Friday, April 9, 2010
I have not seen as much Alfred Hitchcock as I should, but I've seen enough to know that he is a worthy father to the genre of suspense. Notorious, his 1946 romantic thriller, is perhaps the best Hitchcock film I have seen to date, and that includes Psycho. Notorious is the rare film of the genre that manages to combine both a subtle, superb formalistic effort behind the camera, and an emotional involvement for the audience that stretches beyond tension, into well-deserved sympathy.
Cary Grant (who I also need to see more of) stars as an American government agent named Devlin who is hired to recruit Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the daughter of a condemned German spy, to help the government gain information regarding Nazi activity in South America. Ideally, the daughter of a convicted Nazi would not be the ideal choice for an undercover American spy, but Alicia burns with feelings of nationalism, which is the reason why she left her father so long ago.
Much to his dismay, Devlin finds himself attracted to Alicia. Despite her reputation of alcoholism and promiscuity, he can't help but be enamored by her beauty and charm, and it takes every bone in his body to resist her until he just, well, can't. When they land in South America (Rio de Janiero, to be specific), Devlin and Alicia are madly in love, as evidenced by the infamous "three-minute kiss" that they share.
When Devlin travels to the office of his boss, Captain Prescott (Louis Calhern), he finds out that Alicia's assignment is precisely what he does not want it to be. She is to seduce her former companion, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), and try to find out as much as possible about his dealings with his associates. Sebastian is a member of the group that Alicia's father once partook in, and it is this familiarity, as well as Sebastian's well-known attraction to Alicia, that makes her an ideal candidate for the position. With Devlin unable to convince his bosses otherwise, Alicia has no choice but to take the job.
Notorious was nominated for two Academy Awards in 1947. Ben Hecht, who won Oscars for Underworld and The Scoundrel, received an original screenplay nomination, while Rains was honored in the supporting actor category. For some reason, as heavily nominated as many of Hitchcock's films were, he was never a favorite of the Academy. In all his years as a filmmaker, he received five Best Director nominations (which is quite a number), but he never won a single time. You would think that in 1961, his final nomination (for Psycho), that the Academy would choose to recognize him, but that was not the case. I wonder why.
Rains gives the film's key performance, and it is his character that makes the emotional impact of this film so challenging. Notorious is seen almost entirely through the eyes of Bergman's character. We are inside her head, constantly aware of her emotions from start to finish, and it is the troubled Alicia that gains the most sympathy from the audience.
Then, of course, there are the two men, played by Grant and Gains, respectively. The former, an American agent and debonair leading man, would be the perfect role for the audience to connect with, but he is a much more complicated character than that. Although he loves Alicia, he is still willing to put her in this unthinkable position rather than risk his own job. We know he wants to do the right thing, but his actions are occasionably questionable.
It goes without saying that emotional connect with the Gains role is hindered by his Nazi association (particularly to post-WWII audiences when the film was released), but as Alicia spends more and more time with him during the second act, I actually started to like Sebastian just a little bit. His most unappealing decisions are almost always due to his cruel mother's (Leopoldine Konstantin) dominance over him. In addition, he has true, genuine love for Alicia, and although she has the best intentions for her country at heart, the situation is not as black-and-white as it may seem.
All of these lingering suspicions and desired relationships culminate in a final shot that is as iconic as any Hitchcock moment I've experience thus far (to its credit, Notorious has multiple iconic shots). I would be surprised, but not shocked, if any of his other films so masterfully combine visual brilliance with real pathos.
Bergman and Grant's famous "three-minute kiss." Back when films were made under the Production Code, a kiss could last no longer than three seconds. This is how Hitchcock used the rules to his advantage: