This is one of the very best Hitchcock films, thanks to the alchemy of a fine script from Ben Hecht (who had just worked with the director on the less enchanting Spellbound) and perfect casting in Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. It could so easily have been less auspicious as it was developed by David O. Selznick, whose approach had been one of interference on his previous collaborations with the British auteur. Fortunately, the producer was in financial difficulties with Duel in the Sun so to ensure that project’s safety he sold the package of the Notorious script, director and Bergman to RKO.
The material was both risky and risqué, focusing on Bergman’s Alicia, the daughter of convicted war criminal. The film quickly establishes that she is repulsed by her father’s actions and in her attempt to forget him she has become something of a tramp and an alcoholic. Enter Grant's government agent (Devlin, whom Hitchcock introduces silently in a prolonged scene with his back to the camera), who recruits her to spy on Nazi Alex Sebastian. Which essentially involves prostituting herself to him. Claude Rains plays Sebastian, a Selznick suggestion and, unlike his preferred Joseph Cotton for Devlin, a shrewd one.
Hitchcock embraces the sexual content (circumventing the censors’ requirement for brief kisses of with a long smooching scene sustained through breaking off then continuing of the love play). While this is ostensibly a spy thriller, the pulse is the love triangle between Devlin, Alicia and Sebastian, with Bergman's nuanced performance as Alicia at the centre.
If the approach to sex is daring, so is the depiction of an American government willing to send a woman into moral degradation for the good of the country. It’s testament to Hitchcock’s flair for casting against type that he was able to make this palatable, by having debonair Grant pulling the strings.
The film’s first third focuses on Grant and Bergman, as the stars exchange barbs while embarking on a clandestine affair. But once Alicia's assignment begins, Hitchcock ratchets up the tension as the stubbornness and jealousy between the two of them exacerbates the danger. Both characters have to work for audience sympathy, but the director’s reserves point-of-view for his female lead, first when Alicia is drunk then later as she is being poisoned.
Ben Hecht's story may have been born of his staunchly Zionist views, but Rains makes Sebastian a sympathetic figure even with his late stage resolve to remove his new wife from the picture. Certainly more relatable than Grant's stand-offish good guy, who petulantly allows Bergman to become further embroiled. Grant deserves credit for his willingness to embrace such a frequently cold character, but he also wears his conflict well; Devlin's sarcasm towards his superiors’ belittling of Alicia elicits an amusing response.
Beardsley: Oh, I don’t think any of us have any illusions about her character. Have we Devlin?
Devlin: Not at all, not in the slightest. Miss Huberman is first, last, and always not a lady. She may be risking her life, but when it comes to being a lady, she doesn't hold a candle to your wife, sitting in Washington, playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue.
Beardsley: I think those remarks about my wife are uncalled for.
With secrets in cellars and the regular Hitchcock ingredient of over-bearing mothers (Leopoldine Konstantin, as a particularly Machiavellian incarnation, was only three years older than Rains) there's a slight sense of pre-figuring Psycho to this part of the film. Konstantin’s “I have expected it” on learning that Bergman has betrayed her son could have been uttered by the Emperor in the Star Wars saga, so confident and gloating is she. She also enjoys one of the best lines, noting that Sebastian’s colleagues will not suspect that he has messed up; “We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity, for a time”.
The "Nazis in South America" plot line (the story was devised in '44, the film release in '46) proved remarkably predictive. Later, of course, The Boys from Brazil would run with this idea about as far as it would stretch. The original idea had been to have German refugees training in secret camps in South America but, face with the problem of what to then do with this army, the MacGuffin of the uranium in wine bottles was devised instead.
The question of why the uranium samples were hidden in the bottles in the first place most probably would elicit the answer, “So Cary Grant can find them, of course.” The atomic theme was developed pre-detonation of the bomb and, while studios considered it ridiculous, the director’s fishing for confirmation that the plot device was valid resulted in the FBI placing Hitchcock under surveillance for three months. By the time it was released, real world events had overtaken the film but it shows that Hitch had his finger on the pulse. Particularly as it was an element that the director regarded as something of a throwaway (because it was only the MacGuffin, and the story was “of a man in love with a girl who, in the course of her official duties, had to go to bed with another man and even had to marry him”).
As with many of Hitchcock's constructions, if you stare at it too closely the plot starts to unravel. For all the trappings of spy lore, the meetings between Bergman and Grant seem remarkably careless.
And the superb central set piece involving the key to cellar is fairly shoddily thought out on the parts of the both of them (Bergman doesn't know that Rains elected not to give his guests any more wine, so why does she leave it until they've gone to bed to return the key to his chain?) This sequence includes the famous shot in which the camera moves from the upstairs balcony down across the hall to Bergman, and the key to the wine cellar she is holding. It’s a stunning moment, and a special rig had to be built to achieve it. The inclusion of Devlin at the party was another successful element that came at Selznick’s instigation; he considered the absence of the character for the majority of the last half of the film a problem. It wasn’t that the producer didn’t have useful input, but that he was as much of a control freak as Hitchcock.
The climactic scene is nigh on perfect, all the more satisfying in resolving itself through a game of wits rather than fireworks. Several different options were considered (including the death of Alicia), but the genius of the one chosen is that it plays like a chess match with Sebastian checkmated.
Hecht and Rains received Oscar nods, and deservedly so. If the stars are the triumvirate of Hitch, Grant and Bergman, they’d be at sea without the solid foundation of the script and the vital element of the likable villain who further muddies the waters of who we should relate to (for a time, at least). It’s the complexity of its characters that makes Notorious remain a very contemporary-feeling film, even 66 years after its release.