Thomas Lowery, Contributing Writer
In life there are certain pleasures we simply cannot imagine living without. For me, one of them is Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). While I’ve had an undying love for Hitchcock’s most popular titles, such as Vertigo, Rear Window and North by Northwest, Notorious is the one I cling to most, the one I call perfect. In many circles it is regarded as one of his finest achievements (in his famous 1962 interview with the Master of Suspense, director Francois Truffaut went so far as to call it his favorite Hitchcock film). Yet for the general public it has remained somewhat shrouded by the aforementioned classics. (Perhaps it is because Notorious is in black and white, which might repel most modern viewers.)
On the surface Notorious seems to be a fairly typical espionage thriller: the American daughter of a convicted spy is hired to infiltrate the house of a group of Nazis to spy on clandestine meetings held there. But the movie takes this premise and, rather than expanding it with the expected red herrings, deceits, killings and contrived plot twists, focuses on the psychological and moral complexities of the characters.
What allows Hitchcock to hone in on them so carefully is that the only way the woman, Alicia (played by Ingrid Bergman), is able to insinuate herself into the Nazi organization is by forming a romantic relationship with its leader (played by the incomparable Claude Rains). This ultimately leads to a proposal of marriage and extends Alicia’s inner-tension beyond the fear of just getting caught.
This is where the genius of Notorious lies. Alicia’s initial dilemma produces the movie’s incessant, albeit quiet, suspense. Then Hitchcock raises the suspense up a notch by inserting the complication of Alicia being asked to marry a man she is opposed to, and a truly ethical question is at stake.Further complicating things is that Rains’ character, though he is the villain, is presented as very human and at times even sympathetic.
A thriller with such mighty ideas on its mind is irresistible, but the film’s withstanding appeal also lies in its romantic tension. Coupled with the false romance between Alicia and the Nazi leader is the subtle attraction the American agent in charge of the mission (Cary Grant, in a more subdued role than usual) feels for Alicia as the story progresses. The audience would love to see these two unite, but this would then compromise the mission that brought them together in the first place.
I think this is a perfect film not just because of the complexities that grow naturally out of the simple plot. Consider the perfect casting of Bergman, Rains and Grant, who not only share tremendous chemistry, but arguably give their finest individual performances in this. Or examine how the film is photographed, making grand use of the mansion where most of the film is set, and climaxing in the legendary dinner party tracking shot that is impossible to miss. And, finally, in what might be a deterrent to more impatient viewers, see how Hitchcock creates suspense, not with obnoxious noise or overlong chases, but through simple items like a key and bottles of wine filled with petroleum. See all this and you will understand why Hitchcock is considered the master of his genre.