Why “Notorious” (1946) is still fresh
21 October 2012
On the surface of things, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious seems about as retrograde as it gets. Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) is the titular “notorious” one — notorious, that is, for her history of sexual looseness. Never mind that she and secret agent Devlin (Cary Grant) fall in love. In fact, the film’s central problem is her sexual past — will it keep them apart?
A hoary tale? Yes. So how does this film manage to be so perfect?
Dev has pursued Alicia for professional reasons: because her father was a prominent Nazi, tried and imprisoned for his crimes. Knowing that she rejects her father’s beliefs, Dev sees her — at first, anyway — as a perfect potential agent to rout out other Nazis.
But when they head down to Rio to wait for their assignment, the intervening weeks allow them to spend a lot of time together. Sure as the sun will rise, they fall for one another. In the sun-baked Brazilian landscape, they enjoy a blissful honeymoon-like affair. Alicia is uninhibited with her expressions of love.
No one who has ever watched their kissing scene at the telephone will forget it — a scene for which Hitchcock had to walk a fine line. Hollywood’s Hays Code censors stipulated that no onscreen kiss be longer than 3 seconds, so the director had them break their kisses into brief bursts but ultimately choreographed a 3+ minute long take of these two perfectly beautiful human beings embracing, kissing sporadically, nuzzling one another’s necks, murmuring about the evening they’ll spend together. It’s spectacularly sexy, showing yet again the futility of rules seeking to delimit sex onscreen. Just look at how she touches his earlobe, and try to deny this truth.
This scene also introduces a maddening conundrum: Alicia’s open-hearted professions of love vs. Devlin’s restraint. He won’t tell her he loves her. It doesn’t stop her from going all in — but her love and his closed mouth on the subject becomes a barrier in their affair. She’s also open about her prior personal misery, which often led her to drink to excess. But she feels different now, capable of change. Dev listens to her optimism and looks into her glowing face, but remains devastatingly silent.
He gets worse when they finally learn of Alicia’s first assignment as an agent: to flirt with and gain access to the inner circle of a local Nazi transplant, Alex (Claude Rains). Realizing that the CIA wants her because of her loose sexual past makes both of them stop short. Alicia believes she has changed; should she refuse? Does Dev’s refusal to admit he loves her indicate that their relationship is going nowhere? Why won’t he beg her not to participate? Given her disappointments in him, she reluctantly agrees to go undercover, and their relationship comes to a painful halt. Get it? Because he won’t allow that she might have been changed by her love for him, she returns to her old ways of sleeping around and drinking. It’s a classic vicious circle.
So why do I find this film so fresh?
Because I find it impossible to believe Hitchcock’s real goal was to make a problem out of Bergman’s sexuality. Far from it. No one can watch her onscreen — that absolutely guileless woman, so open about her feelings for Dev — and find her problematic. Instead, it’s the shadowy, conflicted Devlin who appears as the real problem. When he meets with his CIA superiors, he makes it clear how troubled he is by their use of her, their assessment of her character. We know early on that he loves her; why can’t he tell her?
Dev’s inability to express his true feelings to her ultimately constitutes a betrayal of their love, especially when the Nazi, smitten as expected with the beautiful and vivacious Alicia, asks her to marry him. Watching Ingrid Bergman’s face register that betrayal is akin to watching her two years earlier in Gaslight (1944) as the young wife driven mad as a result of her husband’s machinations. Her face conveys hurt, lust, and love equally with such transparency that it breaks your heart.
Still, Devlin’s crippled emotions forward the plot usefully into a terrific tale. Equal parts domestic drama (how can she live with Alex and his sinister mother?), thwarted love story (will Dev allow himself to love Alicia again?), and political thriller (just what are Alex and his Nazi cronies up to, anyway?), Notorious never limits itself to any single genre boundary. Watching Alicia and Devlin finagle to get him into Alex’s mysteriously locked wine cellar is riveting on all three levels.
Even more thrilling is what happens when Alex discovers his wife’s perfidy — and what he does about it. The Hitchcock-y second half of the film is so compelling not just because we’re so worried about Alicia, and not just because it’s filmed with such precision and drama, but because Dev must finally make a choice.
That’s why this film still feels so fresh, why it never feels like an outdated, retrograde tale about the importance of female chastity: the real story isn’t about her notoriety, but about Devlin’s inability to be honest with her and with himself. Read this way, the film looks far more subversive of gender and sexual norms of the time.
Would I go so far as to say it’s radically dismissive of those retrograde views about female sexuality? Well, no. It still propels Alicia toward rehabilitation from her old life into a happy monogamous relationship. It’s still titled Notorious, for heaven’s sake. But let’s not be small. This film imagines a happy future for a woman with a rich and varied sexual history, and criticizes a man for refusing to believe in such a thing.
And oh, this film couldn’t be any tighter, or feature three more compelling leads in Bergman, Grant, and Rains. Maybe I need to watch it again right now.