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Notorious: Passport to Espionage

The title of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 Notorious refers to the film’s central character Alicia Huberman, portrayed by Ingrid Bergman. Alicia indulges in heavy drink and promiscuity. A Freudian rationale would be that her actions are an extension of disdain for her father, a Nazi operative recently convicted of treason in a Florida court. Although the movie’s name is a grabber, a more apt title might be Conflicted. The spy flick’s three main characters are conflicted about how to reconcile their personal and professional lives. In other words, secret agents and saboteurs are people too.

Alicia, unlike her father, loves America. She is recruited by T.R. Devlin, a government agent who has covertly been making recordings to verify her patriotism. Her assignment is to penetrate a cabal of Nazis who fled to Brazil after World War II. Because of her cachet as the daughter of an infamous Nazi, she seems ideal for the job. Devlin, played by Cary Grant, falls hard for Alicia during their assignment in Rio. Despite struggling with his qualms concerning her reputation, she proves irresistible. And the feeling is mutual. From the moment Devlin presents himself to Alicia, we see how attracted she is to him. Hitchcock introduces Devlin from behind; the character’s back is to the camera as Alicia visually sums him up and pours a drink. She does not know who he is, just assumes him to be another party crasher who showed up at her digs. She addresses him as “Handsome,” and her facial expressions indicate that she is accurate in the appraisal. Later at the party, the inebriated Alicia wants to go for a drive. Devlin visually assesses her bare midriff then pulls out a scarf and covers the exposed area, purportedly to keep her from getting a chill. A move guaranteed to heat things up and a precursor to the steaminess yet to come.

Certainly, the camera work (executed by Ted Tetzlaff) that tracks the couple in a sequence in which they repeatedly kiss and nuzzle and constantly cling, is a consummate example of Hitchcock’s brilliance at conveying sexual intensity without showing the sex act. To avoid the film censor’s scissors, Hitchcock kept the kisses short in duration. The element of lingering is achieved through meaningful glances, sensual strokes of a hand, the closeness of their tightly pressed bodies. As the couple continues to passionately clutch one another, Devlin takes a phone call from his superior Captain Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern) who requests a meeting with Devlin. At the meeting, Prescott discloses that a former admirer of Alicia’s, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), often hosts meetings with fellow Nazis at his palatial home. Sebastian has never recovered from his unrequited love, making him a perfect target for seduction—if Alicia is willing to accept the mission. And, to wax Shakespearean, therein lies the rub.

Devlin has not overcome his angst about Alicia’s profligate past, he had merely suppressed it while in the thrall of desire. He therefore does not tell her to refuse the assignment, claiming it would be unprofessional for him to influence her decision. His cold manner regarding the matter is a distancing device that boxes him into a corner and compels Alicia to conclude that he had never believed in her ability to change. Devlin’s motivations are the least comprehensible aspect of Ben Hecht’s otherwise extraordinarily astute screenplay. We are given little to go on regarding the character. There is not even a mention of his first name; Alicia refers to him as “Dev.” Despite Grant’s always watchable persona, the character’s emotional pivots can be whiplash inducing. Though he later describes himself as being “a fat-headed guy full of pain,” Devlin is not granted the psychological coherency the script bestows upon Alicia and Sebastian.

Sebastian, like Alicia, has issues with a parent. His manipulative mother, played with palatable noxiousness by Leopoldine “Madame” Konstantin, never severed the metaphorical umbilical cord. Overseeing Sebastian’s social life as well as weighing in on his interactions with fellow Fascists, she conducts herself as though she is Sebastian’s celibate wife rather than his mother. Hitchcock may have mischievously played upon that aspect of the relationship with his casting of Konstantin; the actress was a mere three years older than Rains.

 The mother has sought to keep Sebastian on a tight emotional leash, reining in his romantic inclinations and infatuations. When Alicia is brought back into Sebastian’s orbit, his mother does not try to hide her displeasure. She queries Alicia about why she did not testify at her father’s trial, to which Alicia replies that he had not wanted her to be part of it. Sebastian’s mother responds with “I wonder why.” After Sebastian beds Alicia he becomes even more smitten and the mother becomes more resentful. Eventually she gets to have her Lady Macbeth “give me the daggers” moment when Sebastian discloses to her while—Freud would have a field day—she is in bed in her boudoir, that he has discovered his beloved is an American agent.

Alicia’s life has been ravaged by her father’s Fascism. His arrest thrust her into an unwelcome spotlight. She comes to distrust the Feds and during her first meeting with Devlin, he identifies himself as one of them. Alicia reacts with a drunken rage that quickly turns physical. He knocks her unconscious in reaction, thus setting the standard for who is in control. While on the airplane to Brazil, Devlin informs Alicia that her father has killed himself. She says that she feels a bit sad but also liberated. The exhilaration of being free of her father, however, is short-lived. Her attempts at sobriety and belief in commitment fracture when Dev, the new dominant male in her life, disappointingly indicates his lack of faith in her. He is jaundiced about her morals at a time when she most needs moral support.

Ironically when Devlin is away from Alicia, he defends her. His coterie of all-male work associates denigrates her, which prompts Devlin to lash out in a way that shocks the men. He is also concerned by his most recent briefing with her. He remarks that she does not look well and in addition, she gives back the scarf that he had once wrapped around her torso. The scarf was a souvenir of their intimacy and the gesture of returning it smacks of finality. The coworkers’ cavalier disparagement of Alicia forces Devlin to confront the cruelty of the cynicism he displayed toward her. The introspection erodes his distrust of her and allows him to abandon his prejudices. And not a moment too soon.

There is so much to relish about Notorious. It is chock full of unnerving suspense scenes that are synonymous with Hitchcock, including Alicia holding the pilfered key to the wine cellar while Sebastian takes her hands, and the peril of getting caught searching the wine cellar being connected to copious consumption of champagne. Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia deemed the film “perfect.” Hecht and Rains both received Academy Award nominations. In the canon of spy movies, Notorious is considered one of the greats. Its three complex and conflicted main characters are quite human in their frailties. Duty to country or ideology gives them purpose, but it also puts them at cross-purposes when dealing with affairs of the heart.

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About Sheila M. Merritt

Sheila Merritt wrote book reviews for Mystery Scene Magazine. Currently she writes essays for Scream Magazine. For several years, she had contributed reviews, articles and conducted interviews for the Hellnotes.com newsletter. She was friends with a British ghost hunter who happened to be the author of a biography of Boris Karloff. She’s had a brief and embarrassing conversation with Christopher Lee in a department store, but also had a much more relaxing exchange with director-writer Frank Darabont at a horror convention. She became enamored of horror films and dark fiction as a child. Mother didn't approve of them. The rest, as they say, is history.

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