Notorious is a masterclass of suspense, romance and technical craft. Featuring two of the most classic screen presences in Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, their on-screen chemistry plays into Hitch’s thematic obsession with desire. Kickstarting the BFI’s two-month-long retrospective on the Bristolian actor, and the film’s recent 4K restoration, Notorious returns to the big screen where it rightfully belongs.
T. R Devlin, (Cary Grant) is a U.S. spy tracking down Nazis who have fled to Brazil after the end of World War II. When an opportunity arises to infiltrate an infamous spy circle, lead by a high priority target Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), Devlin persuades Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) to fly to Rio to infiltrate the group.
As Alicia gets deeper into her mission, an affection between her and the American Devlin grows. However, in a past life, Sebastian once loved her. Given her situation, she must attempt to suppress her feelings for Devlin in order to get closer to the target. Caught between the two men’s affections, she must carefully operate a web of obsession in enemy surroundings to unearth the truth behind Sebastian’s secretive lifestyle of espionage.
The dynamic that arises in two iconic stars on screen is one of eroticism, tension and ultimately affection. Cast between Rains (who also famously appeared alongside Bergman in Casablanca), Devlin and Alicia’s growing romance feels genuinely exasperating set against the world of spies and secrecy. Still, in the scenes when they openly discuss their feelings, one cannot help but be swept away by the strangeness of their dark romance. Bergman imbues Alicia with a profound sense of melancholy and confusion surrounding her life.
Hitchcock positions the character as an outcast of socialite lifestyle in Miami, as her father was a convicted senior Nazi. Arising as a form of redemption for her previous mistakes in life, Devlin offers her sanctuary from her troubles. Still, the seduction that Alicia must charm Alexander with only creates more tension in her relationship with Devlin. To some, Ilsa in Casablanca is the iconic Bergman performance, yet peeling back the layers of vulnerability and sincerity evident in Notorious reveals a career-high performance.
Thanks to Roy Webb’s woodwind based score and the glamorous Edith Head costumes Bergman wears, the film possesses all the hallmarks of Production Code-era cinema. Subliminally coding the characters’ romantic and sexual desires for one another, the film even works around the sanctions set by the Motion Picture Production Code in not allowing a kissing scene to be longer than three minutes.
One of the most famous Hitchcockian shots, Webb’s score, Head’s costumes Ted Tetzlaff’s cinematography all combine in a key sequence to effortlessly create a tangible sense of anxiety. Swooping down through crowds of well-dressed dinner guests to a set of keys that will unlock Alexander’s private door, Devlin and Alicia are placed right at the centre of this action through Theron Warth’s supremely effortless editing.
Notorious still feels fresh in its cinematic approach. Whether this is Tetzlaff’s flowing camera around the film’s rich interiors or Hitchcock’s famous ability to build suspense out of thin air, Notorious is a phenomenally rich experience whether it is on the first or the hundredth viewing. Hitchcock’s most emotionally nuanced and most adult depiction of relationships feels as vital as ever.