Notorious (1946)

Notorious is one of my favorite love stories put onto screen. It’s an odd choice. The film isn’t grand or sweeping, the story doesn’t always feel like it’s interested in whether or not the two leads get together, in fact, it seem sometimes they aren’t particularly interested in getting together either. The film might not even have a single traditional romantic gesture in the entire film.

This is because Notorious avoids the clichés that riddle so many of fiction’s romance. George Devlin (Cary Grant) and Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) are two people with a bleak outlook on the world. Devlin is a no-nonsense federal agent. Alicia is hell-bent on destruction after her father is convicted of treason against the United States. While other characters might break their harden shells or speak of newly discovered feelings, the romance between Devlin and Alicia is biting and sadistic.

Both characters cover themselves in the sandpaper of cynicism; they mock the idea of feeling even as it overwhelms their hearts. Alicia calls love songs hooey and mocks Devlin when she thinks he is falling for her, Devlin runs down Alicia as a tramp, convincing himself it’s dirty old lust, not love, he feels.  As the two lash back and forth with words, the wear each other down, bit by bit.

The performances by Grant and Bergman show what they cannot say. The newfound hope love brings, the fear of losing it, the even greater fear of expressing it all haunt their eyes. They can’t speak of it, to say it might lower their guard before it all comes crashing down around them. By not speaking of it, they begin to watch it slip away, even going so far to proactively push along the degradation of their relationship.

Devlin initially picks up Alicia to go undercover for his agency. Later he learns she must get into the good graces of a family friend, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), in order to learn about secret German operation in Rio. While this is the narrative catalyst that begins bringing them apart, they begin lying to one another, pretending that it was all just a game, a dream, a whim that passed as soon as it came.

Their love is like a drug, slowly killing them the longer it festers, both when together and apart. Deep down inside both of them is the feeling that they aren’t deserving of the love, they can’t simply accept it because it would break them and shatter their façade. The cliché of can’t live with them, can’t live without them has never been as apt.

Beyond the love story is one of Hitchcock’s most understated works. While he’s great at building suspense, it’s often through more direct means. Here he lets the suspense burn slowly, easing it up bit by bit. It’s nagging at the back of the audience’s mind instead of squeezing at them. The final sequence is almost deceptively nonchalant, but reaches a fever pitch of suspense with magnificent framing and sublimely paced.

Some people talk about the brilliance of Hitchcock as a director who deliberately leveraged what isn’t seen in order to spark the imaginations of the audience. In Notorious, what remains important is what isn’t said. By the end, the audience knows the tough words an illusion to hide the deeply broken and desperately in love people underneath.

© 2013 James Blake Ewing

  • Was lucky enough to hear Guillermo del Toro do a long discussion of this film (flanked around the first time I ever watched it!). He referred to the final shot as the second-most violent end of a film, right after the similar shot that ends The Godfather. I’m smitten with the tension that permitted that party scene – both in the hand-off of the key, the breaking of the bottle, and the cover-up that hopes the master of the house won’t realize what’s afoot.

    Great post good sir – insightful as always.

    • James Blake Ewing

      That’s a great way to experience Notorious for the first time. I do see a bit of Hitchcock in some of del Toro’s work, especially his macabre sense of humor.

  • James, this is my 1a to North by Northwest as my favorite Hitchcock movie. My appreciation grows each time that I see it. Hitchcock is so reserved in much of the film but delivers so much in the key sequences. Grant and Bergman are so good, and your review captures what’s so fascinating about their love story.

    • James Blake Ewing

      North by Northwest is one of his films I’m finding more and more people have as their favorite. It’s a fantastic film, for sure. Also another Cary Grant lead. Hard to go wrong with Cary Grant.