Notorious (1946) is widely known as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most lucid and pure works, emblematic of the auteur’s take on suspense and love, and his simplified, stylised cinematic storytelling. Its synopsis is straightforward: a spy pushes the woman he loves into sleeping with the enemy to retrieve secrets. But one of the film’s greatest ironies is that it is one of the muddiest of Hitchcock’s films to interpret.
In black and white, with the barest dialogue and economical camerawork, Notorious declares its ambient anxiety from the very start. We open with an extreme close-up of a newsman’s camera, and immediately we are put at hazard – someone is being watched and hunted. Next we peer through the panels of a Miami courtroom door from the point of view of one of the media vultures, as John Huberman is convicted of treason against the United States. He remains faceless, but his protestation rings clear: “You can put me away, but you can’t put away what’s going to happen to you and this whole country. Next time! Next time we are going to…” With that warning he is silenced by his lawyer, but a sense of foreboding is set. It is 1946: the Second World War is over, the Cold War has commenced, and the world is in flux.
The subject of the news cameras – trained as rifles upon their marks – is Huberman’s daughter Alicia (Ingrid Bergman). Her notoriety is twofold: her father is a war criminal, and she is a drinking, partying, good time girl. As she refuses the reporters’ questions, we overhear a conspiratorial exchange between two shady suits in the background, “Let us know if she tries to leave town.” Though this is an archetypal Hitchcock film, Bergman’s Alicia is not the archetypal Hitchcock woman, most popularly characterised as cool, withholding and unknowable. Bergman brings a warmth, vulnerability and frankness to the role of the hunted woman. But like Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, we suspect Bergman may be tougher than her male counterpart, despite the fact that she becomes steadily disempowered as the film progresses.
That counterpart is Cary Grant’s Devlin, a smooth American spy who becomes caught in a “strange love affair” with Alicia and convinces her to move to Rio de Janeiro to work for his agency. Only after they become involved do they realise the true nature of her assignment: to seduce suspected Nazi Alex Sebastian and betray his political secrets. Most painfully, Alicia and Devlin must maintain a charade of cordiality in the wake of their forced breakup and the growth of his animosity toward her. A neat subversion of a typical Hitchcock setup arises: not the wrong man, but the wronged woman.
Notorious was initially advertised as a melodrama, a genre that relies on the delineation and advocacy of clear moral ground. Though it borrows many syntactical camera moves from that genre (the rhythm of single close-ups and medium close-ups between the lovers when they quarrel, two-shots when they are in harmony), Notorious takes a remarkably compassionate and nonjudgmental view of Alicia’s supposed waywardness. It is this generous depiction that forces the audience to feel her dread, and invokes atmospheric doom. Generically mixed, Notorious is a thriller with an emotional core with which to connect – a wartime spy film with a pure love story at the centre. While the suspense is created by stretching out time and zooming in on objects of symbolic significance (a key, a wine bottle), Francois Truffaut saw the love torn aspect of the film as a triangle in which two men adore the same woman (1) – a classic melodramatic premise. At his most pathetically controlling (despite the fact he is controlled by another woman already, his mother), Sebastian asks Alicia if she is with any other man. She responds, “There is no-one.” Sadly, this is true at the time: she believes Devlin is lost to her. This simple exchange says much about how Hitchcock underscores a typical generic setup with intricately psychological, neurosis-laden character dynamics.
Love triangles aside, we might also read the film, as Adrian Martin does, as a tale of couples’ miscommunications (2). How easily a few unsaid words divide Alicia and Devlin (in this way Notorious directly continues the concern of Hitchcock’s preceding film, Spellbound  whose premise hinges on a slip of the tongue) and how we’ve all been guilty of this. Upon receiving the awful news of her proposed mission, Alicia is stark with Dev: “Do you want me to take the job?” But he refuses to respond frankly. The next day the plan is sparked into action, and her new life of rented jewellery and enforced relationships begins.
Before her fake marriage and after her father’s verdict, Alicia declares, “I don’t have to hate him anymore. Or myself.” Hitchcock protagonists are often caught in a black hole of delusion and denial, but with this comment Alicia marks a rather unusual Hitchcock theme of self-acceptance and liberation from self-loathing, even as the past holds stubbornly on. At first she is free in Brazil with Devlin, pledging (relative) sobriety: she is no longer a “no good girl”. But her freedom cannot last, and unfeeling men force her into unthinkable compromises, yet she is judged all the same. “Why won’t you believe in me,” Alicia pleads to Dev. “Just a little. Why won’t you?” Sebastian’s mother lays perhaps the lowest blow in this respect, telling Alicia, “You resemble your father very much”. Alicia’s redemption is bound up with another man, Devlin, who finally admits, “I was a fat-headed guy full of pain.”
Today Notorious reads as an indictment of the terrible things women are forced to do and then judged for, rather than a moral tale of punishment for ‘unfeminine’ behaviour. The film is easily understood as a story of cowardly men. First of these are the US agents who are happy to let an endangered woman do their dirty work for them (“We want someone who’s good at making friends with gentlemen”). Second is Devlin, who refuses to admit his feelings for Alicia and then pushes her into a fraudulent relationship (with a fascist, no less), and whose characterisation relies on Grant bouncing obnoxiousness against his suave, charismatic screen presence. Finally is his competitor, the frightened villain Sebastian, initially a slimy character who becomes rather pitiful as he fails to fight his fate amongst his fellow Nazis.
It is far too easy to watch a film and extract its moral themes through the lens of your own ideological framework: that might be one of cinema’s greatest tricks. The multiplex readings viewers and scholars have taken from Notorious are only made possible by the core strategy of switching the narrative’s vantage through the camera’s point of view (3), starting with the reporters, before moving between the three leads, and ending with Sebastian. This swaying character subjectivity means we align ourselves naturally with the one we relate to most strongly: the attachments are more personal than usual. As such, the shifty nature of Notorious (including its slippery gender politics) is structural. This explains why the film’s life is not over, and we will continue to renovate its secrets for some time.
1. Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock (London: Panther Books, 1969), p. 202.
2. Adrian Martin, “Inside Notorious,” Senses of Cinema (January 2000) http://web.archive.org/web/20060219075111/http://sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/3/notorious.html
3. Adrian Martin, “Inside, Around and About Notorious,” 16:9, (August 2014) http://www.16-9.dk/2014/08/inside-around-and-about-notorious/
4. Ken Mogg, The Alfred Hitchcock Story (London: Titan Books, 1999), p. 114.
Notorious (1946 USA 100min)
Prod Co:RKO. Prod: Alfred Hitchcock Dir: Alfred Hitchcock Scr: Ben Hecht Phot: Ted Tetzlaff Ed: Theron Warth Sound: Terry Kullum, John E Tribby, Clem Portman.
Cast: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Louis Calhern, Leopoldine Konstantin.