You wouldn’t know it to read me, but when it comes to my language regarding movies, I am careful. It’s not that I’m overly enthusiastic, it’s just that I really do believe that many films qualify as a classic, a masterpiece, or an epic. I’m more than willing to concede that my threshold might be lower than some others, and in that respect I may be a little too enthusiastic, but that doesn’t mean I throw those words around carelessly.
Something you almost never hear from me, though, is “my top 5” or “my top 10” or “my top 25.” That description is used for all-time favorites, and represents a pool of about 50 steady titles that, over the years, have fallen in and out of one of those categories. So when I tell you that Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 romantic-thriller “Notorious” has been a perennial top 5 of mine for over two decades now, you understand what this film means to me.
There is no other movie that makes me feel as much as this one does. Thanks to the extraordinary performances of two of the most beautiful people ever to stand before a camera, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergmann, “Notorious” throws me on an emotional roller coaster of suspense, exhilaration and, most of all, heartache, for the full 101 minutes. And the reasons are many.
No matter how many times I’ve seen this pulse-pounding story of an American girl with a sordid past who, on behalf of her country, agrees to pretend she’s in love with a man aligned with a group of dangerous post-war Nazis in South America, within the first few minutes I fall deeply in love with Bergman’s Alicia. But that’s the least of it. The thing that wrecks me, thanks to Grant giving one of the greatest performances ever put on film (and again I’m choosing my words carefully), is the emotional grinder Alicia is put through.
Usually, when a love story keeps its lovers apart based on something that remains unspoken between them, the conceit is lazy and maddening to watch. But Ben Hecht’s script is so brilliantly crafted and Grant’s Devlin is so obviously tortured by his own pride (and things we’re never told about but see in his tormented eyes), that we buy into it; which makes for a deliciously agonizing road to a climax so satisfying repeat viewings never diminish the impact.
Alicia’s father is an American traitor, a Nazi sympathizer, sentence to 20 years in prison. Alicia herself is a party girl, a full-blown alcoholic who likes to take men to bed. It’s at one of her many parties where she meets Devlin, a quiet, handsome man she intends to seduce. Only instead of waking up like she usually does, nude, hung-over, and alone, she’s hung-over, dressed, and offered the opportunity to do something for her country.
Alicia tells Devlin she doesn’t give a damn about patriotism, as a response he plays a secret recording of a conversation she had with her father. The truth is that she loves her country, quite a bit in fact, and while she could never turn her father in, it’s clear that nothing will ever convince her to betray America.
The people Devlin works for have been monitoring her and now need her for some kind of top secret mission in Rio de Janeiro. Though Devlin doesn’t know what the mission is, she agrees and during the week they spend waiting for instructions, the two of them fall in love.
It’s obvious Devlin doesn’t want to fall for her, not for someone so striking and vulnerable. This isn’t the kind of woman you have a fling with. This is the kind of woman you either win for life or long for for life. Though not a word of exposition is used to tell us this, Grant’s performance is so pure, we know she terrifies him, and that her past — the drinking and the men — rips him apart inside. As a consequence, he tears away at her. The fact that she loves him, gives him this power, and with an emotional paper cut here and there, he throws her past in her face at every opportunity.
But passion eventually overcomes all until the details of the mission are revealed. A number of well-connected Nazis have fled to Brazil after the war. One of them, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), used to be in love with Alicia. Using her father’s reputation as cover, the plan is for her to reconnect with him in the hopes she can find out what they’re up to.
What follows is one of the most gut-wrenching scenes ever put on film. Just an hour prior, Alicia and Devlin had been blissfully happy in the glow of young, new love. Now they’re alone on the romantic, outdoor terrace of what was going to be their love nest. Devlin explains the mission to her, and they both know what it means; that taking the assignment means she will have to become Sebastian’s lover. Alicia is desperate for Devlin to tell her not to accept. Devlin is just as desperate for her to refuse.
Because this scene is so perfectly crafted, we know that Alicia agrees to the mission because she loves Devlin. More importantly, we know Devlin knows this and yet he still resents her for it. And what will follow is the fullest expression of human anguish you will ever experience through the medium of the motion picture.
Forget the classic elegance of Hitchcock’s shooting style and even the impossibly suspenseful sequence that involves the key to a wine cellar. All of that is wonderful, classic moviemaking to be sure, but nothing compares to the closing sequence, when every bit of emotional and storytelling track that’s been laid, pays off with unparalleled precision. The hero saves the girl. The hero saves himself. The hero gets the girl. The hero redeems himself. The hero defeats the bad guy.
And those of us watching are left breathless.
“Notorious” is not only Hitchcock’s masterpiece, it is Hollywood’s masterpiece. It is as though the movie gods poured everything that made the Golden Era the Golden Era into a bottle, shook it up, distilled it over a flame, and found the essence, the formula … the perfection.
“Notorious” is available at Amazon.com.