Originally published August 13, 2015.
Overview: The daughter of a convicted Nazi emissary is enlisted by an American agent to spy on a Nazi cabal in Rio de Janeiro. RKO Radio Pictures; 1946; Not Rated; 101 minutes.
The Spy Who Loved Me: Alfred Hitchcock’s classic espionage story is often cited as the film that marked a shift in the director’s career, a move towards the deeper, more emotionally resonant character work that defined his most popular films. If there was anything “inessential” about Hitchcock’s films preceding 1946, the cast of Notorious made the film an indispensable example of his vision. Perhaps surprising to those who are most familiar with Hitchcock’s thrillers, Notorious is less about shock and awe and more about romance. While Notorious is another example of Hitchcock’s depiction of love as infatuation, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman completely sell the quickness of their romance. It’s a film built on movie love like only Old Hollywood could produce, but look at Bergman and try to deny someone could fall in love with her in an instant.
Notorious’ romance plot borrows more so from romantic comedies than other spy-thrillers of the era. Grant’s polished and serious Agent Devlin makes for a perfect contrast with Bergman’s boozy and sexually loose Alicia Huberman. Devlin’s recruitment of Alicia is established as a meet-cute at a party, one that uses the revelation of Devlin’s government affiliation for comedic effect after Alicia’s drunken insistence that she hates cops and feds. In Brazil, Alicia’s spying on Nazi Alexander Sebastian leads to a faux-romance between the two, one in which Sebastian’s very real feelings for Alicia complicate matters between she and Devlin. The idea of creating a love triangle between a mole, a federal agent, and a Nazi sounds like the makings of farce, but Hitchcock is able to use his knowledge of the genre, along with genuine moments of humor fashioned earlier, to create a natural shift in the film, one that sets up something more serious and passionate.
Mission Impossible: With its romantic focus, the actual thriller aspect of the plot, involving a group of Nazis’ hidden stash of uranium, never becomes quite as fascinating it could have been. Despite being of the same genre, Notorious isn’t North by Northwest, even with its famously tense hidden key scene. But what it lacks in riveting set-pieces and clever plot twists, Notorious is remarkably subdued for a post-WWII film dealing with Nazis and political statuses. Claude Rains’ performance as Alexander Sebastian is wonderfully complex, and it likely remains one of the most sympathetic depictions of a Nazi in film. This isn’t to say that Sebastian is a good guy; he’s a villain like the rest of his party, but he’s never a victim of clichés. There’s no over-the-top accent, mustache-twirling speeches, or outright acts of violence. Sebastian is merely a man trying to survive extermination. He isn’t a wolf but a cockroach. Sebastian’s love for Alicia comes across as completely genuine. He’s more open and honest with his feelings than Devlin ever is. His jealousy over Alicia isn’t different from Devlin’s own jealous nature. In fact, both men display the affection she desires and the ability to damage her, whether it be physically in Sebastian’s case or emotionally in Devlin’s. More so than any mission involving wine bottles filled with uranium or poison tea, Alicia’s most challenging operation is proving to be more capable than the men around her expect her to be. The fate of the world may be under threat, but the stakes of Notorious are firmly situated on what a woman’s reputation is really worth.
True Lies: Notorious is built on status and the lies characters tell each other and themselves in order to maintain it. It’s a distinctly feminist film, far ahead of its time. Devlin’s unwillingness to commit to Alicia because of her background with men sets up the major conflict in the film. Alicia is chosen for the mission because of that very background, and she is unable to change in the way she wants to because of the delicate operation at hand. And Sebastian is openly trusting of Alicia, allowing her to easily infiltrate his small organization because of her background, because he assumes if he can’t conquer a country he can at least conquer her. Hitchcock uses Alicia’s sexuality to the film’s advantage, making the assumptions about it reflect poorly on the men instead of the woman. Both Devlin and Sebastian shape Alicia into the woman they need her to be in order to uphold the idea of who she is and the idea of who they are, as either the morally-rigid serviceman or the charmer in full control. Both men are forced to reexamine themselves by the film’s end, but the change Alicia undergoes is purely a result of her own choice.
Overall: In the end, Devlin and Sebastian are forced to reexamine themselves, but the change Alicia undergoes is purely a result of her own choice, her notorious reputation, both the good and the bad parts, entirely her own.