' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Notorious (1946)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Notorious (1946)

Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) and Devlin (Cary Grant), two American government agents working undercover in Rio in the wake of WWII, are at a racetrack, out in the open, exchanging information. Thus, to avoid arousing suspicion they affect the manner of a smiley jovial lovebirds. And their plastered-on grins stand in hilariously stark contrast to a conversation that quickly devolves from secret agent X’s and O’s into Alicia's job-required philanderings. They are, in other words, the evocation of any couple faking a perfect life for the sake of the public.


In seeing and attempting to process David Fincher's ballyhooed "Gone Girl", a film very much about the, shall we say, disaffection of marital unions, I kept returning to "Notorious", my favorite film from the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. It is not unlike so many of his works, an elegantly, elaborately crafted political thriller involving Nazis, MacGuffins and his requisite cameo. Yet its suspense, which is as genuine as it is diabolical, is manufactured less from its traditional thriller elements than a love triangle so sophisticated and cruel in its intention and execution that it belies said term. The espionage of "Notorious" is less of the governmental variety than the romantic.

The film opens with Alicia's father is convicted in a Miami courtroom of being a Nazi spy. She promptly throws a party as a means to get drunkenly obliterated and this sequence is conveyed in a single shot, the camera positioned in back of Devlin's rakish head. As such, we can't see his expression as he watches Alicia make a fool of herself, we can only see Alicia's expression in attempting to size up this mystery man. Who is he? Why is he here? She doesn't even seem to know him, yet throws herself at him anyway, and he obliges. It's painful to watch, her neediness frightfully palpable and augmented by her intoxication, and Devlin proceeds to prey on that very neediness.

He and his superiors are attempting to infiltrate a ring of Nazi expats in Brazil headed up by Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), who long ago loved Alicia, and still does. Thus, she is called upon to enter a relationship with their target, using his affection for her against him, the ultimate betrayal of loving trust, and that relationship begets marriage.

The plot, however, thickens, as it must, when Alicia falls for Devlin. Does he fall for her? Yes, if not exactly. He's "in love," to quote Alicia, "with a no good gal", with "some little drunk...who isn't even worth wasting words on." That's how she sees herself and that's how he sees her, wanting her to be a Madonna, yet convinced she's a whore, even if she exists, truthfully, between those extremes. So when Devlin is ordered to order her into another man's bed, he promptly becomes enraged at her, and even if he's the one ordering her to do it, she does it not so much out of duty bound obligation, but as a way to exact some sort of twisted romantic retribution on him and emotional flagellation on herself. Ah, love - ain't it grand?


The trickiest and perhaps most brilliant aspect of "Notorious" is how Sebastian, the Nazi, emerges as more deserving of sympathy than Devlin. His love for Alicia is pure. Devlin's is not, driven by jealousy and his own emotional failings. One of the film's curious details is Devlin letting himself be seen with his operative in front of Sebastian. Admittedly my formal training in government undercover tactics is strictly cinematic, but it seems somewhat odd for the handler to present himself with his charge in front of the target. This, of course, matters not, specifically because Devlin vs. Sebastian is not Spy vs. Spy but Suitor vs. Suitor.

The elongated party sequence that finds Alicia taking her husband's key to get into the off-limits wine cellar to find a fake bottle of vino that contains uranium, or some such plot-advancing nonsense, comes across not like action-adventure derring-do but a man and woman trying to get away with infidelity. And in the moment they are about to be caught red-handed, Devlin forces Alicia to kiss him, meaning they are caught......red-handed. It's an ingenious ruse, of course, to obfuscate what they were really doing. Except that in spite of what they were really doing, what Devlin is actually doing is attempting to score points in a devious contest for Alicia's affection.

The spy story is summed up when Sebastian learns the truth and covertly feeds his bride arsenic. Ostensibly this is because her true identity will compromise his Nationalsozialismus, but much more than that he is a mere embittered husband exacting relationship revenge. If I can't have her, he won't have her - he being Devlin, except that Devlin will have her, because he shows up to rescue her in the nick of time. And as he escorts her down the staircase in that unforgettable concluding sequence, he seems less knight in figurative shining armor than Will Hunting telling Ponytail Guy "How do you like them apples?"

Sebastian is then summoned by his evildoing cohorts to meet his doom, though funnily enough, I suspect that even as she makes her "escape", Alicia is on the way to her doom too.

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