US (1946) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Hitch must have started getting soppy in his old age (well, 46) as his delivers a film that is actually a love triangle despite what the secret agent premise might suggest. But don’t mistake this sentimentality for weakness – there is still a tense story of intrigue and duplicity that is unravelled in between the displays of passion and seduction.

Notorious concerns Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the American born daughter of a convicted Nazi spy with a bit of a reputation. After a drinks party one night a slightly tipsy Alicia goes for a drive with smooth talking T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant), who reveals himself to be a government agent. Using a recording of Alicia in conversation with her father Devlin encourages Alicia to work for him.

The duo go to Brazil where it is believed a group of Nazis are planning to smuggle some uranium into the US. The group includes Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), a former friend of Alicia’s father who was once in love with Alicia, making her task of seducing Sebastian and infiltrating his inner circle a lot easier. However Alicia and Devlin have fallen in love and the latter is finding it hard to control his jealousy.

While this was a first time meeting for Bergman and Grant, the former is reunited with her Casablanca co-star Claude Rains to make this as close to a dream cast film as Hitchcock would make at this point in his career. Apparently Grant was nearly ousted from the role by original producer David O. Selznick who wanted his contract star Joseph Cotton to have the role instead. Had Selznick got his way this would have been a very different film.

The timing also upset some people as the bombing of Hiroshima had not long taken place when the film was first being developed, and the idea of nuclear materials being a key plot device was seen as a little insensitive and might be rejected by movie goers. Then again this is Hitchcock so if anyone is going to be able to circumvent this, it is him –  and we all know how he likes his McGuffins…

Of the many Hitchcock films I have seen I found this one a little harder to get into. The main plot of Alicia working for Devlin and becoming a spy doesn’t surface until thirty minutes in to the film, giving us just over an hour for the story to unfold. Thankfully Hitch is a master storyteller so we get a decent dose of his usual suspenseful magic in that time. Once they arrive in Rio, both Devlin and Alicia learn the true nature of Alicia’s mission which comes as a bit of a shock to them and pours a proverbial bucket of cold water on their amorous endeavours.

Sebastian is a little apprehensive about meeting Alicia again wondering if she is aware of his feelings towards her but she allays his fears. One person not too happy about this union is Sebastian’s mother Anna (Leopoldine Konstantin), a strict lady who might be considered a distant prototype of sorts for Mrs. Bates. Anna doesn’t outright disapprove of the relationship, especially when Sebastian proposes to Alicia, but she doesn’t necessarily embrace the idea for reasons which become clear later on.

Alicia settles into the role of being Mrs. Sebastian all the while reporting to Devlin, who greets her with a caustic tongue, unable to disguise his jealousy. Sebastian picks up on Devlin’s presence in his wife’s life yet is fooled into thinking that any feelings are unrequited on Devlin’s part. To show willing, Devlin is invited to a party which he has Alicia arrange so he can investigate the wine cellar which Sebastian keeps locked from his wife.

This is where Hitchcock flexes his muscles as a simple error by Devlin leads to potential disaster for the mission and for Alicia. The ante is upped and the dirty tricks begin in earnest executed in a cold and deliberate fashion that exposes more than just the secret affiliations of the major players. Rather interestingly, the ending is left open and not the usual definite conclusion Hitch gives us. We know – or at least we have a fair idea – what might happen once that door closes in the final shot, which leaves us with a number of chilling  possibilities.

One common trait of Hitchcock’s films is that many of his main characters are rather flawed, muddying the waters of where the audience sympathy lies. Devlin for example is the de facto best prospect for Alicia but his jealousy and high standards instead dampen his cause. Cary Grant is an interesting choice for the role as he is required to be terse and unpleasant. His distinctive suave voice is disguised by a gruff “tough guy” rasp which doesn’t suit him, but Grant – ever the pro – pulls it off.

His chemistry with Ingrid Bergman is rather electric in key scenes, most notably the famous “two minute kiss” in which Hitch sticks two fingers up at the Hayes code rule of three second kisses by having the pair smooch every three seconds. It’s simple, chaste yet a powerfully erotic single take shot. Bergman comes into her own once the mission begins and dominates the final act with a beguiling and charismatic performance.

Finally Claude Rains is tasked with creating the most ambiguous character in Sebastian, a man whose layers are gradually peeled away, revealing perhaps a man who is possibly more victim than antagonist. Rains essays Sebastian with consistency, despite the situations controlling his destiny rather than anything the character does. Rains also makes a good team with German legend Leopoldine Konstantin in her only US role as Anna.

Perhaps not Hitchcock’s most immediate work for this writer, Notorious eventually grows into a well crafted, taut thriller with a rare romantic framework. Its driven by the chemistry of the three legendary leads, held together by Hitch’s masterful direction.