ALPHABET MOVIE CLUB: Notorious
WEEK 13: "N"
Nominees: Network, The Night of the Hunter, Nobody's Fool, North Dallas Forty, Notorious
Background: While not on the level of his cardinal achievements like Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest, and Rear Window, 1946's Notorious commonly comes up as one of Hitchcock's most successful early movies before his 1950's and 60's hey-day. Attempting to buck the control of mega-producer David O. Selznick, Hitchcock was able to get a producer credit for the first time with Notorious and a large reign on creative control. If you do a little more digging into its history, this film was a bit of a roller coaster in getting made between financing, story disputes, and the idea of dumping Cary Grant. Nevertheless, things stuck together and we have Notorious.
The film stars the easy-on-the eyes Ingrid Bergman (not long after she did Casablanca) as Alicia Huberman, a society woman with a wild romantic past of many suitors (essentially a 1940's version of Paris Hilton) and drunken tendencies. With the recent conviction of her father as an ex-Nazi spy, Alicia's family name and Miami luster is now tarnished. Soon after the court case, she is recruited by government agent T.J. Devlin (Cary Grant, looking every bit Grant-ish, but acting the opposite) for an important case. As it turns out, her society connections put her in a useful position to infiltrate a network of other possible former Nazi spies, in particular, Alex Sebastian (the incomparable Claude Rains), a former flame of hers, who have migrated to Brazil.
Well, when you look like Ingrid Bergman and he looks like Cary Grant, the lines between handler and pawn blur and they fall for each other while prepping for the mission in Rio de Janiero. The trouble is Alicia is a little too good at being sexual bait for Alex. Mr. Sebastian falls right back into love with her and insists on a quick and controlling marriage. Torn by his feelings of love and those of duty, Devlin can't let go of Alicia and stay out of the picture. With the case to determine what Alex is up to not going well, he gets too close too often, setting up Notorious's dark love triangle of jealousy and deceitful suspense.
Reaction: 3 STARS-- Notorious is far from top-notch Alfred Hitchcock, but, as myself and fellow members of the Alphabet Film Club noted: a bad Hitchcock film is still better than 90% of the other movies out there. I think that assurance rings true. Notorious is a tedious and nearly tiresome melodrama anchored by a Cary Grant character that's hard to like and an Ingrid Bergman character that's even worse. Claude Rains is top-shelf, but when is he not? Sure, the movie was a big box office success at the time, but the ugly story has not aged well and is what keeps this movie distantly away from Hitchcock's high mantle of must-see classics.
What does make Notorious worthwhile is continuing to watch an earlier Hitchcock, before his prime years, come into his own as a visual filmmaker in the late 1940's. While he squeezes very good performances from Grant and Bergman in unlikeable roles, this movie has and will be remembered more for its tricks than its substance. Following Spellbound from the year before, he continued to push the creative envelope here in Notorious. The stunning cinematography is worth its own dissertation. From the off-kilter hangover scene early in the film to the many realistic rear projection "outdoor" shots performed on sound stages, the movie has a look and ambiance all its own. The absolutely killer "stolen key" shot is 38 seconds of daring perfection.
After the camerawork, the eclectic alternative choices in music and that censor-dodging 2 1/2 minute on-screen kiss between Grant and Bergmann, add even more tricks and style to what no one had seen before. As we know, Hitchcock's reputation would only grow from here. When you watch Notorious, you get to see the roots growing of what will be a giant redwood someday. Like we started saying, even bad Hitchcock is still pretty good.
LESSON #1: WHEN YOU ARE WORKING AS A SPY BY SEDUCING AND MARRYING THE INTENDED MARK WHILE STILL BEING IN LOVE WITH ANOTHER MAN, DON'T CONSTANTLY STILL SEE, MEET, TALK TO, FAUN OVER, AND KISS THAT OTHER MAN WHILE THE PRETEND JEALOUS HUSBAND IS WATCHING AND/OR ALWAYS AROUND-- Was that lesson too picky and specific? Nah. It's such a common scenario for all of us.
LESSON #2: CHOOSING DUTY OVER LOVE-- This is the quintessential romantic hurdle for all spies and most movies that involve them. When you lie for a living and use people, how can you ever love, meaningfully express love, and follow through with love? This struggle tears at Devlin's repressed emotions throughout the film.
LESSON #3: THE EXPLOITATION OF TRUST-- Trust is a trait that has to be earned, but, once earned, becomes a door-opener and a barrier-breaker. Give your trust too easily, like Sebastian does in falling for Alicia, and you are exploited. Guard it too closely, as Devlin does, and it exploits you in return.