. Sebastian’s crony Eric, finding holes in Sebastian’s explanation that Alicia is off to the hospital, knows that something is wrong. Sternly he calls him back: “Alex, will you come in, please? I wish to talk to you.” Such an innocent sentence imbued with such chilling menace. Sebastian has no other choice than to go back in, knowing full well he will never come out alive. He has nowhere to go and, with a terrible finality, closes the door behind himself.
Love can be a poison - for Sebastian it means doom - or the antidote. Devlin saying “I love you” to Alicia gives her the strength in the end to get out of the mansion.
For Devlin and Alicia redemption is possible. For Hitchcock - always the romantic - love does conquer all.