Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) has many of the master director’s signature elements: spies, lies, a handsome leading man, a domineering mother, and of course a MacGuffin. As it is set after World War II the villains are logically former Nazis, but the plot is so tense in many scenes that it remains an effective thriller to this day. It also bears a huge influence on John Woo’s Mission Impossible 2, which retains plot elements and similar dialogue, but of course has more explosions than all of Hitchcock’s films put together.
Notorious is so well-made it can be studies in film classes, which is exactly what I did while taking a course on Hollywood Cinema 1930-1960 during the summer of 2009 at the University of British Columbia. As this is Hitchcock we are talking about here, there are subtler things to analyze than explosions in Notorious, no offense to the skills of Mr. John Woo. Famously there is a kissing scene between stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman that seemingly lasts two and half minutes, but is actually a series of kisses because the two actors had to disengage every few seconds in order to get around the pesky band that the Production Code had at the time on kisses longer than three seconds. Homework aside, the film remains a highly enjoyable time at the movies no matter your age. There is a scene that drew a couple of laughs from my fellow students when the villain’s mother ominously lights a cigarette after being told a crucial bit of information. That’s a scene that says evil mommy is going to get to work.
Cary Grant, one of Hollywood’s greatest leading men, is half of the film’s romantic couple, T.R. Devlin. An agent for the United States government, Devlin is tasked with approaching Alicia Huberman, played by Ingrid Bergman, a Swedish actress who became one of the world’s biggest movie stars having also starred in classics such as Casablanca. With two names like that in one movie Hitchcock could have had a mediocre story and possibly still have a hit, but luckily he and writer Ben Hecht went into production with a solid story.
Alicia is the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, but has no sympathy for her father’s ideals or the ideals of his friends. Unfortunately that is exactly what the American government needs her to fake in order to find some of her father’s more dangerous friends who have escaped Nazi Germany and are now hiding in Brazil. Devlin manages to convince her to take the job and together they are off to sunny Rio de Janeiro, where it doesn’t take a long time for them to fall in love. Unbeknownst to Devlin, Alicia’s assignment is not limited to just locating a few Nazis, but also going out with Nazi Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) who used to have strong feelings for her. Devlin tells his superiors she is not up to the task of being so deep undercover, but they are confident in her notorious reputation as a seductress.
Alicia does prove to be effective at her job, going as far as marrying Sebastian, much to the Devlin’s chagrin. She moves into Sebastian’s luxurious home where she gains information about the location of dangerous material the Nazis are hiding while Sebastian remains clueless about her true feelings for him. The one person she cannot convince is Sebastian’s mother Anna (Leopoldine Konstantin) who is not only devoted to her son’s cause, but is highly suspicious of the new lady in his life. A Nazi mother who is smart and suspicious is not as scary as the “mother” in Hitchcock’s other masterpiece, Psycho, but it still means bad news for Alicia.
There are no gunfights, explosions, or car chases in Notorious, but there is a hefty dose of tension as the walls close in on Alicia, and eventually on Sebastian as well when his Nazi colleagues begin to question his abilities. The final scenes involve characters trying to avoid certain death as they make their way down a flight of stairs that is impossibly long, but the audience is so fixated on the moment they don’t care about whether or not it makes sense. It is not as flashy as modern-day spy thrillers, but this film is still the work of a director firing on all cylinders.