An American agent recruits a woman with ties to Nazis in South America. After they find themselves falling in love, he finds out her mission is to seduce a man with possible ties to future Nazi plots.
I honestly don’t know why I’d never heard anyone talk about this film before. I’ve been to film school; I’ve been around cinephiles all my life; I’ve had multiple conversations about Hitchcock (director of “Rebecca”) with dozens of people, but never had “Notorious” come up. After watching it last night, I’m totally baffled that I’d never heard it mentioned… but I’m going to talk about it a lot now. Anytime Hitch’s name comes up this will be one of the first recommendations out of my mouth.
“This is a very strange love affair.” “Why?” “Maybe the fact that you don’t love me.”
Set in 1946, just after the end of World War II. After her German father is convicted of treason, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman, “Gaslight”), is approached by an American agent named Devlin (Cary Grant, “Charade”) whom offers her a job as a spy. Alicia accepts, and the two spend a lot of time together before her assignment comes through; they find themselves falling in love. Soon, Devlin’s commanding officer reveals the plan: Alicia will seduce her father’s old friend, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains, “The Invisible Man”), in an attempt to uncover a possible plot he and other former Nazis might be trying to hatch. Alicia finds herself torn between duty and love, and as the tensions ramp up, it becomes apparent that Sebastian isn’t quite as gullible as the Americans would have hoped.
How is this not one of the most talked about movies of all time? How is this not talked about in the same sentence as “Casablanca”? How is this not in everyone’s top five Hitchcock films?
This movie is absolutely brilliant. It has some of the best performances I’ve ever seen from studio era Hollywood; Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant and Claude Rains are all at the top of their game. Hitchcock displays incredible talent in his directing; some of the cinematography is incredibly inventive, and the way he weaves tension through the subtext of his conversations is amazing. Most of this film’s tension comes from the viewer being the fly on the wall, knowing things before other characters know them. At times, we know characters are walking right into a trap, and Hitchcock knows how to draw out that tension for as long as possible. I found myself holding my breath in more than one scene, and I honestly can’t say that about many thrillers today.
Let’s talk about Ingrid Bergman first, for she’s our main protagonist. I’ve seen Ingrid in a few films before, but always as a supporting character. She completely dazzles in this role. Her character is incredibly complex, but she plays it beautifully. From the beginning, Alicia seems to be at wits end; her father has just been sentenced for treason and she doesn’t know what to do, so, she gets quite drunk and meets Devlin at a party. From her place of despair she looks anywhere for comfort; she practically throws herself into this love affair with Devlin, but Devlin himself doesn’t seem too resistant to falling in love with her. It makes the moment when Devlin finds out that Alicia’s assignment is to seduce another man so much more heartbreaking, but it also adds another layer of tension because Devlin can’t reveal he’s fallen in love with Alicia. That would compromise him.
After Alicia ingratiates herself in with Sebastian and his gang, the real tensions start. There are so many scenes when Hitchcock clues the viewer in on something that characters don’t know, but there are also so many secrets that Alicia, and eventually Sebastian, have to hide from one another that it becomes a constant game of hide in seek in plain sight. There’s one scene in particular where I actually gasped, and the only thing that happened in the scene, action wise, was Alicia moved a house key from one hand to another.
But Sebastian is also a complex character. His love for Alicia seems real, which makes it difficult for him when he begins to suspect that Alicia might be a spy. There are so many different complications between the characters, and often times Hitch just lets those maddening complications simmer in the background.
The way Hitchcock plays with subtlety is what I love so much about this movie. Every character has an angle, and it’s like we’re watching a game of three-dimensional chess play out before us, and 90% of the time the moves are being made, they are made without discussion. We can see her character putting things together in their minds, and we as the viewers don’t even need to hear them say anything in order to understand what they’re thinking and what the consequences of their actions are. The stakes are so well defined and the characters so beautifully complex that it’s hard not to get so wrapped up in this story.
I loved this movie. I had expected to enjoy it, but I was glued to the screen. I laughed, I almost cried, I gasped aloud, and I would do it all again in an instant. This is a film I will be absolutely sure to revisit again and again, and more than that, it’s a film I want to tell everyone about. See this movie; it’s one of the best I’ve ever watched.
Review Written By: