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.”
“Bergman radiates in a way that makes it seem that if you reach your hand to the screen, you’ll feel her skin.”
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