Walter Beardsley: Oh, I don't think any of us have any illusions about her character. Have we, Devlin?
Devlin: Not at all, not in the slightest. Miss Huberman is first, last, and always not a lady. She may be risking her life, but when it comes to being a lady, she doesn't hold a candle to your wife, sitting in Washington, playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue.
~from Notorious (1946)
It is said to be among Alfred Hitchcock's finest films. Among movies about fallen women seeking redemption and true love, Notorious is second to none. Ingrid Bergman plays what in 1946 was called "a party girl." Ashamed of discovering that her father is a Nazi, Alicia Huberman gives herself over to drinking and men with such abandon that she becomes "notorious." It always strikes me in the opening scenes that how she carries on would not be a matter of notoriety today, just typical youthful behavior. The love story, however, is of an intensity rarely seen on the modern screen, made more poignant because of Alicia's desire not only for atonement but to make herself worthy of being loved by Devlin.
According to Culturazzi:
Looking at Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography, which spans fifty years and just as many films, Notorious arguably stands as its centerpiece. Filmed in 1946, the movie is filled with what would become known as Hitchcockian themes and trademarks, but does it so subtly that it’s debatable whether he was nervously experimenting with them or injecting them right into the spine of the film in a way they’d remain almost undetected.
Set in 1946, the film opens in Miami where a doctor Huberman is convicted of being a Nazi spy. His daughter Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) leaves the courtroom where she is hounded by the press who inquire about her notorious past involving men, partying and alcohol. At a party, where she tries to drown and drink her sorrows, she is approached by T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant), an American agent, who offers her a job as a spy in Rio de Janeiro.
Perhaps trying to atone for her father’s sins, rectify her former persona or to overcome her guilt she takes on the job and goes to Rio where she ends up falling in love with Devlin while waiting to know the details of her mission.
When these finally come, they put a halt to the blooming romance as Alicia is asked to seduce Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), an old friend of her father who is up to some secret mission in Brazil. Torn apart between love and duty, she ends up choosing the latter giving path to a seductive tale of espionage, imprisoned desire and one of the most entertaining thrillers ever made.
While the screenplay and story, written by Ben Hecht and adapted from short story “The Song of the Dragon” by John Taintor Foote, are fairly straightforward, the wonders of Notorious lie in its symbolism and elegant approach. Every element in the film was obviously thought out for a specific reason, and if they weren’t something has to be made about Hitchcock’s ability to stir up a psychoanalytical storm. In Notorious even inanimate objects seem to be conspiring and be part of a bigger picture.
As the heroine finds herself sinking deeper into a chasm from which she might not escape, the relationships become more complicated. Claude Rains portrays a man whom it is truly hard to hate; even though he is a Nazi, his love for Alicia renders him vulnerable and sympathetic. This is where the master storytelling of Hitchcock's camera conveys every nuance of passion and anguish. As one critic expresses it:
Notorious returned Hitchcock to the world of spies and counterspies. But the film primarily is a study of relationships rather than a straight thriller—which is not to say that there still isn’t a great deal of Hitchcockian suspense. The Bergman character is trying to forget, Grant is cynical, and Rains has a genuine, devoted love for our leading lady. Even when he discovers her treachery, it is his mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) who makes the decision to, shall we say, do away with her.
Francois Truffaut said to Hitchcock in his interview book on the director that “It seems to me that of all your pictures this is the one in which one feels the most perfect correlation between what you are aiming at and what appears on the screen . . . Of all its qualities, the outstanding achievement is perhaps that in Notorious you have at once a maximum of stylization and a maximum of simplicity.”
The stylization is fascinating to watch. Some of Hitchcock’s most famous scenes are in this film: the justly acclaimed crane shot, taking the audience from a wide establishing view of the elaborate formal party into a tight closeup of the crucial key to the wine cellar in Ingrid Bergman’s hand; the brilliantly staged party scene itself, which alternates between thoughtfully conceived point of view shots and graceful, insinuating camera moves; and, of course, the wine cellar sequence, during which Cary and Ingrid discover the incriminating bottle containing not vintage nectar but....
The backdrop of the thriller/romance is elegant and exotic Rio and the lavish mansion of the Sebastian family. Every scene is a work of art and yet the beauty does not detract from the sense of dread at knowing that in the midst of it all are evil people who will stop at nothing to achieve their ends. On the other hand, the "good guys" are willing to sacrifice Alicia and any other seemingly disposable person in order to fulfill the mission at hand. In Notorious, the human cost of cold war is assessed; no one is unscathed.