Notorious (1946)


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Alicia: Come on, Mr D., what is darkening your brow?

Notorious is a visual treat. A spy thriller from director Alfred Hitchcock, it is the film’s striking cinematography that marks it out as a classic.

The story follows Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, who is asked by the American government to befriend a German Nazi (Claude Rains) who was close to her father. An agent named Devlin (Cary Grant) is sent to her home in order to convince her to go undercover in Rio de Janeiro and gather information regarding a Nazi organisation that they believe is plotting something nasty. Devlin and Alicia end up falling in love, albeit rather quickly and haphazardly, but the film’s second half makes up for a rushed beginning, with an exquisite exercise in tension.

Trust, lies, and patriotism are integral to the story, with the protagonists dealing with conflicting feelings surrounding their duties and passions. Devlin loves Alicia, and yet pushes her into the bed of another man as part of his job. Alicia loves Devlin, and at the beginning assumes political neutrality, yet she goes along with every step of the government’s plan, even going as far as to enter into a false marriage. And Alex loves Alicia, yet allows her to be slowly killed by his mother once she becomes a threat to his Nazi activities. Each character feels the burden and pain of having their personal feelings disturb their occupational responsibilities. Desperately searching for secrets, and working to gain the trust of others, rarely are they true to their own feelings. This is why the ending comes as such a shock; Devlin, outwardly one of the coldest characters, succumbs to his emotions and takes Alicia away from the house of deceit. I was honestly expecting to see Alicia die, or for the scene on the stairs to take a dark turn, but instead the two lovers make their escape and head towards a brighter future, leaving Alex to return to the dark.

Another important theme in the film is motherhood. Alex’s mother is a genuinely terrifying presence. She hovers behind her son like a vulture, and knits by the bedside or in the background as Alicia slowly dies of the poison that she is administering to her. In the shot of her where she descends the stairs in a haze and comes slowly towards the camera, she has a half open mouth and blank, staring eyes, making a truly unsettling picture. Alicia, on the other hand, has no known mother. She is never mentioned, and it can be assumed that she is either dead or estranged, leaving only a corrupted father for Alicia to go to for guidance. She also enters in to her marriage with Alex with absolutely no intention of becoming a mother figure herself. Her marriage to him is a charade and is therefore sterile. These absences of motherhood only work to emphasise Madame Sebastian’s role, to the point where her own motherhood becomes smothering.

With so many impressive shots to choose from, it’s hard to pick favourites. The long tracking shot at the party where we begin at the top of the stairs and end at Alicia’s hand holding the key has been championed as one of the best. But, personally, my highlights were the shot where Alex and his mother become silhouettes against the light followed by their shadows on the wall merging to become one grey blur. Darker undertones are suggested through the joining of the shadows, especially considering that we already know of Madame’s “jealousy” toward any women whom Alex brings home. Another clever trick was having the close up of Devlin’s forgotten champagne bottle towards the beginning fade into the curtains of the next shot. This transition suggests both drinking and domesticity. Later on, the balance between the two plays an important part in Alicia’s deception. At the party she must juggle her insecurities surrounding the alcohol with her responsibility to entertain.

With such strong symbolism, the film offers endless opportunities for analysis. However, it feels as though Hitchcock sacrifices some character development in order to rush towards an opportunity for tension. Devlin and Alicia’s love seems to come out of nowhere, as does their initial kiss. And Cary Grant’s character is well played but not fleshed out enough. Ingrid Bergman, however, is amazing, and it’s worth watching the film just for her. She carries a character with effortless ease, and her anxiety is never overdone. Beautiful and engaging, she lends Alicia a depth that I’m not sure she would have had otherwise.

This would have been a four star film if it weren’t for the hurried beginning. The stellar performances and stunning cinematography save it from being average, and bring it closer towards brilliance, but just not quite close enough.



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