23 November 2005
100 films: Notorious
starring: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, and Leopoldine Konstantin
written by: Ben Hecht, from the story by John Taintor Foote
directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
NR, 101 min, 1946, USA
Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), daughter of a traitor, is approached by U.S. agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) to spy on her father's old friends--a group of Nazi's holed up in South America. By exploiting the affections of Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), she's able to infiltrate the group effectively, but when she gets in too deep, her life becomes endangered.
Alfred Hitchcock, that master of suspense, here focuses on inanimate objects to ratchet up the tension. He zooms the camera in to focus on a wine bottle, a missing key, and in one important sequence, a slowly disappearing supply of champagne, using his patented technique of occasionally giving the audience more information than he gives the characters. Take for example, the key. Alicia has lifted the key from her new husband Alex's key chain and deftly passed it to Devlin during a party. The key is then used to gain entrance to a wine cellar, where Devlin discovers Sebastian's mystery. Unknown to Alicia, Sebastian discovers the key is missing and calmly says nothing, allowing instead the scenario to play itself out. After Alicia is asleep he retires for the night, placing his key chain where he does every night and Hitchcock makes sure we see the key's absense. Early the next morning, before she wakes up, he rushes to the chain, where the key has been replaced, revealing Alicia's deception. Does he confront her? No, rather he plots how to keep this information secret from his colleagues, as it will surely mean his death. Alicia is poisoned to keep her quiet, and it's only a slight tell of the eyes by which she discovers it. But throughout her posioning, Hitchcock continually focuses on the ominous sight of an ornate cup of coffee. Somehow he manages to make the most innocent objects the most frightening thing on the screen. Make no mistake, this is the stuff of genius.
Hitchcock famously said that "Actors are cattle", but he continually got great performances out of them. Ingrid Bergman is brilliant in a layered role of a woman who falls in love with one man, but is forced to seduce and marry another. This is heavy stuff for the 1940's--there's a limit on the length of kisses and a married couple sleeps in separate beds, after all--but she brings a sense of luminence to a somewhat socially unacceptable role. Part of what sells the choices she must make is an early exchange where Cary Grant claims not to love her, even though we all know he's lying and she probably would too, if she took a step back. He knows that in order for her to be able to do the job she must do, she cannot go into it half-way. He has made his protest (as any lover would do) to his superiors and has defended her honor, but he makes no mention of this to her. She naturally assumes he has been using her and is able to muster the ability to marry Sebastian for the sake of the job. Overall, it's a difficult role that requires her to test the full range of her abilities, but Bergman nails every note.
Likewise, Claude Rains turns in one of the best performances of his career. Watch his final scene on the steps as he takes his character all the way from indignation to desperation in the space of just a few seconds. It's a stunning bit of nuanced acting. In fact, there isn't a sub-par performance in the entire film. Not bad for a bunch of cattle.
 It's easy to see, between this and Casablanca, why even Woody Guthrie was in love with Bergman.
 In a way she does this as a "screw you" to Devlin.