Monday 14 October 2019

Movie Review: Notorious (1946)

A romantic drama and spy adventure, Notorious is a gripping and multi-faceted thriller.

In Miami, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is a hard-drinking party girl. After her Nazi-sympathizer father is imprisoned for treason, she is recruited by government agent Devlin (Cary Grant) to infiltrate a dangerous Rio de Janeiro-based ring of former Nazis. During the journey to South America Alicia and Devlin start to fall in love, although she is conscious of her libertine reputation and he is trying to not get emotionally involved.

In Rio, Alicia reconnects with Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a former family friend, and now a key member of the clandestine Nazi cartel. Alex always harboured a crush on her, and now she exploits his love to get into his house and start observing and reporting on his nefarious business associates. But Alex is jealous of Devlin, who in turn is conflicted between love and duty. The spy mission becomes much more complicated when Alex proposes marriage as a test of Alicia's loyalty.

Perhaps Alfred Hitchcock's most perfect film, Notorious is an exquisitely constructed romantic triangle residing within an espionage mystery. Written with devious clarity by Ben Hecht, the story offers three conflicted and sympathetic characters struggling against personal demons and larger existential forces. The romance crashes against imperatives of duty, commitment to others, and matters of personal and professional survival.

After efficiently establishing the context of Alicia as a fun-loving but conflicted woman caught between her father's legacy and patriotism, Hitchcock pours the foundation of a deeply complex love story with one of cinema most celebrated and sensual kisses. At her Rio apartment Alicia and Devlin kiss, nuzzle and nibble for approximately three minutes, with Hitchcock unapologetically getting around the Hays Code's three second rule by introducing brief interruptions that only serve to heighten the scene's elegant eroticism.

But this is not a straightforward love triangle. Devlin is unimpressed with Alicia's promiscuous tendencies and desperate to maintain focus on his assignment. Alicia is quite unsure if she deserves to be loved by a man of integrity, upset at how easily he deploys her to pretend to love another man, and conscious of how quickly she can acquiesce to pleasure with others. And Alex's love of Alicia is perhaps the most pure, blinding him to her true purpose and distracting him from the business at hand. They will circle each other with a combustible mix of passion and doubt.

Despite the fascinating romantic triangle, the spy elements are not shortchanged. With Alex's coldly villainous mother (played to perfection by Leopoldine Konstantin) lording over all her son's affairs and the Nazi co-plotters quick to reveal their ruthless streak, Hitchcock conjures up one of his classic tense sequences. A swanky party at Alex's mansion, a supply of champagne running low, a stolen wine cellar key and a broken bottle come together at exactly the wrong time, with Alicia and Devlin tantalizingly close to uncovering the heart of the Nazi conspiracy while risking both her carefully constructed cover and their troubled illicit romance.

Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains make for a dream cast filled with texture and self-doubt, all three delivering the requisite mix of delicate courtship, surrender to affection and callous focus on self preservation. Ted Tetzlaff's cinematography features sparkling use of black and white saluting many noir fundamentals, with Alex's cold mansion providing opportunities for playful use of space from imposing and grand to close-up and personal.

Notorious is a collision of multiple agendas, and a dazzling example of weary characters grappling with difficult dilemmas and deliciously dangerous outcomes.

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