REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


NOTORIOUS. RKO Radio Pictures, 1946. Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Louis Calhern. Screenplay: Ben Hecht. Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

       A lot of ink has been spilled on interpreting Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, the romantic thriller starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Some critics have posited that the film is primarily a romance in which love, despite numerous obstacles, ultimately triumphs at the end; others that it belongs in that every amorphous cinematic category known as “film noir.”

   Others have focused less on the film’s plot and more on its signature visual style and the manner by which Hitchcock creates and refines the very language of cinema. The one through which he is able to tell the story through both the placement of inanimate objects and the imposition of meaning to them.

   All of the above, I think, are valid ways in which to interpret Notorious. I personally have my doubts whether this particular RKO release should be considered a proper film noir. Yes, it’s on the more cynical side of things and its subject matter – in which the U.S. government through the persona of one of its agents, T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant), essentially prostitutes Alicia, a deeply damaged young woman and the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy (Ingrid Bergman), persuading her to infiltrate a group of Nazis in postwar Brazil – is obviously less pure than many of the morale boosting films put out by the major studios during the Second World War. But it’s a far cry from the cynical and gritty lower budget crime dramas that are now rightly considered films noir.

   For me, the film is essentially about losing and winning, both on the personal level (romance) and on the political (thriller). It’s the universalism of this subject matter that makes it compelling to viewers seventy some odd years after it first premiered. The plot, as Hitchcock himself agreed, boils down to a man who is forced to choose between his emotions (his love for Bergman’s character) and his duty to his country.

   More significantly, it’s about Devlin’s desire to win at nearly any cost. He wants to win Alicia over his competitor, the Nazi industrialist (Claude Rains) whom she has been spying on for Uncle Sam. He wants his country to win over the Nazis even after the war has ended. There’s rarely a moment in the film in which Devlin ceases to want to win on both a romantic and political level. There is no “dark night of the soul” for Devlin in which he questions his ultimate desires and goals.

   If we are to see Alicia as the film’s main character – and I think she is – then the question becomes whether Notorious is fundamentally all that different from other motion pictures about women who want to change their lives. As the film’s title indicates, she’s notorious. She drinks and has numerous love affairs with men. Devlin knows this. Yet he’s deeply conflicted about it, which is why he is alternatively madly in love with her and deeply cruel to her.

   By the end, she thinks that she has changed, that she has found her white knight in Devlin who carries her down the stairs and out of harm’s way. But no one realistically thinks that this is a fairy tale ending. Once the mission is complete and Devlin realizes he has won against the Nazi villain in two ways, will he want to stick around to “make things work,” as modern family therapists would say, or will he be poised for the next assignment?

   I should note that I recently watched the brand new Criterion Collection blu-ray release of this Hitchcock classic. There are some truly worthwhile supplemental features including an illuminating 2009 documentary about the film in which the political context at the time of the film’s writing and release is discussed by leading film critics and historians.

   Of note is the fact that soon after the Nazi concentration camps were liberated, Hitchcock directed a short documentary film about the horrors discovered there. This was one of his main completed projects before working directing Notorious, which of course features Nazi industrialists who have relocated to South America after the war’s end.

   In 1946, the Cold War hadn’t yet made West Germany a vital ally to the United States so Nazis, rather than the communists, were still the villains. It’s doubtful whether such a film would have been of as much interest to studio executives had screenwriter Ben Hecht and Hitchcock pitched the film in 1950.