“You don’t think a woman can change?”

Notorious (1946)

Airing 6:15AM EST

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most masterful American films, 1946’s Notorious, starring Hitch favorites Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, is sexy, noir-ish romantic suspense at its very best. Not for nothing was Hitchcock one of the greatest directors of all time: in this film, he combines tight camerawork, compelling narrative, excellent characterization, and gorgeous cinematography into something truly special.

Grant plays Devlin, an American government agent who convinces Alicia Huberman (Bergman), a patriotic US citizen and the daughter of a convicted Nazi, to befriend and ultimately betray her father’s former compatriots, who have established a stronghold in South America. Devlin and Alicia travel to Brazil and she captures the attention of her former beau, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), who falls madly in love with Alicia and proposes. Though Alicia has fallen in love with Devlin, his studied indifference, which disguises his true feelings for her, infuriates Alicia, and she accepts Sebastian’s proposal. As she becomes ensconced in her new life as Sebastian’s wife/Devlin’s spy, she discovers unsettling details about her husband’s illegal activities, and Alicia begins to fear (rightfully) that she will become a victim of his machinations.

The screen almost lights on fire when Grant and Bergman engage in the infamous kissing scene, in which a string of embraces are edited together seamlessly in order to skirt around the Production Code’s restrictions. These two are absolutely beautiful together, despite the fact that these characters really should run far, far away from one another. These two characters virtually define the term “impossible relationship.”

Hitchcock plays with the audience’s emotions like no other director in classic Hollywood. Grant, the obvious hero of the movie, is nonetheless (for lack of a better term) an asshole. Devlin’s treatment of Alicia, whom he initially considers a wasteful dilettante, is hard to watch; as he berates her, disdain dripping from his features, you begin to wonder why Alicia feels the way she does about him. He all but calls her a whore! Even their moments of passion seem disingenuous; Devlin is quick to believe the worst of his young lover, ultimately pushing her into a dangerous marriage. Sebastian, on the other hand, is most decidedly the bad guy, yet his obvious adoration of Alicia is heartwarming and believable, and Hitchcock breeds a feeling of sympathy for the Nazi as he is shattered by the realization of his wife’s betrayal. Even in the end, having seen the lengths to which Sebastian is willing to go to protect himself and his mission, we still feel a sense of sadness about his fate. Twisted, no?

Rains brilliantly portrays the conflicted Sebastian, and Grant, who is much better known for his performances in jovial comedies, again reveals the darkness that only Hitchcock could convincingly pull out of him (as previously shown in 1941’s Suspicion, and later revisited in 1955’s To Catch a Thief and 1959’s North by Northwest). And Sebastian is not the lone villain in this film; his mother, Anna, played by Madame Konstantin, elicits shivers with every appearance. She rivals Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers as one of the most chillingly evil female presences to ever grace the movie screen. And Sebastian’s circle of Nazi baddies, quick to eliminate even one of their own in order to protect their interests, are a frightening bunch.

But the film truly belongs to Bergman, and it ranks as one of her best. Luminous as always, she is perfectly cast as Alicia; she straddles the line between heroine and victim adeptly, and the scene in which she conceals a key in her hand, ready to steal into the cellar to discover her husband’s misdeeds (featuring the classic, amazing tracking shot from the top of the staircase to focus tightly on her clenched fist), is one of the best in the film, as she masterfully slides between fright and self-assuredness.

This film continues Hitchcock’s tradition of the MacGuffin, the inconsequential item that drives the plot. In this case, the MacGuffin, the uranium that the Nazis are mining in order to create weapons, does not ultimately matter; as viewers, we don’t particularly care about the uranium or the plot, so invested are we in Alicia’s plight and Sebastian’s fate. The use of uranium as a plot device, however, created issues for Hitchcock; he claimed that the FBI had him followed for months after researching the feasibility of using the element as a driving force in the film, as uranium was used in the creation of the atomic bomb (which was dropped on Japan the same year the movie was filmed).

Side note: for those interested, Hitchcock’s cameo comes one hour into the film, as a guest at the pivotal party in the Sebastian home.

If you’ve never seen this film, it’s time to fix that. Don’t miss this excellent thriller!

Oscar checklist:

Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Rains), Best Screenplay

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