Thursday, September 10, 2020

Notorious (1946)

August 15, 1946 (New York City premiere), September 6, 1946 (United States), release dates
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay by Ben Hecht
Music by Roy Webb
Edited by Theron Warth
Cinematography by Ted Tetzlaff

Cary Grant as T. R. Devlin
Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman
Claude Rains as Alexander Sebastian
Madame Leopoldine Konstantin as Madame Anna Sebastian
Louis Calhern as Captain Paul Prescott, U.S. Secret Service officer
Moroni Olsen as Walter Beardsley, U.S. Secret Service officer
Ricardo Costa as Dr. Julio Barbosa
Reinhold Schünzel as Dr. Anderson, a Nazi conspirator
Ivan Triesault as Eric Mathis, a Nazi conspirator
Eberhard Krumschmidt as Emil Hupka, a Nazi conspirator
Alexis Minotis (billed as Alex Minotis) as Joseph, Sebastian's butler
Wally Brown as Mr. Hopkins
Sir Charles Mendl as Commodore
Fay Baker as Ethel

Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures Inc.
Produced by RKO Radio Pictures Inc.

Writing about Notorious is a rather daunting task, especially because it can go in so many categories, and I may be the only one who calls it film noir. It’s a classic film; an espionage film; and, of course, a Hitchcock film. Many have already written about it, and even more have already seen it. My copy of the DVD came with two commentaries from two film historians: Rick Jewell and Drew Casper. Notorious is also a very romantic story for a film noir, and I think personal commitment in romance may be its most important theme.

(This blog post about Notorious contains all the spoilers. But honestly, everyone has seen it at least once, right?)

Notorious starts in Miami, Florida, on April 24, 1946, in a federal courthouse. Someone named John Huberman is found guilty of treason and sentenced to prison for twenty years. His daughter Alicia leaves the courtroom hounded by reporters and followed by a detective. It isn’t long before Alicia hosts a party; she already has a reputation for drinking and her relationships with men. That is why Devlin shows up at the party, but he doesn’t have partying in mind. He has a recorded conversation of Alicia threatening to turn in her father when he tries to convince her to join him in helping Nazi officials. Devlin talks about I.G. Farben Industries, which is in Brazil and has been there since before World War II. Devlin and his department are cooperating with the Brazilian government to smoke them out. In spite of her anger toward all cops at every level and the fact that Devlin is a federal agent, Alicia softens toward him. He convinces her to join him in Brazil.

Alex Sebastian, one of the Nazi collaborators working in Brazil, was once in love with Alicia. She’s perfect for the assignment, according to Devlin’s boss Paul Prescott, because she can use her influence and her experience with men to infiltrate Sebastian’s group of spies. Before Devlin and Alicia learn about her undercover assignment, they fall in love. At a meeting between Devlin, Prescott, and one other agent, Devlin is crushed to learn what they have in mind for Alicia, but he doesn’t protest very strongly because this espionage work is still his job. Prescott begins to suspect something between Devlin and Alicia when Devlin leaves behind the bottle of champagne he was supposed to bring to Alicia’s for dinner. The close-up shot of Devlin’s bottle of champagne foreshadows the Nazis’ wine bottle cover-up that Alicia discovers later in the film.

After the meeting with his boss and the fellow agent, Devlin goes straight to Alicia’s. She is already making dinner and expecting the attention of Devlin, her lover; instead, she gets Devlin, the professional agent, bringing her the details of her undercover assignment. Here is part of their conversation:
Alicia: “Mata Hari. She makes love for the papers.”
Devlin: “There are no papers. You land him [Alex Sebastian]. Find out what’s going on inside his house, what the group around him is up to, and report to us.”
Alicia: “I suppose you knew about this pretty little job of mine all the time.”
Devlin: “No, I only just found out about it.”
Alicia: “Did you say anything? [Devlin did.] I mean, that maybe I wasn’t the girl for such shenanigans.”
Devlin: “I figured that was up to you, if you’d care to back out.”
Alicia: “I suppose you told them Alicia Huberman will have this Sebastian eating out of her hand in a couple of weeks. She’s good at that. Always was.”
Devlin: “I didn’t say anything.” [He protested a little.]
Alicia: “Not a word for that little lovesick lady you left an hour ago?”
Devlin: “I told you, that’s the assignment.”
Alicia: “Well, now, don’t get sore, Dev. I’m only fishing for a little birdcall from my dream man. One little remark, such as ‘How dare you gentlemen suggest that Alicia Huberman, the new Miss Huberman, be submitted to so ugly a fate.’ ”
Devlin: “That’s not funny.”
Alicia: “Do you want me to take the job?”
Devlin: “You’re answering for yourself.”
Alicia: “I’m asking you.”
Devlin: “It’s up to you.”

Once Alicia makes contact with Alex Sebastian, the undercover work begins. Sebastian remembers her and is happy to have her back in his life. Later in the film, Alicia goes to the racetrack with Alex Sebastian, where she meets Devlin to deliver her report. It isn’t long before their feelings for one another overtake the updates on their assignment. The following from their conversation at the racetrack could be a continuation of their conversation in Alicia’s apartment:
Alicia: “You can add Sebastian’s name to my list of playmates.”
Devlin: “Pretty fast work.”
Alicia: “That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
Devlin: “Skip it.”
Alicia: [more loudly] “Are you betting on this race?”
Devlin: “No.”
Alicia: [more loudly] “Alex says Number 10 is sure to win. He knows the owner.”
Devlin: “Thanks for the tip.”
Alicia: [more loudly] “Alex says they’ve been holding him back—”
Devlin: “I can’t help recalling some of your remarks about being a new woman. Daisies and buttercups, wasn’t it?”
Alicia: “You idiot. What are you sore about? You knew very well what I was doing.”
Devlin: “Did I?”
Alicia: “You could have stopped me. Just one word, but no, you wouldn’t, you threw me at him.”
Devlin: “I threw you at nobody.”
Alicia: “Didn’t you tell me to go ahead?” [He didn’t.]
Devlin: “A man doesn’t tell a woman what to do, she tells herself. You almost had me believing that hokey-pokey miracle of yours that a woman like you could ever change her spots.”
Alicia: “You’re rotten.”
Devlin: “That’s why I didn’t try to stop you. The answer had to come from you.”
Alicia: “I see. Some kind of love test.”
Devlin: “That’s right.”

The theme of duty versus love could be better described as love of country (patriotism) versus love for another person (romantic love). Someone like Devlin working for the U.S. government probably has a lot more than the average citizen tied up with love of country. He is cold-hearted at first, but he redeems himself by the end of the film. The heated conversations between Alicia and Devlin encapsulate the inner turmoil both feel and demonstrate the conflict between patriotism and romantic commitment. Even though both are enmeshed in dangerous international intrigue, their romantic entanglements are much easier to relate to, and the film’s focus on the two of them makes their story an enduring one.

Drew Casper claims that Alex Sebastian is a sympathetic character because Alicia, his wife, is taller than he is (that’s a reason?) and he falls head over heels in love with her. But he never shows any care for Alicia. I never got the impression that Alex loves Alicia more than Devlin does, for example. And Alicia’s feelings for Devlin, and his for her, never waver. When Alex finds out that Alicia is an American agent, he turns on her—and quickly. He is interested only in saving himself. He and his mother resort to poisoning Alicia and watching her die a slow and painful death. He shows no remorse about it; he just wants to get rid of her before his Nazi collaborators discover that he has been duped. When Alicia collapses after realizing that Alex and his mother are poisoning her, it’s Dr. Anderson and Joseph, the butler, who help her upstairs. Alex doesn’t even offer her an arm.

For much of the film, Alicia and Devlin bicker. He seems cruel in his devotion to his work, but Devlin finally redeems himself by taking Alicia out of Alex's house and saving her life. When Devlin carries Alicia downstairs, down the same staircase that the doctor and the butler helped her climb, Alex still doesn’t help her and/or Devlin, even when his mother tells him that he must help to make it look like everyone is working together. Alex obeys meekly when his Nazi collaborators ask him to return to the house. It’s hard to believe that he is a Nazi spy and collaborator because he doesn’t fight for Alicia or himself. Alicia seemed more like a conquest and a trophy for Alex.

As I mentioned, my copy of the DVD came with two audio commentaries; both include a lot of information and are worth a listen. I enjoyed Rick Jewell’s a bit more because he describes the events and context surrounding the making of Notorious, including RKO studio history and background on studio heads. He also discusses the genre of the espionage film, which I found fascinating because so many films noir are also espionage films. Because both commentaries provide so much information, I’ll concentrate on one point from each that I found the most fascinating. For Rick Jewell, it’s the genre of espionage films and its history. For Drew Casper, it’s the moral ambiguity portrayed by all the main characters. 

The genre of espionage films has a long history. They usually emphasize a long list of themes: adventure, suspense, politics, duty, trust, loyalty, professionalism, romance, patriotism, intelligence, war or the possibility of war, among others. War or the possibility of war is perhaps the biggest overarching theme. Espionage films were originally more interested in female spies, especially in the early twentieth century. Examples include Spies (1928), Dishonored (1931), and Mata Hari (1931). The Germans became established as the bad guys during World War I, a trend that lasted through the Cold War era. For Hitchcock, espionage films and suspense thrillers are very similar. He directed several espionage films in Great Britain before coming to the United States.

Notorious deepens the traditional themes of the espionage genre. It handles ethical issues, including the question of whether the ends justify the means. Alicia is not trained for her assignment, but her U.S. handlers want her to prostitute herself and are rather cavalier about her welfare; after all, she already has a bad reputation for drinking and sleeping with men. Values are compromised for the sake of the U.S. government, for the ideal of democracy. Her handlers are as compromised as the Nazi conspirators. Notorious changes the genre by acknowledging espionage as a dirty business: Espionage is, at best, a morally ambiguous profession.

DVD commentary by film professor Drew Casper:
All the main characters, including the U.S. agents, are morally ambiguous and possess both positive and negative traits. Alicia Huberman drinks too much, falls very much in love with Devlin, and is poisoned later in the film. Alicia is a person is out of control. She finds it very difficult to trust others. Devlin doesn’t trust women. He’s not as self-possessed as he tries to portray. He is willing to use Alicia for duty to country, although I think Casper is right about the combination of duty and lack of trust that causes Devlin to hold back at the start of his romance with Alicia. Paul Prescott, Devlin’s boss, is very cavalier about Alicia’s well-being. He is shown eating crackers in bed and warning Devlin against going to the Sebastian household. Devlin maintains that Alicia must be in some kind of trouble because she hasn’t made contact with him for five days. Prescott thinks she must be having fun in her party life with Sebastian. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at the time, objected to the way that the agents were portrayed in the film, but Hitchcock didn’t change anything about the agents in Notorious.

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