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Review by Jerry Saravia
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Of all of Alfred Hitchcock's love stories, "Notorious" is one of the most
romantic and truly illuminating. Illumination is the key to the film's success.
With a plot centering on Nazis and uranium, the heart of the film is really the
electric chemistry between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, and a suspenseful
final act that will leave you breathless with excitement.
"Notorious" begins with a fabulous shot of Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman,
who is having a party after learning of her father's conviction for Nazi
spying. She tries to forget, and we notice the back of a stranger's head seated
at the party but we don't who he is except perhaps Alicia's possible suitor.
Later, she is drunk and recklessly drives with the man (Cary Grant), who turns
out to be a CIA agent named Devlin. Devlin has a job for her, and she is
reluctant to participate and is annoyed she did not get a speeding ticket. The
job entails Alicia getting intimate with a former lover of hers, Sebastian
(Claude Rains), who runs a spy ring and may be involved with hiding uranium in
wine bottles (a substance used in making bombs). Eventually, Sebastian deeply
falls in love with her and marries her. Devlin grows jealous, realizing he
loves her. Unfortunately, Sebastian watches Alicia like a hawk, and Hitchcock
is brilliant at showing that subjective sense of looks and stares as he does in
the party sequence..
"Notorious" has a special degree of illumination provided by its lighting
schemes, and by Bergman's iridescent beauty. Along with Catherine Denueve,
Bergman is indeed one of the most beautiful women in film history and Hitchcock
exploits that beauty to great effect. Whether she is seated at a cafe or in bed
writhing with pain due to the effect of arsenic in her tea, she never looks
less than glamorous.
Cary Grant is the straight man, and more subtle than in his other films - he is
passive and grows jealous but it is his dialogue that speak great truths of his
emotions. At one point, while hearing about the CIA's plans, he refers to
another agent's bridge-playing wife as boring in contrast to Alicia's looseness
and promiscuity. Devlin holds his emotions in check, acting stern and
disapproving of Alicia and her immediate marriage.
Claude Rains is one of the finest most astute actors ever, and here he is also
restrained - his looks and glances suggest everything. There is also the sense
that he does care for Alicia...and perhaps is more trustworthy than Devlin even
after learning her secret.
Hitchcock has a tremendous number of tricks up his sleeve, and some shots are
astounding in their impact - they greatly help build tension and suspense. The
three-minute kissing scene between Grant and Bergman is as sensual and sexually
charged as any scene from today's steamy thrillers - what makes it so luscious
is the interruption of the kisses and the embraces. At that time, the Hollywood
Production Code would not allow for kisses to last longer than three seconds.
This scene foreshadows the final moments from the bedroom to the staircase
where Grant descends while helping the sickly Bergman - the spy ring and
Sebastian watch. There is also a superb zoom-in shot from the top of the
staircase to a close-up shot of Bergman's hand holding the key to the wine
cellar where the uranium is hidden. The wine cellar sequence is also bewitching
- Grant carefully removing bottles that obstruct the view of a wine schedule
while one slips away and breaks revealing uranium particles - and it also
builds to a great kissing scene. This film is definitely one of Hitchcock's
prime examples of visual elegance.
"Notorious" is not as densely complex as "Vertigo" or "North By Northwest," but
it is packed with suspense and thrills galore. And its emotionally romantic
love story shows the Master knew how to deal with human relationships.
Copyright © 1999 Jerry Saravia