In Notorious (1946), love assumes different shapes and presentations—as a wound, a weapon, a promise, a curse. For Ingrid Bergman as the lusciously complex and raw-nerved Alicia Huberman, it’s all these things.
As the film begins, Alicia is on the razor’s edge of a new chapter in her life, one that isn’t wholly of her own making. She’s a socialite getting drunk in Miami with no sense of direction, the kind of woman with more passion than the world around her knows how to handle. But her drunken revelry is shot through with so much sorrow and confusion that you can’t help but feel for her. Alicia is reeling from the conviction of her father as a Nazi conspirator. An opportunity for her to atone for his mistakes, in some small way, comes in the form of Cary Grant as U.S. government agent T. R. Devlin. But the mission he ultimately enlists her for, to seduce and garner information from suspected Nazi Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), is complicated by Alicia and Devlin’s own love affair. Notorious is resplendent with pleasures. The shadows are as rich as velvet. Director Alfred Hitchcock and cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff are constantly reminding us where characters are in relation to one another, creating an intricate choreography in which even the most minute gestures—a hand enclosing a key, a gaze, a shaky grin—are charged with eroticism and violent potential. The narrative of this spy drama contains such decadent pessimism that it moves the film into noir territory. The performances by Grant and Rains are dynamic high-water marks in their towering careers. But even amid these wonders, it is Bergman who is the crowning jewel. She brings an untold warmth, a sincerity, and a vulpine physicality that make her character a beguiling outlier not only in Hitchcock’s canon but also within forties cinema and Bergman’s own career.
“Notorious becomes a consideration of what happens when a woman’s sexual history frames the totality of her identity.”
Alicia is in a class apart from Hitchcock’s other iconic blondes. She eschews the patrician iciness of Grace Kelly (Rear Window, 1954; To Catch a Thief, 1955), the painful yearning of Joan Fontaine (Rebecca, 1940; Suspicion, 1941), and the gleaming eroticism of Kim Novak (Vertigo, 1958). These women can be wanting, cutting, lovely, and even mired in obsessions of their own. But Alicia’s supple vulnerability and mature sexiness are singular. In the forties, Hollywood offered female audiences both escapism and a kind of satisfaction laced with a feminist ethos. It was the decade that gave the likes of the aggressive Bette Davis, the chameleonic Barbara Stanwyck, and the self-possessed Olivia de Havilland some of their most complex roles. There were the heartbreaking protagonists of women’s pictures, shopgirls on the make, bespectacled librarians, hungry spinsters. By 1946, the year Notorious was released, Hollywood was engulfed in the dark morass of film noir. Noir predominantly offered two kinds of women—the femme fatale, powered by her desire for wealth, autonomy, and sex, who is so focused on herself that she doesn’t heed the men she’s destroying along the way, and the good-natured angel positioned to remind us of societal expectations. Alicia doesn’t slip into either lineage. She is neither projection nor perfectly perfumed fantasy. The men who seek to determine her fate use her body as a weapon, believing her to be a femme fatale. But the film never loses sight of the fact that Alicia’s truths are more complicated. From this angle, Notorious becomes a consideration of what happens when a woman’s sexual history frames the totality of her identity.
After an “accidental” meet-up, Alicia and Alex share a few drinks in a ritzy Rio de Janeiro restaurant humming with the dull murmur of the rich and powerful, including Devlin’s superior, whom she eyes with wary recognition. Alex is ever the gentleman, greeting Alicia with a kiss on the hand and eyes brimming with warm affection. With its jaunty music and moneyed atmosphere, the scene is almost romantic, but there is an air of something bitter undercutting that potential. Alicia is an imperfect spy, but she’s learning quickly. Her bright smile, charming confidences, and apologetic tone over their shared past lull Alex into submission. “I knew this was going to happen. I knew when we met the other day that if I saw you again, I’d feel what I used to for you. The same hunger,” he says, his voice dropping to a throaty whisper, his eyes digging into her. With those last three words, Rains communicates a whirlpool of emotion, marking a character who is worlds away from the charmingly amoral Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca and the tenderhearted, paternalistic Dr. Jaquith in that quintessence of women’s pictures, Now, Voyager (both from 1942). But when Alex isn’t looking, Bergman allows a jolt of grief to puncture her pleasant facade. Gloom wraps her like a heavy winter coat. Her smile slips; her eyes grow glassy and unfocused in a manner that makes her thoughts apparent—“How the hell did I get here?” In this scene, Notorious reveals that the dynamic its main characters share isn’t so much a love triangle as a tangled web of obsession and bruised longing.
Hitchcock explored obsession before and after Notorious. But the sexual politics here are so quicksilver and contradictory as to lend the film a different kind of heat. Love isn’t chilly, dissected from behind glass as it is in his most iconic works—Vertigo and Rear Window come to mind first. In Notorious, it is all-consuming. Roger Ebert framed Alicia’s decision to help the American government as being rooted in her love of Devlin: “Devlin is essentially asking her to share the spy’s bed to discover his secrets. And this she is willing to do, because by the time he asks her, she is in love—with Devlin.” But I think something far more complex is occurring. At the beginning of the film, Alicia is bristling with desire but lacks purpose. When Devlin walks into her life, he offers her that purpose, a way to mold that desire into something true, to reshape her identity as something separate from her father’s tainted legacy. She just happens to do that by building her strength through Devlin. That Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht—one of the most influential writers in Hollywood history—make Alicia’s growth and longing the film’s center of gravity is why it feels so deliriously, potently intimate.
Devlin is the photo negative of the charming roles Grant played in other works of the thirties and forties, such as The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday, Arsenic and Old Lace, and The Bishop’s Wife—with his lightning-bright smile and ability to be uproarious and elegant in a single moment. Here, Grant delivers on the promise of his first collaboration with Hitchcock, playing the potentially murderous husband opposite Fontaine in Suspicion. In these roles, Grant inverts his typical charm into an anti-charisma. Every sentence is as sharp as a blade, every gesture like chiseled ice. Hitchcock and Tetzlaff continue this subversion by introducing Grant with a shot of the back of his perfectly coiffed head, in essence taking away what had made him a star in the first place—his handsome visage and elastic physicality. He’s as tightly coiled as a snake waiting to strike. Never before or after was Grant so eerily still. Bergman is the antithesis of this, with a swooning, languid presence. Her kisses are full-bodied, holding the promise of so much more, making it clear she’s a grown woman who understands her body and its needs.
The conversations Alicia and Devlin share aren’t brimming with lustful bon mots and bedroom-eyed revelations. Devlin is, in fact, quite lacerating. Like many other men in noir, Devlin feels anxiety over the emotional vulnerability he experiences in Alicia’s presence, and punishes her for it. He uses her history—as a woman with an appetite for alcohol and sex—against her, even as her vitality is obviously what attracts him in the first place. He is only too ready to believe her when she tells him the symptoms of her arsenic poisoning are merely a hangover, another example of her trying to inhabit the role every man expects of her. “Immoral” behavior is never bluntly shown or spoken about, but it is there. When Devlin spits at Alicia the phrase “a woman like you,” we don’t need to see flashbacks of her history to understand just what he’s talking about.
“Bergman radiates in a way that makes it seem that if you reach your hand to the screen, you’ll feel her skin.”
One of the most iconic scenes in the film is the erotically charged, nearly three-minute kiss between Grant and Bergman as their characters swan around her apartment and melt into each other while he speaks on the phone. This was Hitchcock’s method for circumventing Hays-code rules regarding the allowed length of kisses. Alicia snuggles into the crook of Devlin’s neck as he walks across the apartment to make a call. They kiss deeply, breaking every few seconds to nuzzle each other, swim in each other’s presence, before kissing once more. Here we have Hitchcock at his most intimate, his camera shifting from soft close-ups to wider shots that drink in the dancerly elegance the actors bring to the scene. I’ve seen Notorious more times than any other Hitchcock film. It took me until my most recent viewing to understand that the reason it is more erotic, warm, complex, and scintillating than anything else the director did is simply because Bergman—to borrow a phrase from the great Billy Wilder regarding Marilyn Monroe—has more “flesh impact” than all of Hitchcock’s other infamous blondes combined. She makes the film feel alive. She radiates in a way that makes it seem that if you reach your hand to the screen, you’ll feel her skin.
In Notorious, characters are constantly remade and unmoored by their love. Hecht cleverly creates a dynamic wherein the mores and identities are never static. Alicia is seen as a femme fatale, but in reality she operates as the film’s detective figure, victim, martyr, and muse—sometimes all at once. Characters are forever caught between categories. Devlin rushes to save Alicia once he understands she’s being poisoned, but he’s also cold, cruel, and controlling. Alex seems to genuinely love Alicia in a way Devlin may not, but he bends to his mother’s will and projects onto Alicia to the point where he realizes her truths too late. This is a film that reveals the intimate scripts of our heart’s desires. It offers an education in the erotic landscape of the psyche, what happens when the mask you’re forced to wear—as a dazzling spy, a grim-faced secret agent, a war criminal whose ability to trust guarantees your undoing—doesn’t match your insides.
When Alex introduces Alicia to his inner circle of Nazi comrades at a dinner party in the Rio home he shares with his mother, she is a picture-perfect rendering of a femme fatale. Clad in an elegant, figure-skimming white gown by Edith Head, her delicate neck festooned with diamonds, she smiles and observes the tangled excesses of these men, clocking the various dynamics in ways Alex doesn’t even notice. Femmes fatales often wear all white. This is the color of virginal purity, of course, but as critic Abbey Bender has observed for Nylon, “when the women of erotic thrillers wear white, [it] becomes a blank slate ripe for being covered over with aberrant sexuality.” Here’s a brief list: Barbara Stanwyck wrapped in nothing but a white towel and that honey of an anklet in Double Indemnity; Gene Tierney in a white coat and poppy-red lipstick in Leave Her to Heaven; Rosamund Pike in a white slip caked with the blood of a dead man as she plays good for the cameras in Gone Girl; Sharon Stone in that dress in Basic Instinct; Linda Fiorentino wearing an impeccably tailored suit and a cool grin in The Last Seduction. Still, while Alicia may look the part, she isn’t the woman Devlin, Alex, or anyone else has defined her as.
As Alicia travels deeper and deeper into Alex’s world, eventually becoming his wife, the suspense gives way to touches of horror. Domestic items—delicate teacups, house keys, broken wine bottles—glow with menace. The next time a woman appears in all white, toward the end of the film, it is Alex’s mother, Madame Sebastian (Leopoldine Konstantin). She wears a robe and nightgown, her silver hair braided down her back, when her son reveals Alicia’s betrayal. She relishes the news until she comes to recognize that it isn’t cheating that has severed the relationship but Alicia’s true identity as an American spy. Madame Sebastian’s face trips into seething repose as she figures out a plan, fulfilling the fatalistic promise of noir. That Alicia doesn’t interact intimately with any women—even her encounters with Madame Sebastian are fleeting—makes the film feel even more claustrophobic.
Bergman’s performance in Notorious is the most transfixing of her Hollywood career, before the scandal of her taking up with Roberto Rossellini led to her being denounced on the Senate floor. In Notorious, she’s sexy and self-possessed, bruised and bruising. Bergman’s face is a beautifully charged terrain forever subverting the dynamics we’ve come to expect of the bad girls of the forties: lips pursed on the edge of promise, eyes drinking in each detail, jaw tightening with fear or anger. But her secret weapon is her voice. If you close your eyes and merely listen to Bergman’s voice you can chart the emotional arc of the film—from alcohol-laced melancholic murmurings to champagne-bright sweet nothings whispered into Grant’s ear to startled, anxious exclamations to, finally, the trembling aria of the closing moments of the film, as Alicia collapses into Devlin’s arms and speaks of their love with near-religious ardor. Devlin and Alicia may survive this ordeal—unlike Alex, whose death march back into his home marks the end of the film—but they are headed into an uncertain future. In the final moments before it fades into darkness, Notorious reminds us that love can be as much an opportunity for freedom as a prison.