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*Notorious* may not be Hitchcock's greatest film, but it may very well
be his most perfect film. Rarely is a viewer treated to so much talent
in all areas of film creation: Hitch directing, Gregg Toland
photographing, Ben Hecht writing, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman and
Claude Rains acting. And everyone is firing on all cylinders.
What gives *Notorious* its singularity amongst the pantheon of Hitchcock's masterpieces is the highly symbolic, literate, and penetrating script by Hecht. Nominally, the film is about the OSS (the pre-natal version of the CIA) using a compromised young daughter of a condemned, unrepentant Nazi to infiltrate a cell of German expatriates in Rio de Janeiro just after the close of the Second World War. The plot hinges on some nonsense involving "uranium ore" stuffed in wine bottles in the cellar of Claude Rains' mansion. In actuality, the film is nothing less than a dark fugue on alcoholism, and secondarily (and of most interest to the director), invasion of privacy. Thirdly, we are treated to some more of the Master's endless fascination with Freudian slop: yet again, we get the Oedipus Complex in all its ardor, with a domineering old bat wielding the motherly whip-hand on Rains' cuckolded, castrated, romantic ex-pat Nazi.
But Hecht is interested primarily in alcoholism, and Hitchcock obligingly complies, utilizing a dizzying myriad of symbols and reference points. In the original script, Bergman's Alicia is something of a whore: the filmmakers were forced by the censors to tone this aspect down, thereby bringing Alicia's dependence on booze to the forefront. Indeed, Bergman spends much of her screen-time woozy-headed, whether from alcohol or poisonous coffee (symbolically functioning as the same thing). Very early in the film, she declares at a party, "The important drinking hasn't started yet!" Exactly. Throughout the movie, Bergman drinks in order to escape her unpleasant circumstances or to wash away bouts of low self-esteem. A bottle of champagne bought by Grant becomes a phallic symbol: he forgets it at the offices of the OSS, with arid results when he arrives home to Bergman. Wine bottles are literally the "key" to the plot. Spilled wine in a sink blows her cover. And late in the proceedings, the simple physical act of drinking -- coffee, yes, but the point comes across -- almost kills her.
There's much more going on here -- too much for a short review, really. Let's finish by asserting that Hitchcock's Forties period was every bit as cinematic as his later, grander, colorized period in the Fifties and Sixties. The slowly swooping shot from the crane, starting from high atop the ceiling of a ballroom and ending up focused on the wine cellar key in Bergman's hand, is merely one famous bravura moment. There are many others:
Grant approaching a hungover Bergman in bed, in which the camera takes her up-ended POV quite literally; Bergman, overcome with poison, hallucinating the figures of Rains and his mother into monstrous shadows that grow larger and larger, eventually merging into one darkness; the two great tracking shots of Grant and Bergman kissing in her Rio apartment and later when Grant rescues her from her poison bed. The trailers for *Notorious* were already calling Hitchcock the "Master of Suspense" . . . it's easy to see why.
As for the performances? Cary Grant proves to be a true soldier, spending much of his screen-time either expressionless or with his back turned to the camera (!), unselfishly giving the film to Bergman, even though his part is actually the more interesting one. Bergman, meanwhile, gives one of the best performances of her illustrious career. No two Bergman roles are quite the same; Hitchcock wisely allows her to do some of her own interpretation, particularly early on during the "character-building" scenes (before the plot moves all the characters into their appointed places on the chessboard). Perhaps best of all, both Grant and Bergman were at the very peak of the physical charms: the movie is some serious eye-candy for both genders. 9 stars out of 10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Notorious" is, of Hitchcock's "earlier" films, certainly the most
durable and endlessly fascinating. Not, God knows, for its "brilliant"
shots -- including the famous tracking shot from the foyer ceiling down
to the key in Ingrid Bergman's hand.
But for the frank eroticism Hitchcock establishes from the opening party sequence on, and Bergman's breathtakingly uninhibited playing against her "virginal" type.
"Notorious" is riddled with bad, jerky rear-projection sequences. The first is Bergman's drunken drive along the Florida highway before the policeman stops her.
Then, every sequence where she and Cary Grant meet in the park in Rio. Sitting on that bench while the entire world "jerks" behind them.
Do we care? Hell, no.
Ingrid Bergman was never so starkly sensual and frank on screen, as she is as "Alicia." And Cary Grant, as agent Devlin, was perfectly directed to play cold and largely unresponsive to Bergman's unrestrained and ultimately heartbreaking heat.
Grant is given subtle moments early on, to show his falling in love with Bergman. The brief glance he gives her as she leans across his lap in the plane descending into Rio, before Hitchcock quickly fades it out, is almost pornographic (for the era).
Their repartee is so fraught with sexual tension and mutual challenge as to be unparalleled in cinema up till that time -- and perhaps even since.
Bergman, so powerful an actress, is utterly vulnerable and natural in the early sequences -- emerging from her father's trial with her usual Bergmanesque stoicism, only to instantly become surprisingly, drunkenly, girlish and accessible and dangerous in the next sequence -- brushing windblown hair from her lips as she drives -- viciously fighting off Devlin when she realizes Devlin's an agent -- awakening to a hangover so realistic you can almost smell her breath steaming off the screen -- finally agreeing, out of patriotism, to help the "cause." The range of Bergman's performance, from drunken party girl desperate to escape her background, to duplicitous double-agent portraying "Madame" Sebastian in elegant surroundings, to helplessly, hopelessly lovesick Alicia finally in love with an unresponsive American agent (Grant) -- to an imprisoned woman dying of poisoning -- Bergman is simply brilliant.
She was never more sensually presented on screen.
Nor was Cary Grant. One does not expect emotional displays or outbursts from a government agent.
Grant's / Devlin's professional reluctance to admit, much less act on, his feelings for Bergman's Alicia is evident from frame one. His self-control as an actor and as a man was never better realized. At any moment, he could sexually assault Alicia -- whether out of rage or love is never clear, until the final, tender, moments of the film.
By the time Alicia and Devlin reach the infamous two-plus minutes on-off kissing scene in Alicia's Rio apartment, viewers of both sexes are watering at the mouth, wanting them to devour each other.
That they don't adds another layer of suspense to what ultimately becomes almost unbearable tension after Alicia weds Sebastian and moves in with him, his mother, and the other Nazis.
This is an amazingly daring film in terms of female sexuality, for its day or ours. Hitchcock asks us, as he asks Devlin, to sympathize with -- and love -- a woman who not only sleeps around just as men do, but who is willing to sleep around under false pretenses for the good of her adopted country. If that's a stretch for audiences now, consider what it was for audiences in the late 40s.
Is there another "heroine" in cinema history who blatantly sleeps with a man she despises in order to win the love (and successfully) of another man whom she adores?
Not "Mata Hari," who, no matter that she was played by Garbo, had anywhere near the emotional/political/moral complexity of Alicia.
We still have to contend with those cheeseball rear-projection sequences. But Bergman and Grant play them so beautifully that the shoddy rear-screen technological primitivism is immediately forgiven.
And the secondary casting is so flawless that, in "Notorious'" final sequence, as Claude Rains is called back into the mansion and walks up those steps to his inevitable death, and the door closes while Bergman and Grant escape to a new life, our feelings are a mixture of triumph and pity.
Truly, one of Hitchcock's most complex, sexually challenging, political, adult, ambiguous and disturbing films.
Forget the cheeseball rear-projections, please.
"Notorious" is several glasses -- perhaps too many -- of vintage cinematic champagne.
Hitchcock introduces his stars with a cinematic blow that makes the opening of this dark, scrumptious thriller a monumental treat. He uses their star personalities and turns them round to dislocate us, teasing us with his unmistakable touch. The absurdity of the plot becomes totally plausible and the suspense is not merely unbearable but thrillingly entertaining. All of Hitchcock's favorite emotional and visual toys are present here. The icy blond, the sexual tension, the weakling villain with a castrating mother. A legendary kiss and a happy ending. Whenever I meet someone who hasn't seen any Hitchcock movies - and there are people in this world, believe it or not, who hasn't - I show them Notorious and always without fail, they are hooked forever. Just the way I was, I am and, I suspect, will always be. Cary Grant is allowed a dark unsmiling romantic hero and Ingrid Bergman lowers her strength to become a woman in love and in jeopardy but unwilling to appear as a victim. This gem of a film can be seen again and again without ever becoming tired or obvious. I'm sure you guessed it by now, this is one of my favorite films of all time.
As a young woman, back in the "olden days" days before video, DVD and TCM, I was always fascinated by this film, though it came and went on more obscure T.V. channels, with no clue of when it would return. Notorious has everything...inimitable Hitchcock moments, mystery, suspense, personal drama, high romance, passion, great character development, international espionage, nuanced acting, a visually stunning foreign locale, post-war period mystique, patriotism, fine supporting cast, a charmingly evil Claude Rains, a most sinister Mme. Konstantin, Grant at his most enigmatic and romantic, and Bergman her most alluring and luminous. As in all great films, it is a spot-on rendering of its own unique story in the ambiance of its own time, but timeless in its portrayal of human character and emotion. Like a handful of others, it is as satisfying a movie experience now as it was 40 years ago...probably more so...whether on first viewing or 40th.
Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is the daughter of a German-American who
has been imprisoned for turning traitor to the U.S. during World War II.
Despondent, she becomes an alcoholic and flits from man to man, until one
day a mysterious government agent named Devlin (Cary Grant) comes to her and
asks for her help. Some old Nazi acquaintances of her father's has taken up
residence in Rio de Janeiro; he needs her help to spy on them. Somewhat
reluctantly, Alicia agrees.
Once in Rio, it takes some time for the couple to be assigned their mission. The trip takes on the character of a honeymoon, and Alicia and Devlin start falling in love. Then their orders do arrive, and Alicia is assigned to infiltrate the house and the bedroom of the Nazi leader, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains).
This movie delivers a very different kind of suspense from Hitchcock's more famous NORTH BY NORTHWEST. There are no strafing runs by malevolent crop-dusters, no cliff-hanging mountain-climbing scenes, no mad footraces. The suspense here relies all on subtleties that get under your skin and chill you much more than the in-your-face antics of Hitchcock's later piece. The popping of champagne corks signals time running out for two spies in the wine cellar; an impassioned lover seeks to kiss the hand of his lady who has a deadly secret concealed in her palm; a victim of poison sees the shadows of the poisoners merge together on the wall. The final scene is the best of all. Who but Hitchcock could imbue the innocent sentence, "I wish to talk to you," with such chilling power?
This is one of Ingrid Bergman's best performances; Alicia is hardly perfect, but brave and lovely. Hitchcock was far ahead of his time in discarding male chauvinist attitudes that elevated a woman's chastity and "ladylike" attributes over her courage and intelligence. When a superior disparages Alicia for the lack of "character" she has shown by following the orders he himself has given her, Devlin sarcastically lashes out: "She may be risking her life, but when it comes to being a *lady,* she doesn't hold a candle to your wife, sir, sitting in Washington playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue." Yet Devlin himself is often unsympathetic and harsh in his treatment of Alicia, and the unfairness of that treatment is sharply highlighted in a manner very sympathetic to her.
Not to be overlooked is Rains' magnificent rendition of Alexander Sebastian, a villainous but human and rather weak man who genuinely loves Alicia. I have never seen Rains better except for his immortal portrayal of Cap. Renault in CASABLANCA. Also superb is Leopoldine Konstantin as Sebastian's domineering, scheming mother.
NOTORIOUS is intense and meticulously crafted, and benefits from the best acting in any Hitchcock movie. While NORTH BY NORTHWEST or THE 39 STEPS might be a better introduction to Hitchcock for people used to the slam-bang action of modern cinema, NOTORIOUS is the best I can recommend for those who have already learned to love Hitchcock's work.
In Alfred Hitchcock's 1946 film, `Notorious', Cary Grant plays T.R. Devlin,
an American agent who employs the assistance of Alicia Huberman, (Ingrid
Bergman) a German expatriate whose father has just been convicted as a
German spy. Devlin brings Alicia to Brazil in hopes to arrange a meeting
with Alex Sebastian (the fantastic Claude Rains); another German spy who
just happens to have a history with Alicia insofar that he was in love with
her. The plan is to get them together so that she can spy on Sebastian and
his colleagues so that the Americans can get a leg up on their mutual
espionage. Of course, love develops between Devlin and Alicia, which
complicates their operation and of course, their lives.
`Notorious', despite adhering to the chaste Hayes Code of the time has some of the steamiest scenes between two actors that I can recall during that era. While the scenes never get beyond the standard close-ups of their kisses, the chemistry is a heavy physical presence. The acting in `Notorious' is top-notch; Grant and Bergman were at their best during this era. Claude Rains, who is a personal favorite of mine, is absolutely fabulous in this film. He gives his character, who should be hateful, a humanistic quality that makes him an even more complicated figure. Screenwriter Ben Hecht and Hitchcock team up for some pretty intense moments in `Notorious', and compliment each others styles and talents wonderfully. There are not many nail-biting moments in `Notorious', but the script is excellent. Coupled with the superior acting and direction, `Notorious' is certainly a Hitchcock film that should not be missed.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Where do some of these "reviewers" come from? Calling Notorious and
Alfred Hitchcock boring and outdated is the height of arrogance. Where
are the obvious fake sets, that the oh great one, "TedG" is referring
to? The mansion? Alicia's Rio apartment? I guess I'm just not in the
same league as they are because I can watch a movie and be entertained
by it. Personally, Notorious (in my uneducated opinion) is perhaps
Hitchcock's most tightly knitted story-ever. There is no unnecessary
scene, no irrelevant dialog, no padding or fluff. Outstanding acting
abounds, intricate camera movements, (the reflection in Alicia's
binoculars at the race track, the long camera shot starting at the top
of the stairs slowly narrowing in and coming to rest on the key Alicia
has secured in her hand, the fragmented images as Alicia realizes she
is being poisoned)angles and shadows carry you along effortlessly.
Bergman, Grant, and Rains, along with a superb supporting cast bring to the screen the ultimate stylish spy vs. spy yarn. Suspense is slowly built up, and then released throughout; Devlin and Alicia snooping in the wine cellar as the sommelier realizes they need more wine for the party, Devlin finding Alicia confined to her room, and trying to rouse her so he can get her away from the evil in the house are but two examples of the suspense that build to the climax of the film.
In a day when we get the likes of Catwoman, American Pie II and Meet The Parents, I'll take the boring and outdated Notorious any day of the week. I'm crazy that way.
Bergman and Grant are the true romantics of cinema. They move throughout
the film as if they were acting naturally toward one another. Hitchcock
puts them both in closeups especially the illuminating Bergman, capturing
the power of the medium.
When Bergman says "Oh, you love me-you love me" in that wonderful close up I have to think to myself, how much I look forward to becoming a film maker. Why can't Hollywood capture moments like these in today's features?
Note how long the kiss lasts as Bergman and Grant move from the balcony to the living room. The lighting and camera positioning are phenomenal. Do not expect the typical Hitchcock here but then again it is hard to say what a typical Hitchcock is. Each of his films contain so many different elements yet, at the same time possess the true signature of an auteur.
Notorious is absolutely one of Hitchcock's best films. The suspense sneaks up on you, and I found myself on the edge of my seat. Cary Grant is in love with Ingrid Bergman, (but who wouldn't be) caught in a triangle of love, deceit and lies. They both shine as the super stars they are in this meticulously filmed masterpiece. Hitchcock's hand is all over this film. And as is usual for the master, he never misses a beat, never puts in a sloppy scene, and sees it all in his mind's eye (and on paper) before committing it to film. This is why he is The Master of his craft. Bergman is at her lovely best, that sometimes smiling, sometimes pouty mouth, that cute nose, and those stupendously beautiful eyes. This film, which I've just seen for the first time (why, oh why, did I wait so long?) is up there, near the top, I have to see it again and again.
One of Hitchcock's most thrilling examinations of psychosexual ambiguity, with the Grant-Bergman relationship veering from an initial meet-cute to genuine (beautifully conveyed) mutual delight to sadistic manipulation - he makes a whore of her and forces the fact again and again into her face, seldom giving an inch until the very end, where his change of heart has a largely tacked on feeling. We first see him from behind, quietly, predatorily watching at one of her drunken parties; they go for a drive and we see his hand poised to grab the wheel even as he pretends to submit himself to her drunken control over the car - it sets the tone, for Grant never relents on his desire to possess her, and reacts all too like a spurned lover to events, belittling her love even as she continually reasserts it; the callousness with which he distances himself from her after learning of her assignment is breathtaking. The main plot can hardly match the complexity of the central relationship, even though it's an excellently constructed yarn, with the fine set pieces of the party and the ultimate escape, which is essentially a battle between Rains and Grant for possession of the weakened Bergman - a finale which emphasizes how she's always been a prisoner, of her father's myth, of the male system, of her own emotions.
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