Notoriety is this story’s ammunition and its unstable commodity. The bad reputation of a Nazi’s daughter makes excellent cover as she spies for Uncle Sam and infiltrates a nest of Hitlerites in 1946 Rio plotting to restore the Reich – and her bad reputation as a recklessly unhappy drunk makes her even more plausible in this undercover role. But when things turn sour, the symptoms of a hangover are dangerously close to those of poisoning. Screenwriter Ben Hecht and director Alfred Hitchcock created a brilliantly crafted, and deliciously entertaining story of espionage, spousal abuse, and toughly self-reliant romantic guys who mask their hurt feelings with cynicism: and Ingrid Bergman’s outstanding performance has something of her personae in Casablanca and Gaslight.
Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, a German-born naturalised American in Miami whose family name has been disgraced by her father being convicted on a charge of spying for Nazi Germany. Cary Grant plays Devlin, an American intelligence agent who coolly recruits Alicia at a boozy party to work for the United States government because he knows something no-one else does: how much she detested her father and his fascism, and how much she loves her adopted country. He spirits her to Rio de Janeiro (interestingly, the Christ the Redeemer statue is not shown in any establishing shot) where her mission is to gain admission to a noisome coterie of ruthless Far Right sympathisers and their prominent social leader, French émigré Alexander Sebastian, an impulsive, highly-strung figure wonderfully played by Claude Rains.
But just as Devlin is beginning to fall in love with the courageous and beautiful Alicia and she with him, he is astonished to learn that Alicia had some romantic history with this Sebastian before the war, and may have coquettishly toyed with his infatuation (she talks sheepishly to Sebastian of having been “a brat”). And so when Sebastian falls head-over-heels with Alicia all over again, and proposes marriage, broken-hearted Devlin icily agrees that it is an excellent plan. But the one person who sees through Alicia from the beginning is Sebastian’s formidable mother, played by the Austrian stage and silent-cinema veteran Leopoldine Konstantin (who was in fact only three years older than Rains).
There is something addictively fascinating about poor Alicia – in love with Devlin and deeply hurt by his proud ostentatious indifference – patriotically sacrificing herself to Rains in the marriage bed. For romantic movies of this era, it is sometimes amusing to guess if the romantic protagonists are supposed to have had sex yet. Should we assume that despite the passionate kiss Devlin and Alicia share before the Sebastian revelation, and despite the blissful domestic intimacy of their plans to eat a home-cooked chicken, they have not yet been to bed? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. But the solemn-faced Alicia’s return from honeymoon with Sebastian signals as clearly as you could wish that she now has had sexual relations with the unpleasant Sebastian, that whatever her secret anguish, she has put up a good enough show to satisfy this now very complacent-looking husband. She is a grownup, a survivor.
The comedies of remarriage popular at about this time are often supposed to be structured in such a way that audiences could get the frisson of a woman’s feelings for two different men, without outraging social norms. The ordeal of Ingrid Bergman in Notorious does something similar: it presents us with the fact of Alicia’s conjugal submission to Sebastian (and Sebastian is not a bad-looking man) while being wretchedly in love with Devlin. It is pure romantic inspiration when Alicia helps Devlin downstairs at a party to investigate what Sebastian is keeping in his wine cellar, they are discovered by him and Devlin impulsively kisses Alicia – to make it look simply like forbidden love, which of course is exactly what it is.
The touches that Hitchcock contrives are delectable. As Alicia secretly has the key to the wine-cellar clenched in her fist, the besotted Sebastian kisses first her empty open hand and is about to kiss the other when Alicia has to improvise a sudden romantic gesture. It is a superb twist of tension when Devlin gives her some devastating news when they are on the plane to Rio. And as Sebastian’s eagle-eyed mama, always resenting Alicia’s new position as mistress of the house, Konstantin makes every one of her scenes count: such as her long walk to the camera when she is first introduced to Alicia, and later, in an outstanding black-comic set-piece, when she sits up in bed and thoughtfully lights a cigarette on hearing bad news from her shamefaced son. She is a triangulation of Mrs Danvers in Rebecca and Mrs Bates in Psycho.
Just four years after this movie, Bergman really did become notorious – a silly, spiteful, faintly xenophobic disapproval we can hardly imagine now – for her relationship with the married Roberto Rossellini, a press-led controversy which effectively exiled her back to Europe for a while, and Notorious was one of the last movies in her glorious Hollywood studio era. She is magnificent in this lethally elegant, stylish and grippingly well-told thriller.