But in the golden age of Hollywood, perhaps no fractious relationship is more famous than that of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick - a relationship which peaked early with the Oscar-winning Rebecca, and gradually deteriorated until the thoroughly un-suspenseful courtroom drama The Paradine Case. Notorious is at the upper end of the work Hitch achieved in his early years in America, combining a timely, pulpy story with a strong central relationship. While it never quite fires on all cylinders, and only truly takes flight in the final reel, it still includes much to be enjoyed or appreciated.
In order to enjoy Notorious, you must be willing to accept a rather big contrivance - namely that a beautiful woman who knows nothing about spying comes to work for the secret service, just because she used to date the man that they are targeting. It is a big suspension of disbelief even for the day, but Hitchcock does at least give their relationship credibility by crafting a pretty decent romance out of it. This romance is not as straightforward as Ingrid Bergman swooning into Cary Grant's arms - they start with a drunken fight in the car, and their relationship goes up and down from there.
Notorious benefits in this respect from some good dialogue courtesy of screenwriter Ben Hecht. The banter between Devlin and Alicia serves to build them up as characters with a certain amount of awkward sexual tension. Neither of them desperately like the other one, neither of them particularly want to be there - and yet as time goes by they find themselves drawn to one another. Alicia accuses Devlin of being afraid of women and being cold, and he is content to play along for the duration of the mission to maintain a professional distance. Both feel like complicated people with mixed emotions, a lot of which is internalised.
Fans of Mission: Impossible II may have realised by this point just how much their film borrows or steals from Notorious. Not only is the premise the same, but the relationship between the agent, woman and mark goes through the exact same motions. The rekindling of the relationship between the mark and the woman begins happily enough, with old memories coming to the fore and bonds re-forming. This results in the agent being side-lined until they go for the big break-in, wherein the woman is rescued when things go wrong. The relationship begins to sour, the agent and woman escape, and the mark gets what's coming to him. Of course, John Woo is not the only filmmaker to have stolen from Hitchcock, but it's hard to think of another film other than Disturbia which rips him off quite so blatantly.
Notorious is famous on a technical level for two key scenes. The first is the kiss scene between Bergman and Grant, which goes on for two-and-a-half minutes despite a clause in the Motion Picture Production Code which prohibited "excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a 'heavy'." Hitchcock got around the ruling that an on-screen kiss could only last three seconds by having his actors kiss for three seconds, murmur to each other, and then start kissing again. It's a very effective ploy that makes the scene if anything more passionate - and would have given the priest in Cinema Paradiso a headache trying to remove every last kiss.
The other technical matter of note lies in Hitchcock's increasing use of crane shots and zooms. Perhaps the most famous shot in the whole film is the one that begins high up at the top of the staircase, and comes right down into Bergman's hand behind her dress, where the key to the wine cellar is being concealed. Not only are these shots as slick as his work on The Paradine Case, but Hitch's compositions is quite impeccable, picking up the details in people's faces and the different wine bottles. The cuts between the different dates on the bottles, as Claude Rains discovers what has happened, are very simple and effective.
Notorious has a very good central set-piece involving Devlin and Alicia infiltrating the wine cellar and coming across the uranium. Not only is the plot twist handled very well, but Hitchcock builds up suspense surrounding their discovery in a very novel way. Rather than cutting between our protagonists in the cellar and the bad guys walking along a very long corridor to come to them, Hitch cuts between the cellar and the number of champagne bottles left on ice, after which Alex Sebastian will make a short trip down to catch them.
This ingenious way of creating suspense comes back to Hitchcock's thoughts on content vs. technique and making the best use of the props available in a given scene. In an interview with the AFI in the 1960s, he gave the example of Cary Grant in North by Northwest, who escapes from an auction by getting thrown out for making nonsensical bids. Both this and the champagne bottles are Hitchcock being resourceful with decorative or incidental features, and in doing so deepening the environment in which the characters find themselves. This and his ruthless editing make the whole thing feel a lot less mechanical than it otherwise could.
In terms of its subject matter, Notorious sits within a tradition of works about ex-Nazis hiding out in South America. The natural comparison from this point of view would be The Boys from Brazil, Franklin J. Schnaffner's enjoyably silly romp about Hitler clones based on the novel by Ira Levin. Both films are fundamentally pulpy in nature, drawing on and exploiting recent scientific breakthroughs to further a science fiction-inflected story. While The Boys from Brazil used the beginnings of cloning as a springboard to different ethical issues, Notorious uses its MacGuffin to tie in with the political tensions in Europe, many of which had started over the capture of German scientists and the remaining V2 rockets.
Just as The Boys from Brazil is silly and flimsy in comparison to The Stepford Wives, so Notorious never entirely takes flight in the way that The Lady Vanishes did. Much of the problems with the film can be put down to Selznick, who made life increasingly difficult for Hitchcock and attempted to re-cast the film behind his back. Having failed to replace Cary Grant with Joseph Cotton (who would later star in The Third Man), Selznick resorted to sending Hitchcock constant demands for rewrites and reshoots. He eventually sold the picture to RKO, allowing him to claim 50% of the profits as well as $800,000 upfront.
Despite two very good central performances by Grant and Bergman, some of the supplementary characters feel overly caricatured to the point of being pantomime. Claude Rains puts in a very good, nuanced performance as Alex Sebastian, and none of the ex-Nazis are quite as over-the-top as their Boys from Brazil counterparts. But their efforts are almost for nothing when sharing a screen with Leopoldine Konstantin, whose exaggerated movements rival those of Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love.
There are also little shortcomings in the plot which, while not disastrous, are rather irritating. Alicia is told that she should never visit the spies' base during the operation - and yet when she does, she seems in no danger at all; no matter how dangerous they make it sound, there is no sign of her being followed or observed by Sebastian's men. The MacGuffin is also bothersome on a practical level: we are told that the soil has uranium in it, and yet everyone uses their bare hands to handle it. You might argue that it doesn't matter how the MacGuffin works so long as it moves the plot forward, but it still manages to prey on one's mind.
Notorious is a good, solid Hitchcock thriller which succeeds through its two central performances and a number of suspenseful scenes. It never entirely gets off the ground, stopping and starting until the final reel and being hamstrung by the odd piece of over-acting. But by and large it has weathered pretty well, and is still enjoyable even in light of its problems. If nothing else, it serves as a fitting counterweight to its disappointing follow-up, which would force Hitchcock from Selznick's clutches for good.
It's a classic romantic espionage thriller, done in the classic Hitchcock style, and involving two of his favorite things: romance and suspense. This is typical stuff, done in the typical way, but to the Nth degree.
An American secret agent named Devlin gets a beautiful woman with a tainted past named Alicia to help him take down the leader of a neo Nazi group. She falls in love with her target, but, not only is her life in danger, she feels upset that Devlin may or may not love her, and he's conflicted because not only does he love her, he can't really tell her since she goes so far as marrying her mark to bring him down..and trying to save her might not happen, and on and on.
Pitch perfect performances (espeically Bergman's), a great set up, and some truly excellent cinematography (love the long take during the party scene), and some wonderful moments (drunk driving scene, et al) highlight what would otherwise be generic crap in the hands of any other director.
Just go see it already. I can't think of any other way to recommend this than that.
It's the story of a 'party girl' (Bergman), the daughter of a Nazi who is recruited by Cary Grant as a mole into a Nazi ring in Brazil. She is impelled by allied intelligence to marry Rains and infiltrate the inner circle. The love story is touching and deep and all subtext. When Grant rescues a poisoned Bergman and tells her his actual feelings, there's wasn't a dry eye in my house. Well, I was watching alone, but you get the idea.
The only aspects of this film that are dated for me, oddly, are the Hitchcockian trick shots, which must have seemed at the time like the future of film. In fact, the 'auteur style' have been superseded by the need to draw attention away from the director. Today most films (well, not the Marvel superhero movies, but you get the idea) try to convey hyper realism, especially for this type of movie - the espionage thriller (case in point: see 2011's Tinker, Tailor... a similar film in subject matter, but a completely diverging type of film making, striving for a flat, documentary style.). What Hitchcock called 'pure cinema' does not really exist today.
Rent or order this film on demand and you will not be disappointed. Other Hitchcock films have better set piece scenes and memorable single visual sequences, but this film, literally has it all for its entire duration: emotion, humor, stunning B & W cinematography and complex characters (with megawatt charisma) that we care about.
Hitchcock wanted to film a really long kiss between Grant and Bergman but had trouble with the censors, so he instead filmed them in a clinch as they exchanged lots of short kisses while never wandering too far from each other's lips. The result? A love scene more erotic than the the longest of regular kissing scenes. The scene near the end where Dev rescues the near-death Alicia and carries her down the stairs to safety makes me swoon every time. One of Hitch's very best films.
This is an excellent movie. That's all you really need to know. This is going to be one of my gushing reviews, because I absolutely loved Notorious. If you'd rather not sit and read through a few paragraphs of nothing but praise, you can stop now.
I thought I had seen the best of what Hitchcock had to offer. I had already watched most of his most popular movies, and the last few lesser known films of his that I had watched were good, but not great. I expected Notorious to be of similar quality. I was completely wrong. By the end of the movie, it had jumped right up to third on my list, behind only Rear Window and Psycho. It's just that good.
Notorious is essentially a spy-thriller with an excellent, mature love story weaved throughout. I won't reveal many details, to preserve the story, but it's one of the very best of its kind. A wanton party girl (and daughter of a recently uncovered Nazi traitor) is pressed into service for the U.S. and used to spy on a sinister but nebulous Nazi plot in Brazil. That may sound like familiar territory for the genre, but most of the films that came later and copied it don't manage to be nearly as fresh and well-made as this movie from 1946.
Two more things absolutely have to be mentioned, and I'll be done: Ingrid Bergman's performance and the ending. This was my introduction to Ingrid, and holy $@*!, this lady could act! I finally understand her inevitably high position in any credible list of the best actresses in the history of Hollywood. The majority of the acting burden rests on her shoulders, and she pulls it off effortlessly. Her character is completely different in the beginning, middle, and end of the movie, and she's consistently excellent throughout. I'll be seeing more of her work, that's for sure.
As for the finale, it's one of the most tense, suspenseful, menacing and masterful that I've ever seen - and there's nary a gunshot or an explosion to be had. There's not even much of a confrontation. If you want to know why Aldred Hitchcock is considered to be one of the greatest directors ever, watch that sequence.
If you love spy movies, you must watch Notorious. If you love classic movies, you must watch Notorious. If you want to love classic movies, you must watch Notorious. Basically, you must watch Notorious. Watch it.
*NOTE: Anyone else notice that Hitchcock seems to have an affinity for overbearing mothers? (Notorious, Psycho, The Birds, etc.)