Devlin (Cary Grant) is a hard-nosed FBI agent who recruits notorious party girl Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) to infiltrate a gang of post-war Nazis engaged in nefarious activities in Rio. Alicia is targeted because she is known and admired by key Nazi, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a former friend of her father's, a convicted traitor who committed suicide. Keen to right her father's wrongs, Alicia soon breaks into the inner sanctum but when Alexander falls obsessively in love with her and asks her to marry him, Alicia is torn between patriotic duty and her growing love for Devlin, which threatens not only to compromise her assignment but places her life in danger.
Review by Keith Lofthouse:
French director Francois Truffaut worshipped Alfred Hitchcock. His interviews with "the master," published in 1962, are recognised as the definitive insight into the film-maker and in it he defines Notorious as "the very quintessence of Hitchcock" and "truly my favourite." More than Rebecca, more than Rear Window and certainly more than Vertigo, Notorious is the one Hitchcock film that commands repeat viewings for its sustained fascination and intrigue and the one that was most ahead of its time.
This complex pastiche of suspense, romance and espionage - and please forgive the spoiler, because the plot is much more than that - hinged on a sample of uranium, concealed in a secret place. No safe haven for the stuff now, we know, but at that time uranium's potential was only whispered about, at the whisperer's peril. In outlining his story in 1944, one year before Hiroshima, Hitchcock told an incredulous producer that uranium is "the thing they're going to make an atom bomb with." He was informed by a writer friend "that scientists were working on a secret project in New Mexico." Innocently, Hitchcock and writer Ben Hecht met with Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dr Robert Millikan and asked him "how big would an atom bomb be." Suddenly nervous (Hitchcock later learned that the FBI kept him under surveillance for three months), Millikan spent an hour debunking the idea as nonsense.
Several producers rejected the script for the same reason and so this was the first film that Hitchcock independently produced. Ingrid Bergman is the "notorious" woman we first see holding court at a cocktail party, extravagantly pouring drinks from a bottle while she flirts tipsily with an uninvited guest, sitting silently in silhouette with his back to the camera. Instantly we sense that the man hasn't willed his presence for the fun of it. When the camera reveals his face, it is Cary Grant and he is decidedly cool to the lush he sees with some contempt before him. "She is first, last and always not a lady," he tells his bosses.
If Grant, who is awkwardly stiff and deadpan even in the romantic clinches, was injudiciously cast (secret agents are hardly undercover when they have movie star looks) then Bergman ("Good times is what I want; and laughs with people I like!") is less so. She is an unconvincing souse, prone to casual affairs and drunk driving, but she is ravishing to look at, with eyes that radiate real love for Grant. In the bonus trailer for Spellbound, made one year earlier, she looks very much different and much less appealing. Upstaging both stars is the Oscar-nominated Claude Rains, Hitchcock's most impressive villain (Clifton Webb declined): a silkily sinister schemer, dominated by his venomous mum who is played with Danvers-like devilry by Madame Leopoldine Konstantin. With a lethal ferment of jealousy and suspicion, Alex keeps a smouldering, ever watchful eye on the woman who so obsesses him that he becomes quite remarkably sympathetic. The tension is electrifying when, finding that his party has run short of champagne, Alex slowly makes his way to the wine cellar where the unwitting snoops Devlin and Alicia have already discovered his terrifying secret…and he theirs: "Mother, I am married to an American agent!"
The film is an absolute treasure trove of Hitchcockian tricks - Alicia awakening from a nauseous swoon; the reflection of a horse race through the lenses of her binoculars and wisps of hair fluttering in the camera as we see an Alicia-eye view of the road from her speeding sports car. But by far the most famous shot is when the camera glides down from the top of a staircase (Hitchcock's ubiquitous staircase) to focus on a crucial key, which Alicia, at her peril, clutches in a clenched fist. Both Bergman and Grant hated the two minute, 20 second series of 16 separate "lippings" that was billed as "the longest kiss in screen history." Actually, the smooch between Jane Wyman and Regis Toomey in 1940's You're In The Army Now, was 45 seconds longer. "I don't think I can do this naturally," Bergman complained, to which the director replied: "All right, if you can't do it naturally, then fake it." Hitchcock, in his traditional cameo, is a party guest.
Published February 5, 2004
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NOTORIOUS: DVD (M)
CAST: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains
DIRECTOR: Alfred Hitchcock
SCRIPT: Ben Hecht
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
PRESENTATION: 4x3 full screen, black & white
SPECIAL FEATURES: Cinema trailers (Spellbound, Rebecca, Notorious), photo gallery, filmography.
DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Kaleidoscope
DVD RELEASE: February 4, 2004