Blu-ray Review: Notorious | Under the Radar - Music Magazine


Studio: The Criterion Collection

Jan 25, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography is dominated by films known for their striking set-pieces - Psycho, North by Northwest - or their stylistic gimmicks - Rope, Rear Window - little of which is present in Notorious. There’s the well-known crane shot that zooms down over a giant cocktail party to find a key clenched in Ingrid Bergman’s hand, practically subtle by Hitch’s standards. The most memorable scene is the two-and-a-half minute kiss between Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, intercut with conversation in order to get around the censors which did not allow onscreen kisses to last longer than three seconds. Necessity is the mother of sexy invention, apparently. The scene is appropriately emblematic of Notorious as a whole, one of Hitchcock’s first attempts at a truly adult love story after two decades of making salacious murder mysteries and comedic thrillers.

Premiering a week after the one year anniversary of the end of World War II, Notorious would have seemed ripped from the headlines to the audiences of 1946. Ingrid Bergman stars as Alicia Huberman, the socialite daughter of an imprisoned Nazi collaborator. Disgraced, drunk and directionless, she’s recruited by Cary Grant’s T.R. Devlin, a poker-faced secret agent who wants her to infiltrate her father’s former friends hiding out in Rio. The Nuremberg trials were ongoing while Notorious was being filmed and many surviving Nazi officials had already begun escaping to South America. But despite this extremely topical premise, Notorious mostly exists as a vehicle to watch two of the most staggeringly attractive actors of the era romance each other. 

There’s a perverse aspect to Notorious in that it casts Bergman and Grant as darker versions of their familiar personas. Known for her graceful, classy portrayals of noble suffering, Bergman’s Alicia begins the film as a drunk party girl, full of resigned anger and some very realistic slurring that never tips into caricature. Grant’s T.R. Devlin is typically suave and debonair, but his characteristic confused peevishness has been sanded away to create a harder, more sinister performance. Emotionally manipulative and verbally abusive, it’s a testament to Grant’s acting that Devlin’s unexpressed affection for Alicia is not only palpable through his macho facade, but drives his character completely. Introduced as a faceless mystery man and seen later via a tilted low-angle shot from the perspective of a hungover Alicia, Hitchcock’s view of Devlin is a microcosm of his view on authority. In a film that’s ostensibly about a fallen woman doing her patriotic duty, Alicia’s hatred of policemen is referenced repeatedly - Hitchcock himself was notably terrified of policemen - and Devlin and his D.C. spymasters are more openly cruel to her than the Nazis with whom she’s embedded. Her line, “Waving the flag with one hand, picking pockets with another” is decades ahead of its time in its cynicism.

Despite the abuse she suffers at the hands of both the villains and her ostensible allies, Notorious never depicts Alicia as a naif or a fool. Bergman may have excelled at swooning panic attacks - she won her first Academy Award in the film that coined the term “gaslighting” - but as much as she craves redemption and Devlin’s genuine affection, she is always a realist about her situation. She knows he’s fallen in love with her almost immediately and spends most of the film risking her life until he finally realizes it. The film treats her with immense cruelty, but Bergman never for a second lets you believe she deserves it.

As the film transitions from dark romance to espionage thriller, the lines get even more blurred. We’re introduced to Claude Rains’ Alexander Sebastian, a former admirer of Alicia’s whom she is forced to marry to maintain her cover. Dapper and charming as ever - and aided by an amusing height disparity compared to Bergman - Rains plays Sebastian as one of the most sympathetic Nazis in film history, at least initially. Kinder and more understanding than Devlin - Grant hits Bergman once in this movie, Rains does not - Sebastian only shows his true colors once he discovers Alicia’s deception. And even then, he must be henpecked by his domineering mother - a perennial box on the Hitchcock bingo card - into slowly poisoning Alicia before their co-conspirators find out they’ve allowed an American agent into their midst. With Bergman playing her slow poisoning like a dark mirror to her earlier drunkenness, Hitchcock pulls another one of his favorite tricks: backing his antagonist into such a tight corner, you find yourself rooting for them to get out of it. Call it the “will Norman Bates get away with it?” effect. So powerful is this effect that the film’s final shot is not of Alicia and Devlin living happily ever after - although that’s implied - but of Sebastian being left to his fate at the hands of his fellow Nazis. It’s an odd choice, but one that encapsulates the moral ambiguity and tricky emotional landscape of the film as a whole.



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