Let’s get serious with Alfred Hitchcock, uranium, and Nazis plotting in Brazil. Add in the “notorious” daughter of a Nazi spy, a devastatingly handsome FBI agent, and a sophisticated momma’s boy who’s also the nicest villain you’ll ever meet, and you’ve got Notorious (1946).
“Fateful Fascination! Bold Intrigue!” screams the poster, as Ingrid Bergman fondles Cary Grant‘s ear inside a key-shaped bubble, as dear, tiny Claude Rains looks on. They don’t make movie posters like they used to.
This was Ingrid Bergman’s second of three movies with Hitchcock; she had just finished Spellbound (1945) with Gregory Peck, and would star in Under Capricorn (1949) several years later. Notorious was Cary Grant’s second of four Hitchcock movies: Suspicion (1941), To Catch a Thief (1955), and North by Northwest (1959). David O. Selznick, who originally owned the project, wanted Joseph Cotten to play Grant’s role, but after Selznick sold the rights to the film, Hitchcock got Grant. Bergman and Grant would make one more movie together, 1958’s Indiscreet, whose title was perhaps meant to remind audiences of the stars’ great success in this film.
Here’s Bergman, Grant, and Hitchcock on the set:
The movie opens at a very specific time on a very specific day in a very specific place: inside a courtroom as a man is convicted of treason.
His daughter Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) walks numbly out of the courtroom and is accosted by newspapermen with those wonderful cameras. (I always think of the “For British Eyes Only” episode of Arrested Development when a flash bulb goes off in the courtroom, and someone says “Who let a flash bulb camera in here?”)
Anyway, Alicia’s father has been helping the Nazis but he’s been caught. Is she on his side? We don’t know, but we see law enforcement surveilling her house and generally keeping an eye on her.
Ben Hecht (who wrote a thousand wonderful movies, including Spellbound) and Hitchcock were writing the script for this movie in early 1945, and they began shooting in October. The war was ending, true, but it wasn’t even over when they were developing this movie. Nowadays, Nazi spies, Nazis hiding out in South America, and hidden uranium stores are clichés and form the plot of dozens and dozens of movies, but can you imagine going to see Notorious in 1946?
When we next see Alicia she is in an eye-catching sequined zebra stripe midriff-baring top and long white skirt, and she’s on her way to being very drunk with some buddies in her house.
Bergman’s costumes were designed by Edith Head who often worked with Alfred Hitchcock. Shall we take a moment to read into this extraordinary getup?
Yes. At this point in the film, all we know about Alicia is that her father is a traitor, and it looks like she knows how to throw a party and have a good time. She’s not exactly demure or retiring, let’s say that.
The print on her top reminds us of impossible-to-tame zebras who run wild and free. The sequins give it that extra oomph. Her exposed tummy says “Look at me, I’m daring and I don’t do ladylike. Deal with it.”
And her slightly disheveled hair echoes all the above. If we want to go deeper down the rabbit hole, we could suggest that the black and white stripes symbolize the good/evil or pure/sullied sides of Alicia, or even the especially relevant dichotomy of virgin/whore.
If we continue, we might say that the stripes on top represent how she might appear to others, but the all-white, flowy skirt says that underneath she’s actually good (read into that as much as you like).
Compared to the other guests, Alicia’s getup is far more daring, exposed, and interesting, so that tells us something, too. She didn’t cut off the bottom of her shirt to fit in with a fast crowd. Why, compared to Alicia, this drunk, passed out lady looks far more demure!
But maybe zebra stripes were the height of chic, or Edith Head had some nice fabric laying around that she wanted to use. But it’s Hitchcock, so we’re allowed to interpret a bit more than with some other directors. He worked closely with Head on many of his movies to get exactly the right look for his actors, so we can tiptoe into interpretation land without getting too lost.
Hitchcock shows her pouring generous amounts of something from a dark bottle, swilling her own drink, and acting careless and cynical. When a guest tells her he doesn’t need a refill, she answers back, “Don’t be silly! The important drinking hasn’t started yet!” All the while she’s watched by a man who appears as a black silhouette. It’s suspenseful and a bit amusing because that silhouette is Cary Grant, and Hitchcock hides him from us for most of the scene.
Hitchcock’s decision to film Devlin (Grant) from behind also made it easy for Steve Martin to step into the role in his film noir parody Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982). I love this movie. Martin interacts with almost every big actor and steps into loads of famous scenes from classic noirs, all with a hilarious twist. My classmates and I gathered for a screening of Plaid to toast the end of our Film Noir class—pretty perfect.
Here’s a taste of Plaid: Martin supplies the reverse shot of the drink-pouring scene I discussed above.
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid‘s version: In Steve Martin’s version of the scene, Alicia poisons him, and Martin starts to feel very funny…
Dead Men Don’t Wear plaid incorporates another scene from Notorious, so I’ll show you that a little later. As I was preparing this post of course I had to go watch Plaid, too. Highly recommend it. Anyway, back to Hitchock’s movie.
Alicia likes this Devlin man, and she’s wearing a zebra crop top, so she dismisses her other party guests with this great line:
Then she and Devlin flirt and decide to go for a drive. After she refuses a coat, he ties his scarf around her middle so she won’t catch cold. I die. You can watch the scene here.
Then she drives and she’s really drunk (she thinks her hair blowing in her eyes is fog…) She finds out that he’s an FBI agent, and he has to use his spy skills to subdue her when she attacks him. He stays very cool, always.
When next she wakes she’s got a killer hangover. Hitchcock really has fun with hallucinatory special effects in this movie, so get ready. You can watch the scene here.
She feels terrible, and there’s an FBI man in her bedroom. To top it all of, her fake hair attachment has come off. She finds it in her bed and looks adorably confused, as though it’s a furry animal she forgot she owned.
Devlin explains that the FBI wants her to help them with a job down Rio way. She’s got great credentials with the Nazis because of her dad’s treason. At first Alicia scoffs and says she’s no patriot and she just wants to have fun. But Devlin knows that she’s not like her father. He’s got several months of recordings from inside her house to prove it. Creepy! So she agrees to fly to Brazil with him. After he leaves, she notices a scarf tied around her waist…
Off they go to Rio. She flirts and pushes to try to get Devlin to break his icy facade, but he’s pretty stoic. He’s cordial and everything, but he thinks she’s a promiscuous drunk.
In a great moment, though, he breaks a little. She leans over him to look out the airplane window as they fly into Rio, and he loses his calm demeanor to find her so close.
It’s very quick, so quick that the cross-dissolve from the plane to Rio almost overtakes it. But it’s our first indication that he might like her!
Although almost the whole movie takes place in Brazil, the actors never set foot there. Hitchcock liked control, so he preferred shooting in a studio to going on location. A second unit was sent to Rio and Miami to get exterior shots and footage for rear projection (when footage is projected on a screen behind the actors).
There must be something in the air in Rio, because Alicia’s pushy flirting, her constant attempts to prove to Devlin that he does like her, even though she’s unworthy, suddenly work, and cracks appear in his dismissive, cold attitude. She wheedles and acts cute and tries to prove to him that she’s changed. She’s sober and she’s in love with him.
See the rear projection behind the actors? They’re supposed to be in a cafe in Rio, but they’re obviously not. He finally breaks on a hilltop and pulls her in abruptly for their first kiss.
They go to Alicia’s oceanfront apartment, and for the next several minutes, they basically kiss and talk, fondle ear, kiss and talk. I guess once Devlin goes for it he’s all in.
The Production Code‘s rule on kissing was that it couldn’t last for more than three seconds.
Hitchcock got around this rule by having Grant and Bergman lock lips for three seconds, disengage (only slightly!) and then start back in with the kissing. You can watch it here.
So basically this scene is a two and a half minute kiss with a very brief pause every three seconds, with some whispered dialogue thrown in. Alicia professes her love, and Devlin kisses her, etc.
It’s a famous scene, especially the part where they kiss around a telephone, because of Hitchcock’s strategy of getting around the Production Code.
Ingrid Bergman wrote about it in her autobiography My Story:
“A kiss could last three seconds. We just kissed each other and talked, leaned away and kissed each other again. Then the telephone came between us, then we moved to the other side of the telephone. So it was a kiss which opened and closed; but the censors couldn’t and didn’t cut the scene because we never at any point kissed for more than three seconds. We did other things: we nibbled on each other’s ears, and kissed a cheek, so that it looked endless, and became sensational in Hollywood.”
The telephone call Devlin takes while kissing Alicia is a summons to his office–they’ve finally decided on Alicia’s mission! Devlin leaves, she says she’ll cook them dinner, and he promises to return with a bottle of wine. Aww.
But he gets some very bad news from Captain Prescott (Louis Calhern) about Alicia’s mission. They want Alicia to rekindle a relationship she’d had years before with Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), who’s currently living in Rio and deeply involved in a dangerous Nazi plot. They want Alicia to seduce Sebastian, and figure out what is going on in his house.
And poor Devlin brought a bottle of champagne to the meeting, intending to take it to Alicia’s apartment to celebrate their just-declared love.
He’s not happy, but he can’t tell his bosses why he’s not thrilled about the mission. They think it’s a wonderful idea, because surely promiscuous Alicia won’t mind seducing some guy! They act as though she’ll be thrilled about it. Devlin clutches a chair, and looks threatening. “That’s the woman I love, you cads!” he thinks…
But he’s a pro, though he’s upset enough to forget the champagne. He returns to Alicia, and acts cold and distant once more. He tells her the plan, and naturally she’s very hurt.
She hopes he’ll tell that he loves her, that he believes she has changed, and that he can’t stand to see her take this assignment, but he doesn’t. It’s very painful.
Well, off they go to find Sebastian. They engineer a meeting at the Riding Club (the only time Hitchcock and his actors left RKO’s lot; they headed down the road to shoot at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden.)
The scene is full of repressed feelings. Alicia is devastated and thinks Devlin never loved her at all, and that he sees her as a notorious piece of trash, as the FBI seems to. And Devlin has to literally push away the woman he loves into another man’s path. He does it, but he looks bummed.
Alicia and Alex quickly become buddies again. And we can’t blame him for being unable to resist that shimmering side-cap!
The poor man never stood a chance. Notice that Alicia is drinking again, though…
Sebastian is a very nice man who adores Alicia, so he invites her to his house. She puts on a stately white gown, and Devlin and Captain Prescott give her last minute instructions. Devlin gives her the old up and down, too.
Captain Prescott provides a glittering diamond necklace, and now that Alicia is all dolled up, they send her out to seduce Sebastian. The FBI comes off as very unfeeling in this film. They have no problem sending an untrained civilian to seduce someone in a very dangerous situation. They even call Alicia “a woman of that sort” and say they “have no illusions about her character.”
Devlin does stand up for her then with this excellent retort: “Miss Huberman is first, last, and always not a lady. She may be risking her life, but when it comes to being a lady, she doesn’t hold a candle to your wife, sitting in Washington, playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue.” But he doesn’t tell Alicia that, and he acts like all the other men when he’s with her.
If Sebastian is a very nice Nazi, his mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) is absolutely terrifying. She reminds me of Frau Blucher (neigh! thunder!) in Young Frankenstein, but without the humor. Alicia is scared of her, too. This is her expression when she sees her coming down the stairs:
Look at how upset the mother is to see Alex smiling at Alicia! Her son is not supposed to love anyone but her!
Devlin and Alicia meet up at the races. They’re know that being watched by Sebastian and his mother, so they keep things looking light as Alicia reports on the various scientists and Nazis hanging out in Sebastian’s house.
But then things get heavy:
Alicia says that she wanted him to stop her, to tell her he loved her. He said it had to be her choice, and implies that if she had loved him she never would have gone through with it. Feelings are getting hurt all over the place. You can watch it here.
The shots of a terribly distraught-on-the-inside yet calm-on-the-outside Ingrid Bergman are stunning:
Then the bombshell a very short time later:
Sebastian is a romantic sort of man, and he’s fallen hard. Devlin says nothing…
I don’t want to ruin all the suspense for you…There’s a party, some issue with the wine, Hitchcock gets some champagne in his customary cameo, and Alicia wears a medieval looking dress and odd horned hairstyle. Quite different from her zebra days. Devlin’s there, that’s his shadow on the wall.
But before the party, Alicia steals something from her husband’s dresser when he’s in the bathroom.
This is how Steve Martin imagined the scene. He’s been drugged, and he’s shaving his tongue because it feels furry.
Here’s Ingrid Bergman filming the party scene. It’s very intense, with lots of stares and gasps in a cavernous mansion.
This movie is full of interesting and unique shots, the most famous being a swooping maneuver from the top of the grand staircase down into a closeup of a key clutched in Alicia’s hand. You can watch it here. The cinematographer was Ted Tetzlaff, our old friend from Hands Across the Table (1935), My Man Godfrey (1936), Easy Living (1937), and The More the Merrier (1943), among many others.
Eventually uranium enters the plot. Oddly enough, Hecht and Hitchcock added the uranium twist to the script before the atomic bomb was even tested in New Mexico. Hecht and Hitchcock started asking around to learn more about uranium, and the FBI put Hitchcock under surveillance for several weeks because of the uranium plot device and his ill-timed curiosity.
Like the FBI, Claude Rains gets suspicious, and drastic actions are taken. (Something is put in Alicia’s coffee…) You can watch it here.
Fun fact: Rains and Hitchcock were good friends, and apparently Hitchcock teased Rains a lot about his stature relative to the very tall Ingrid Bergman. For shots where Alicia and Alex were standing together, Hitchcock had Rains stand on things, and he devised a system of ramps (unseen by the camera) for shots where the two were walking together. (Similar techniques were used for Charles Boyer in Gaslight (1944).)
Hithcock couldn’t use any tricks (besides the elevator shoes he asked Rains to wear) for this shot of Rains and Bergman walking across the lawn, but notice how Rains suddenly grows when they are stopped:
Some of the ramps must have been on the ground after this static shot, because Rains very gradually shrinks as they move away from the camera.
Rains was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and he does a terrific job of being evil and sympathetic at the same time.
Hitchcock adds his suspenseful flair…
…and Edith Head adds some statement jewelry and a gargantuan engagement ring.
Devlin just thinks that Alicia has a cold or something, so he’s pretty useless:
What will happen next? Will Devlin save Alicia? Will Sebastian finally stand up to his mother? Will another FBI agent fall for Alicia? I shan’t say, but Devlin and Alicia do kiss some more:
Here they are filming that scene with Hitchcock:
It all makes for a great movie. With amazing publicity photos:
Fun fact: Mission Impossible II (2000) used the basic plot (with a virus instead of uranium), and even some scenes and dialogue from Notorious as an homage to the classic film.