As Alfred Hitchcock explored film noir further into his career, a distinct darkness would overtake his film’s outwardly wholesome Americana, and shadow would engulf his ill-fated characters. Breaking with the idealistic characters of Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock weaves a tale of deeply troubled people in Notorious. The film blends elements of melodrama, romance, spy thriller, and film noir, allowing it to fit loosely into many genres. Its central story of the relationship between American agent, Devlin, and the “notorious” Alicia Huberman may appear at first to be a simple spy melodrama, but the larger film explores the pain that results from the conflict between love and duty. The espionage activities in the film act as Hitchcock’s “MacGuffin,” his characteristic plot device and pretext for examining more serious issues. In Notorious, Nazi plots and uranium merely provide a means to observe the possibility of love and trust redeeming two lives overwhelmed by fear and guilt.
The story begins in Miami, FL, as the Nazi father of Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is sentenced for treasonous crimes against the United States and commits suicide in his cell. Alicia leads a fast life; she has a string of lovers, and drinks too much. She is approached by an American agent named Devlin (Cary Grant) and he offers her a job as a spy in Brazil, working with Americans under Captain Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern) in an effort to discover the sinister plot being planned by former Nazis connected to Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), one of her father’s old friends. While awaiting the details of Alicia’s assignment in Rio de Janeiro, she and Devlin fall in love. When Devlin is instructed to persuade her to seduce Alex Sebastian, a leading member of the Nazi group, Devlin chooses duty over love, and their relationship ends in a flurry of misunderstanding. To better gather information for American authorities, Alicia marries Sebastian, but eventually, Sebastian and his mother, Madame Anna (Leopoldine Konstantin) discover the enemy in their midst. Wine bottles of uranium and tea laced with poison bring the confrontation between American agents and Nazi conspirators to an unexpectedly early head.
Unlike most typical noir films, the main protagonist in Notorious is a woman. Hitchcock focuses the film on Alicia in a way that distinguishes it from his other female-centric films. Whereas Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in Psycho or even Marnie (Tippi Hedren in Marnie) were highly sexualized objects of desire, Alicia, although quite sexual, stands apart as a wholly independent Hitchcockian female lead. Notably, her story is one of an extremely lonely woman in a world where there are only two types of women: the suffering and insecure, like herself, and the unflinchingly cruel Anna Sebastian. In this world, Alicia is not the cool and calculating femme fatale. Rather, she is very human and demanding of sympathy, as a deeply troubled woman and a victim of her husband and mother-in-law who would rather poison her slowly than reveal her identity. It is immensely evident that Hitchcock based Alicia’s story and character on that of the famous German spy, Mata Hari. Alicia even compares her difficult situation – juggling love and espionage – to that of Mata Hari. On the most basic level, the two women share a reluctant family connection to espionage and are coerced into service by government agencies to use their sexuality as a tool for extracting information from unsuspecting but nonetheless treasonous men. What ultimately drives her to accept the assignment in Rio is truly the weight of her guilt at her father’s treason and her desire to end a destructive pattern of alcoholism.
Guilt and fear are key themes throughout Notorious for Alicia as well as Devlin and Alex Sebastian. Couched in the paranoid post-WWII world, the film astutely illustrates how their lives are governed by loyalties to external organizations: Alicia and Devlin to what is ostensibly the CIA, and Sebastian to the remnants of the Nazi government. Their fears are even further confused when the question of love becomes a factor. Devlin’s aloof and nonchalant behavior toward Alicia’s infiltration of the Sebastian home leads her to, quite logically, conclude that he never truly loved her to begin with but pretended to do so to rope her into the agency. For Alex, his feelings for Alicia are complex, to say the least. We are told that he loved her once before, and now he finds her willing and amiable to his advances. Her ultimate deception does not appear to crush his naïve feelings about their relationship but does pose an extreme problem to his authority within the Nazi organization in Brazil. If his partners discover that Alicia is a spy for the Americans, Alex will certainly be killed. It is with Alex’s precarious and inevitably fatal predicament that Hitchcock chooses to end his film. Alex stands on his mansion steps begging Devlin to take him away, as his dinner guests look on. He is a man quite literally torn between allegiances and desperately desires the lesser of two evils.
As with all Hitchcock films, Notorious is an exercise in suspense. François Truffaut once characterized the film as “the very quintessence of Hitchcock,” and it certainly serves as an example of Hitchcock’s best storytelling. However, Notorious is very atypical in the realm of spy thrillers. The film depicts much less violence than similar spy films, sympathetic villains, and an uncharacteristic proposal and marriage between the spy and her target. In truth, danger and suspense in Notorious are not conveyed through violence; what little there is, Hitchcock relegates to locales off-screen. Implied violence, much like the film’s proclivity to show the audience information not available to its protagonists, builds anticipation and uncertainty. Hitchcock ingeniously uses the camera to create the film’s rising suspense, allowing shots to grow longer and longer, lingering over characters and key objects. The final scenes in Alex’s house capture this mounting tension by cutting between the party and ominous shots of the dwindling number of wine bottles, signaling to the audience that it won’t be long before someone goes down to the wine cellar where Devlin in snooping. These techniques best serve to heighten our emotional involvement in the film. When the central conflict is resolved, we walk away with a truly gratifying experience, having experienced excitement and fear with the characters.
Although steeped in noir, Notorious has a distinctly romantic vein, evident in Hitchcock’s positive ending to a tale of Nazi conspiracy. Alicia and Devlin may have fallen out over a misunderstanding and a devotion to duty, but in the end, Devlin rescues her and the two escape together, seemingly to live a happier life free of intrigue. In this happy denouement, Hitchcock provides an optimistic answer to the film’s central question of whether or not Alicia and Devlin’s relationship can transform their troubled lives for the better. Notorious is a rare romantic thriller whose characters are imbued with such humanity as to transcend a simple spy movie. A more facetious interpretation of the film would see it as Hitchcock’s dark version of what happens when people merrily go “flying down to Rio.”