Friday, December 17, 2021

Notorious (1946), Hitchcock Friday #8

Notorious is one of Hitchcock’s most admired movies. I have of course seen it before, more than once, but not for at least twenty years. It comes in the middle of what I personally consider to be the low point of Hitchcock’s career, his 1940s Hollywood movies.

Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is an American but her father is German and he’s a convicted Nazi spy. The US Government persuades her (by means of emotional blackmail and the implied threat of actual blackmail) to work for them to infiltrate a group of Germans in Brazil. She is recruited by an American spy, Devlin (Cary Grant).

Alicia is a Bad Girl. She is a notorious woman. She drinks and she possibly sleeps with men, which is about as wicked as anyone could imagine in the 1940s. Her job is to get herself into the good graces of a certain Alex Sebastian who is assumed to be the key figure in the evil Nazi plot. Her assignment is to become Alex’s mistress but of course the audience can’t be told anything so shocking. It is however perfectly obvious that that is the plan. That of course is exactly what female spies did - they used sex in order to gain information or to set someone up for blackmail. Female spies were used as honey traps. The US intelligence agency that came up with this particular scheme assumes that Alicia, being an immoral woman, won’t object.

Before she sets out for Brazil romance blossoms between Alicia and Devlin although it’s complicated by the fact that he has no real respect for her because she’s an immoral woman.

She has few problems getting Alex Sebastian interested in her. They knew each other several years later and he’d been in love with her then. In fact he has never really stopped loving her.

What those Nazis in Brazil are up to is of course of no importance whatsoever. There’s some secret plot but it’s just a McGuffin. Hitchcock as usual is interested in the visual possibilities offered by the thin plot, in creating effective suspense and in exploring themes that always interested him - in this case love, suspicion and betrayal. There has never been a director quite so indifferent to plot as Alfred Hitchcock.

The CIA did not exist in 1946 and we’re never told the name of the US intelligence agency for which Devlin works. For convenience I’ll refer to them as the CIA. It’s strange at first that the Nazis are the bad guys, considering that the war was over and the Nazis were totally defeated. But in 1946 the Soviets were still counted among the Good Guys. So even though it makes little sense in 1946 the Nazis still have to play the role of the Bad Guys. The idea is that there’s a circle of Nazis in Brazil and they’re up to something sinister.

In 1936 Hitchcock had made a remarkably cynical spy movie called Secret Agent. Espionage seemed to fascinate him because it is all about deception. Betrayal is the stock-in-trade of the spy. Notorious, like Secret Agent, is brutally honest about espionage. The good guys are no more trustworthy and no more moral than the bad guys. In Notorious there’s no moral difference between the Nazi conspirators and the CIA. Both treat human beings as pawns in a game, to be sacrificed when they’re no longer useful. Espionage is a dirty game no matter which side is playing it. And if you’re obsessively interested in voyeurism, as Hitchcock was, espionage offers plenty of opportunities.

This is the closest Cary Grant ever got to playing an out-and-out swine. What makes Devlin particularly contemptible is that he really has fallen for Alicia, but he’s still prepared to encourage her to take on such a grubby job, a job which will obviously damage her fragile self-resect even further. It might destroy her psychologically and emotionally. But he’s still happy for her to do the job, and he’s still happy to manipulate her into doing so.

Of course if Devlin had a shred of human decency he wouldn’t be a spy. You get to be a spy by proving that you’re perfectly comfortable with the idea of lying to people, manipulating them and using them. We get the impression that Devlin has never had any problems doing such things.

Any discussion of Hitchcock will inevitably have to deal with the appalling censorship problems he ran into especially during the 1940s. It wasn’t just the Production Code Authority. The studios routinely exercised their own unofficial censorship, vetoing anything that they thought might be even mildly controversial. In the case of Notorious much has been made of the famous love scene in which Hitchcock, being forbidden to have his characters doing anything as disgusting as having a lengthy kiss (which might have permanently scarred the minds of innocent American youth), has them engage in a process of serial kissing. But censorship in Hollywood in the 40s went far beyond such overt content. Movie-makers faced incredible restrictions on the subject matter they cold deal with and the ways in which they dealt with a variety of subjects. These were the days when the assumption was that audience members would be shocked and horrified by any suggestion that married couples had sex.

Hitchcock loathed censorship and usually ended up trying to subvert it by dealing with sexual matters by means of subtle hints. In this case the problem was Alicia’s past. She may have been promiscuous and may even have been a courtesan (we do get the vague impression that the Commodore may be a client rather than an old friend). Hints are dropped about Alicia’s sex life but the hints are too vague. Apparently in the original version of the script she was indeed a prostitute. Obviously that had to be changed in the final version. In the version as filmed it appears that she may have had love affairs.

This was Hollywood in the 40s. You come up with a script that works and makes perfect sense. The Production Code Authority forces you to make drastic changes. You come up with a second version which makes less sense and works less well. The studio forces you to make more drastic changes. You end up with a final script that makes no sense, but the moral watchdogs are happy. In the case of Notorious the end result is that the Devlin-Alicia relationship makes no sense. Had she been a prostitute or a kept woman then we could have bought the idea that Devlin might well feel a mixture of attraction and repulsion towards her. In the movie he does feel a mixture of attraction and repulsion towards her, but his attitude is incomprehensible. The man is a spy, not a Sunday School teacher. He has undoubtedly sexually manipulated plenty of women. That’s what spies do. He’s not the type to be shocked and dismayed that his new lady love is not a virgin. But that’s what we’e expected to believe. In fact, as presented in the final film, Alicia may even be a virgin. Instead of being a man suffering from emotional turmoil he just comes across as unbelievable and nasty.

The Production Code Authority also insisted on the removal of an early scene which made it clear that Alicia was a kept woman. The Production Code Authority didn’t quite succeed in wrecking Notorious but they come very close to it. The emotional dynamic between Alicia and Devlin, which is the core of the film, is fatally weakened and seems phoney.

There’s a scene in which (very daringly for a 1946 Hollywood movie), Alicia tells Devlin that she’s now Alex’s mistress. Even though Devlin knows quite well that this was the entire plan all along he reacts like a spoilt child who’s had a candy bar taken away from him. If he’s in love with her it’s understandable that he’d be upset but he behaves as if Alicia is just a whore. He makes sure she knows how much he despises her. Again it makes no sense. The only people in the movie who are actually trying to make a whore of Alicia are the US Government, and Devlin as their agent.

As a result of the moralistic meddling Alex becomes the only sympathetic male character in the movie. Alicia would be better off with Alex, who treats her with respect and gentleness, rather than Devlin for (for no plausible reason) treats her like dirt.

I don’t think Hitchcock had any interest in the political dimensions of the story. Whether Devlin is on the side of the Good Guys and Alex on the side of the Bad Guys doesn’t matter. It’s the suspicions and the betrayals within the romantic triangle that count. The espionage plot is one of the thinnest and weakest in cinema history. Which suited Hitchcock perfectly. Nobody who has ever watched Notorious has cared about the spy plot.

Hitchcock had little or no interest in politics. If he had had any political agenda then you would expect to see it in his spy films, but his spy films are entirely lacking in political content. Hitchcock was fascinated by the world of espionage because it was all about deception and betrayal. And if you throw a woman into such a world, a world in which lies and betrayal are taken for granted, you have a great opportunity to explore themes of love, loyalty, betrayal, suspicion and deceit. But Hitchcock was interested in these themes at a personal rather than a political level. We certainly get the impression that the US Government agency for which Devlin works has chosen Alicia for this job because they consider her to be a bad woman which means they’re not obliged to bother themselves about her feelings or her safety.

Ingrid Bergman is excellent. Cary Grant’s performance is good but fatally weakened by the script changes which make him appear to be merely a bully and a prig rather than a man grappling with emotional turmoil.

Notorious is another typical 1940s Hitchcock movie, a potentially very great movie sabotaged by the censors. It’s still a very very good movie, but again instead of the raw Scotch that it should have been we get the Scotch heavily watered down. It’s still a great movie but, thanks to the Production Code Authority, it’s a flawed one. When you find yourself hoping that the hero will get killed at the end but that the villain will survive you have a serious problem. Notorious approaches greatness but doesn’t quite achieve it. It’s still highly recommended.


  1. The ending is about the only thing I remember about this - Claude Rains was as so often perfectly cast. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever seen the whole film in one sitting.

  2. Testing to see if I can get through.

  3. Well, it looks like my comments have been blocked. I sent one six days ago and again. Why?

    1. Your comments haven't been blocked. I've just been a bit slack approving comments. Things have been a bit hectic here.

      I have to approve all comments because otherwise I get so much spam.

      Your comments are always excellent.

    2. Dfordoom, did my comments on NOTORIOUS ever get through. I sent them on December 19, 2021?

    3. Dfordoom, did my comments on NOTORIOUS ever get through.

      No. They're not stuck in the moderation queue. All your comments that were awaiting moderation have been approved and have appeared. I can't find any comment of yours on Notorious. I checked to make sure they hadn't ended up in the spam folder and they're not there either. I don't know what happened to them.

      I've now removed comment moderation so from now on all your comments should just appear immediately.

      I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Notorious, a movie that really is an interesting subject for discussion.