Favourite Movies: Notorious (1946)

“It is customary […] to maintain a certain knowing distance from the action, to view everything through a sophisticated screen.

[A good movie] slips around those defenses and engages us.”

– Crtic Roger Ebert, from a 2008 movie review

Movies are really nothing more than scenes, dialogue, and performances, arranged to look and feel certain ways by directors and others whose styles and sensibilities determine their pace and visual characteristics. As someone with an often overly analytical mind who has watched hundreds of movies released between 1920 and 2016, this is something I’m almost always aware of when watching them.

My thought process and experience make it increasingly difficult for me to enjoy the entirety of movies. Too often I find them to be frustrating mishmashes or complete wastes of time. These days, I’m likely to skip about 75% of those I attempt to watch. A lot of them lose my interest early and never get it back. Others are slightly better and still frustrating movies because they’re so damn inconsistent. Good scenes are followed by bad ones. Weak, forced, phony writing coexists with naturalistic, insightful dialogue. Strong characters and performances are tainted by close proximity to weak ones.

I quoted a review above because its reference to ‘defenses’ reminds me of my recent tendency to stubbornly reject movies. I’ve become so picky that it’s hard for most to crack through my ‘defenses’. Knowing a lot about movies and remembering so many of the past makes me painfully aware of how and why so many don’t work. I’ve come to the conclusion that very few movies are good or great from start to finish. The majority are much less, in my estimation…not very good at all, only good occasionally, or mostly bad, with the occasional flash of inspiration or appeal in individual performances, lines, and visual flourishes. I love good movies more than most things in life, but they’re so rarely better than inconsistent that I don’t like many.

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” is one of those blessed productions that excels in every area of film making and never falters. To paraphrase Roger Ebert describing “The Dark Knight” relative to its comic book brethren, this is the kind of movie that slips around my defenses and engages me. I’m not a big fan of Cary Grant or Alfred Hitchcock. I’ve watched all of Hitchcock’s most revered movies and don’t like most of them. The only three that completely enthrall me are “Notorious”, “North By Northwest”, and “Psycho”.

Having just watched “Notorious” for the second time ever, I’ve come to the conclusion that part of what makes “North By Northwest” and “Psycho” so successful is how they draw inspiration from their 1946 predecessor. A crucial element in “Notorious” is the premise of a son being compelled towards evil by his mother’s influence.“Psycho” expands on that idea with dread fascination and deliciously terrifying results. In both “Notorious” and “North By Northwest”, Hitchcock proves that no one could harness, exploit, and highlight Cary Grant’s potential as a dramatic leading man better than him.

Before “Notorious”, I wasn’t even sure if Cary Grant had any talent. Women obviously found him very handsome and charismatic as a screen presence, but that doesn’t mean he could act. This way of thinking is probably a reason why the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences never gave him one of their acting awards for any of his individual performances. For the longest time, I believed they shouldn’t. I thought he was a fraud who just got by on his looks.

I don’t feel that way anymore, because of his performance in “Notorious”. He has a tricky part, playing a man who must be evasive, reserved, and guarded with emotions. He does that impeccably, while giving the audience hints of inner turmoil expertly suppressed. There is a scene he plays looking out the window isolated from other characters as they converse. Listening to Bergman and his bosses discuss disturbing news, he looks quite composed, putting on a straight face for those around him. Due to an excellent handle of understatement that he’d demonstrate even better later, I could sense his pain while he appeared calm to everybody in the room.

In “Notorious”, Cary Grant’s character falls in love with a woman after being assigned to have her become another man’s consort so she can spy on criminal activities. Grant’s Devlin is a man of high values. At first he doesn’t like the woman, believing that she’s impure and vulgar – a promiscuous drunk. Then he gets to know her and discovers how good she is. Their hasty courtship is all at once comedic, tragic, and romantic. She is so affectionate and eager, we understand why he comes to love her so easily. At the same time, there’s agony of her begging him to admit his feelings while he can’t. He wishes it were possible, but it’s his job to give her away.

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman occupy the roles of two people at the mercy of an excruciatingly stifling dilemma in “Notorious”. The irony of their situation is devastating and they have to play some very complicated emotions as actors and characters. They have many reasons to despise both each other and themselves. These are always contradicted by the love that organically developed between them before their responsibilities got in the way. He loves her for who she really is, yet his assignment is forcing her to be the opposite.

She loves him for who he is and hates what he’s making her do. Resentment sets in when he reacts coldly to her reports of what she’s done for him. He has to appear unsympathetic because they could be (and sometimes are) seen by the enemy. We can understand why she is angry at degrading herself for him and the mission. There’s a scene where she conveys it through passive-aggressive smugness. Pretending to be flippant when she’s actually ashamed and bitter, Bergman casually says, “Just a minor item that you may want for the record. You can add Sebastian’s name to my list of playmates.” Sift through the discreet, production code-mandated 1940s language of her statement and you’re left with a disturbing implication:
“Oh, by the way, I fucked this guy for you.”

Cary Grant’s reacting facial expression shows masterful subtlety – perhaps the movie’s best example of how superbly he can act. He barely drops his unshakable facade of suave indifference, reacting just briefly and quietly enough for us to sense his pain. His hurt is hidden well, as it should be by a man in his secret agent position. Being watched, he can’t let her or anyone else know how much the news upsets him. He does just enough for us to know.

Further enhancing the picture’s depth and originality in story and characterization is Claude Rains as target of an intricate ruse being perpetrated by Grant, Bergman, and the American government. Rains provides another character and performance with so many more layers than most in movies. He is an associate of Nazis. Like Norman Bates in “Psycho”, he’s a man whose mother inspires him to harm others and it’s repugnant. He agrees to a cruel scheme that involves slowly poisoning his wife over an extended period. He creepily does horrible things, yet is one of the movie’s most pitiable characters, possibly second, behind Bergman and ahead of Grant.

The Rains character may be a weak-willed man with unsavoury alliances who willingly does something abominable to the heroic Bergman, but he also deserves sympathy. This is a man who has been in love with someone for years, and when she finally marries him, it’s under false pretenses. She does it just to dig up dirt on he and his so-called friends, who he knows will kill him if they find out. He’s also the only character in this movie who never lies about his feelings.

What we have in “Notorious” is Alfred Hitchcock proving the breadth of his directing prowess better than at any time before and three of movie history’s best performers doing their finest work…all at once! I don’t care much for most of Alfred Hitchcock’s work after and especially before “Notorious”, but believe this movie alone justifies his place in the pantheon of most honoured movie directors.

The way Hitchcock uses the camera in this movie is absolutely spectacular. From the early scenes, I was quite mesmerized by it. Right at the beginning, there are many examples of how he sets up shots that have exciting innovation, style, and impact. It’s so clever how he shows Ingrid Bergman’s point of view while driving with hair blowing in front her face by having it seem to hit the camera.

Tension is generated by shots of Cary Grant’s hands tentatively advancing towards her car’s steering wheel, nervous that he might have to intervene as she drunkenly swerves all over the road.

More obvious, yet no less creative and effective is another point of view shot with the camera spinning to show hungover perception.

Ingrid Bergman’s performance in this movie is so dead-on suited to her strengths that after first seeing it in 2012, I was motivated to seek out as many of her movies as possible. I got so anxious to find other movies that made such exquisite use of her. This is exactly what happened with Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, and Miriam Hopkins after I watched “Trouble In Paradise” for the first time. It was such a transcendent experience and they were all so glorious together. I was left consumed by a desire to recapture that thrill of seeing them again in roles they owned better than anyone else ever could.

I have watched so many Ingrid Bergman, Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, and Miriam Hopkins movies because of “Notorious” and “Trouble in Paradise” because those productions taught me that when these people are paired with a right director and script, the results are as good as movies get for me. Ultimately, that’s how I define “Notorious”. It is a movie that almost makes me afraid to watch others (especially recent releases) because I know they’ll suffer by comparison. Like “Trouble in Paradise”, it brings to mind the concept of alchemy, which I know as a brilliant convergence of different individual elements into a perfect whole.

Five extremely talented people (Three cast, one director, and one writer) came together and created something that showcases them at the peak of their considerable powers. In its context, they are better than they’d ever been and ever would be. When it’s over, the entire movie is like a puzzle’s final piece clicking into place and rewarding us with a picture of overwhelming beauty and unexpected originality. Parts and whole, ends and means, all equally gratifying. Every aspect makes me grateful for where it goes and the journey getting there.

I’ve declared Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” my second favourite movie of the 1940s. I also made a GIF for it and my other favourites of the decade here.