Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)

29Apr11

Ingrid Bergman (Alicia Huberman), Cary Grant (Devlin), Claude Rains (Alexander Sebastian). Screenplay by Ben Hecht. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Rating: U. Running time: 101 minutes.

Classical Hollywood is not supposed to do real romance, and it’s as simple as that. I have voiced this opinion many times before, but it’s worth reiterating just how forced, fake and totally underwhelming any love scenes seem to modern eyes that were shot during the 40s and 50s. It’s almost as if being freed from the shackles of the Production Code meant that from the 60s onwards, not only could couples kiss for longer than three seconds on screen and show genuine signs of sexual interest, but men could also for the first time really convey emotion when understandably becoming infatuated with the likes of Ingrid Bergman. Did actors somehow rid themselves through the decades of the stereotypical, rigid aloofness that Bogart epitomised?

This negativity has a positive purpose: to set the scene from which it’s easier to understand just how staggering it is that Notorious, 1946, is somehow an exception. It’s a Hitchcockian noir that’s unconventional enough insofar as it’s set outside of LA and even America, the events instead transpiring in Rio. But add that to a femme fatale which – wait for it – actually has a brain and feelings, and throw in for good measure scenes genuinely suggesting the early days of love, and we’re really onto something that calls to be recognised as special.

Cary Grant still plays a man, Devlin, firmly belonging in 40s American films, more than capable of sternness when he wishes to be, but his weak spots and real wishes seep through so realistically that it’s truly a wonder to see him and Ingrid exchange lines and looks. Their characters may be incapable of being clear to one another, but their desires are all too obvious to us. She wants him to be open in his feelings for her; he tries to look stoic, capable of dealing with their time apart that’s demanded by patriotism: in short, she’s an American with German blood, and is asked to use it to spy and expose secrets. The agreed method is one of seduction, culminating in the deceitful marriage of Alicia to a key German man.

Devlin and Alicia’s relationship – its ups and downs, suspensions and tensions – is conveyed just too well not only for a Hitchcock film, but for any film that tries to grapple with such a story. And this comes to us from a man so often obsessed with making thrillers revolving around crimes, yet that aspect takes a backseat here, merely (albeit perfectly) punctuating the show of emotions which is given centre stage. It plays out gloriously, and with Ingrid and Cary on screen, it has that inevitable dose of pure, unparalleled elegance that only people with the fortune of their great looks can achieve.

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