By Lars Trodson
Two details tell you that this is going to be a most dangerous game: She’s wearing zebra stripes — a jungle animal, not to be tamed, a bundle of native intelligence and cunning. She’s both sexual predator and prey. Carnal and without a moral or political compass.
As for him, he has no face when he’s introduced. A beauracrat. He also doesn’t have a first name — why would he need one? He’s a blunt-edged tool. His last name, though, is very close, too close, to something that sounds like the devil. He’s Devlin. Or Dev. And he represents the United States. They both represent the United States.
What, exactly, is going on with Hitchcock’s “Notorious?”
But at what cost? This seems to be the question Hitchcock and his screenwriter Ben Hecht are asking with “Notorious.” Has there ever been a blacker depiction of the morals of a country that was — at that exact moment — bathing in the good will of the almost the entire world?
Viewed almost 70 years after its release, “Notorious” seems so cynical as to negate the idea that the (supposed) good guys win. The story is straightforward: Alicia’s father is convicted for treason, and the United States government (in the persons of Grant and Louis Calhern) recruit Alicia to infiltrate a Nazi ring that is operating out of Brazil. By infiltrate we mean a seduction of one of its members, the foolish Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains). “You land him,” Devlin tells Alicia as he informs her about the job. Alicia is both lost and guilt-ridden — she does not share her father’s anti-American sentiments, so she is the ideal candidate for such a filthy task.
The proof that Devlin is merely using Alicia is evident from the very beginning.
“This is a very strange love affair,” Alicia says during the famous three-minute kissing scene that takes place in her Rio hotel room.
“Why?” Devlin asks.
“Maybe because you don’t love me.”
“When I don’t love you, I’ll let you know.”
“You don’t say anything,” she says.
“Actions speak louder than words,” says Devlin. A nice double entendre for the censors, but also a classic male dodge. He’s kissing her not out of love, but rather to keep her on the hook.
Audiences may in fact have swallowed this bitter pill because it was so beautifully packaged. Everyone is in tuxedos and evening gowns. The setting is South American exotic. Everyone is evaluated by how they look. “He’s a handsome man,” Alicia says of the U.S. agent played by Calhoun. But within his lush frame, Hitchcock was unveiling some deep misanthropy. Everyone is either a target, a dupe, a fool, or simply evil.
Hitchcock and cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff’s camera was so fluid that it masked the swamp that it was actually filming. (Tetzlaff, stunningly, was not even nominated for an Oscar that year despite the fact that there were only two nominees in the black and white and color categories because of temporary changes to Academy rules.)
It could be that the weary audience in 1946, tired of war and chaos and moral ambiguity, simply saw the patina of a love story: two of the most glamorous movie stars of the era were used by Hitchcock to mask one of the nastiest pieces of work he ever put on the screen.
Let’s go back to the beginning. In the first scene, we’re outside a courtroom and an open door allows us to hear the end of John Huberman’s trial. This is a Hitchcock trick — later repeated in another one of his ugliest films, “Frenzy,” (which has a food fetish while “Notorious” has a drink fetish — these films are bookends in Hitchcock’s career). We then see Alicia Huberman besieged by members of the press, and we get a glimpse that the U.S. government is interested in her. The setting is Miami, a hot spot indeed.
We next see Alicia’s apartment and she’s throwing a low-end booze party. It’s populated by drunks and mere acquaintances and Alicia makes it clear that she has no interest in politics, niceties or moral rectitude. She pours the faceless Devlin a drink, and wonders who he is. He’s been invited by another of the nameless guests.
Alicia wakes the next morning, hungover after a blackout, and Devlin makes the first overture. He wants to her to join the American cause. He appeals to her patriotism. In the first indication that this is not a garden variety appeal to buy war bonds, Alicia responds with contempt. She describes patriotism this way: “Waving the flag with one hand and picking pockets with the other. That’s your patriotism.”
Can you imagine a modern film expressing such sentiments if the subject was either the Afghan or Iraq war? What was it about the American psyche that not only accepted this, but paid money to hear it?
But Alicia takes the job, in part because she loves , or thinks she is in love, with Devlin. They arrange a meeting with Sebastian while riding horses — Sebastian and Alicia have “known” each other before — and soon he is courting her. Sebastian soon suspects that it is Devlin that Alicia loves, and, in order to put her loyalty to the ultimate test, he asks her to marry him. Alicia accepts, and she is soon living with Sebastian and his sinister mother. The only regular guests they have in the house, it seems, are other Nazis.
The key to the success of this plan is Alicia’s low social and moral status. Let’s be clear here: America may be in the right, — we won, after all, the last good war — but this movie is saying that if there are damaged people scattered around that we can exploit, then by God we’ll do it. Is this just a hard-boiled reality? Or is it wallowing in the same sort of decrepitude of those you vanquished?
It’s strange how modern reviewers don’t want to face the stark reality of Alicia’s character. Maybe it is difficult to accept Ingrid Bergman in that role. Modern reviewers oddly adopt the language of the 1940s when talking about Alicia’s moral character (just as contemporaneous reviewers did). It’s almost as though these reviewers can’t face the starkness of the movie’s message.
Roger Ebert wrote in 1997:
“All of these sexual arrangements are of course handled with the sort of subtle dialogue and innuendo that Hollywood used to get around the production code. There is never a moment when improper behavior is actually stated or shown, but the film leaves no doubt.”
But it is actually stated. (And as for shown, I'm not sure what Ebert was looking for in a film shot in 1946.)
When she learns that her assignment is to “land” Claude Rains’ character, the Nazi Alexander Sebastian, Alicia says: “Mata Hari. She makes love for the papers.”
“You land him,” says Devlin, to which Alicia responds: “Pretty little job of mine.” But she doesn’t say it with acceptance. Later she says, “Down the drain with Alicia, just where she belongs.” It’s not just self-pity; she thought that Devlin loved her, but she now knows he just needed her for the job.
Unless Ebert wanted naked breasts and simulated coitus, then what do we make of the line that Alicia says, when Devlin once again leaves the decision of whether to accept the job entirely up to Alicia. “Once a tramp, always a tramp.”
But it is in the scene, in Alicia’s hotel room, where Alicia learns the nature of her job, that Hitchcock disguises one of the most cynical lines about America ever uttered in a Hollywood movie. But Hitchcock directs it so cleverly that it almost slips by.
After Alicia learns that she has to “land” Sebastian, and after her utter disgust at the prospect has sunk in, she moves away from Devlin and into the next room. Hitchcock’s camera doesn’t move with her, some distance is achieved, and Alicia comes back into the frame but now she’s seen through a window with a lace curtain. This simple visual is one of the most ubiquitous and universal symbols of American comfort; it’s almost Rockwellian, and Hitchcock or his set designers certainly knew that: looking in through a safe, middle-class home through the curtains is a cue that we’re witnessing a homespun tale. But no. Alicia is pouring herself yet another drink. Her disgust over having been asked to prostitute herself for the greater good is apparent, but she doesn’t — as Devlin damn well knew — have the willpower to say no. So we watch Alicia through that window as she says, “When do I go to work for Uncle Sam?”
That is tough — and heartbreaking. Here is an American-financed film, in the afterglow of World War II, populated by movie stars, directed by one of the iconic and most popular directors of the era, that just said the American government is not above taking a drunk, a depressive — the results of God-knows what kind of abuse — and turn her into a true whore for the cause.
As for it being a love story, Hitchcock provided no evidence that Devlin and Alicia are in love at the end of the picture. There is no denouement showing them living happily ever after, which even by 1946 was Hitchcock’s shorthand for a nice, tidy, happy ending. (Look at “The 39 Steps,” “The Lady Vanishes” or “Spellbound” — with Bergman — all released prior to “Notorious.”) Devlin may be bringing Alicia to safety as he spirits here away from Sebastian’s Nazi lair — but it’s a leap of faith that he takes her to the altar. He’s just rescuing a government agent.
This uncertainty could be a metaphor for how the entire world was feeling. Maybe the war was over, but there was uncertainty everywhere. America was spent; England was battered. The Russians had already annexed the countries its Army had defeated, and was creating the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
William Rothman, author of "Hitchcock–The Murderous Gaze," and who is the Director of the Graduate Program in Film Studies at the University of Miami, got it exactly wrong when he wrote:
Perhaps reviewers such as Rothman are dazzled by the presence of Grant and Bergman, who are each, no doubt, at the peak of their physical beauty. Perhaps they are reading too much into the visual coding of 1940s filmmaking, in which riding off into the sunset was the symbol of a happy ending. But these reviewers are no longer looking at the content of the film.
Devlin strings Alicia along because he needs her — America needs her — and Alicia allows it to happen because at this point in her life even the illusion of love is better than anything she has experienced before. This is, unlike what Rothman and the others say, one of Hitchcock’s unhappiest films, and one of the most realistic about the behavior of human beings and governments. If there is another Hitchcock film that has the same kind of ending, it’s not “North By Northwest,” it’s more like “The Birds.” (How that story was going to play out was anybody’s guess.)
But there is very little love in “Notorious” (unless you count Sebastian’s love for Alicia). The reality is much less rosy: If Alicia has been asked to use sex to win over Sebastian (and help the country), Devlin has been asked to do the same thing with Alicia. Both these sad human beings readily comply in this harshest of all post-war worlds.
This is not Hitchcock at his most stylish; it is Hitchcock at his most misanthropic.
Lars Trodson is the author of two novels, "Eagles Fly Alone" (http://amzn.to/1uRsL0E) and "Tide Turning." (http://amzn.to/1v38X9O)