Notorious ★★★★★

Added to: Sight and Sound Greatest Films

I adore NOTORIOUS, absolutely love it. It’s not love at first sight though, it takes time and repeated viewing, three times to be exact, for me to fully realise the beguiling magic Alfred Hitchcock insinuated into each frame, each shot and each camera movement.

Notwithstanding many disdainful things to be hated (for instance the misogynistic tendency of the central relationship), NOTORIOUS is fundamentally romantic. Not the conventional romance though, as in many Hitchcock’s masterpiece like VERTIGO (1958), the love is poisonous, duplicitous, untested and imperfect, yet it’s at once requisite, magnetic, irresistible and, unlike Hitchcock’s subsequent portrait of love, triumphant. I’m talking about Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, who can repel the their enchanting chemistry together.

On the other hand, NOTORIOUS is a spy thriller, an espionage set amid the WWII Nazi roaming Rio. The screenplay, written by the incomparable Ben Hecht, was finished before the defeat of the German Nazi. Wherein the conspiracy of the Nazi ring, involving some kind of radioactive materials filled in wine bottles, is the MacGuffin, a term Hitchcock used to describe a plot element which the characters purse with no narrative significance.

The way the romance and the thriller incorporated into a suspenseful, entirely "action" free (there's no car chase and gun fight scene), exquisite and intricate work of art. The film opens with a trial of a Nazi conspirator in the Unites States, the face of the offender is never shown, since it’s the daughter, Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), who holds the key to the overall plot (the "key" part is taken quite literally later on). Alicia buries herself in alcohol and hedonistic life, even drunk driving till stopped by a cop.

In a way, she rediscovers her purpose of life after, initially rejected, the acceptance of a spying mission proposed by the intelligence agent T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant). Devein is firstly introduced by the back of his well-shaven head amid Alicia’s household party. Alike the audience, he’s observing the insouciant Alicia who tries to conceal her sorrow and emptiness under indulgence and self-deception. The delayed revelation of Cary Grant’s face is correlated to the deferred confession of love by Devlin just in time before Alicia dies from poisoning at the climactic denouement.

Alicia’s assignment is to get in touch, and later on "in bed", with one of her old acquaintance Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) in Rio who happens be a Nazi conspirator and an admirer of her. But beforehand, Alicia and Devlin falls in love first. It’s the love and the inability of Devlin in fully embracing the situation that pushes Alicia into accepting the assignment, and ultimately the marriage proposal from Sebastian.

The love between Alicia and Devlin is not build on solid foundation, and upon testing, Devlin regresses and Alicia, in a way displeased by Devlin’s passivity and denial, turns towards a dangerous ground as a provocation. She purposely behaves as the "notorious" woman Devlin and other countrymen believe she was, ironically by doing so, she serves the country. Her action is very much like Marlene Dietrich’s character Kolverer did in Josef von Sternberg’s romantic spy film DISHONORED (1931). While Kolverer eventually chose love over patriotism and was hence executed, it’s love, or the potential of love, which saves Alicia.

I do not completely buy their love, but neither do they, at least not until the final moment of rescue. To a certain extent Sebastian‘s love is more genuine and simple, with Claude Rains tip-topping the fine line between a sympathetic lover and a vicious villain, he is at once a victim of love and a killer without remorse, since he doesn’t hesitate to poison Alicia once he realises she is an American spy. The casting of Claude Rains is a master stroke, his small-built physicality is the exact opposite to Cary Grant, and yet his vulnerability is underscored by his intimidating maneuver.

Have I mentioned Sebastian‘s mother yet? Madame Sebastian (Leopoldine Konstantin) is, above all, the dominating matriarch who exerts power through menace and manipulation. She’s a jealous old witch that leaves no room for redemption. Madame Sebastian is a difficult role to play since if there’s a slight exaggeration, the character would become caricature instead. Apparently Leopoldine Konstantin did a very fine job in exuding complexity in a tyrannical parental figure.

Nonetheless, it’s Hitchcock intricate stylization and motif which made the film timeless. The duality between character’s action and mentality, dialogues and gestures, the duality of their identity which works against each other (spy/lover/conspirator). The motifs of objects, from the key to the wine cellar to the cup/bottle/glass of drinks, Hitchcock overstated their presence but never their meaning. The famous close-up shot of the wine-cellar key begins from up above the hall of Sebastian‘s mansion amid a grand ball, the camera steadily zooms in to the moving figure downstairs and in an unbroken movement rests on the key encompassed by Alicia’s trembling hand. It’s not an easy shot to make technically considering it was 1946. Still it works, Hitchcock successfully "manipulates" our attention and emotion without imposing the significance. Hence when the camera later ominously zooms in to a cup of coffee Alicia drinks, we sense there’s something poisonous inside, and the suspense is built and cumulated till our nerves are taut to the brink of tear.

Another example is the staircase scene in which Devlin attempts to rescue Alicia who has been poisoned and isolated by Sebastian and his mother after her identity was exposed. Devlin clutches the feeble body of Alicia and descends the stairs step by step, very literally, alongside the anxious Sebastian and his mother, while the remaining villainous Nazi members looking and questioning from below. The tension is amplified when Devlin seemingly takes forever to reach the floor, Hitchcock deliberately extends the perception of time by increasing the "number of steps", so does our rate of heartbeat.

Last but not the least, the oft cited infamous kissing scene between Alicia and Devlin is a one continuous take over two minutes long. But no their lips did not stick for the entire two minutes since according to the Hays Code enforced since the 1930s, no kissing onscreen is allowed to last longer than three seconds (frankly the man who proposed this was without a doubt sexually inert). Hitchcock found the loophole here and offered an erotic and passionate scene by punctuating their kisses with intimate talks, lubricious gaze, and even business call, while the two are cuddling in each other’s arms throughout. That’s the ingenuity of Hitchcock’s playfulness unquestionably.

And the film’s denouement is impeccable. In my opinion the most satisfying and chilling ending amid all of Hitchcock’s films. It closes with Sebastian returning defeatedly to his mansion after Alicia and Devlin left in car, the three villainous Nazi conspirators are standing by the door, waiting for Sebastian‘s confession. When the door closes behind him, so does Sebastian‘s fate.

(Original post in my blog: