Nazi war criminals, jaded FBI agents, sultry playgirls, and a champagne bottle bubbling over with uranium mix nicely in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 thriller Notorious. By combining the elements of the salacious Mata Hari legend with the horrors of World War II, Hitchcock crafted a thriller that highlighted America’s lingering fears in the aftermath of World War II while simultaneously predicting the moral dilemmas and paranoia of the Cold War. At once a mind-bending thriller and a spy story with a soul, the film’s subversive script and uniformly superb performances elevate what easily could have been a standard espionage tale to classic status.
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The story begins with FBI agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) receiving orders to recruit the self-destructive daughter (Ingrid Bergman) of a notorious Nazi war criminal into government service. What begins as a standard assignment quickly spirals into a moral and ethical quandary as he finds himself falling for damaged party-girl Alicia. Just as Alicia begins to pick up the pieces of her shattered life, however, she learns the sordid nature of her assignment; to seduce one of her father’s former associates and fellow war criminals (Claude Rains) who is now living a charmed existence in Rio de Janeiro. What ensues is a tale of love, lust, betrayal, and redemption that takes viewers into the murky world of post-war intelligence and the darkest depths of the human heart.
While Notorious does contain staples of the espionage genre, what sets the film apart is the way in which it utilizes these familiar elements to explore the political and ethical questions of its day. At the film’s start the story’s moral lines seem clearly drawn as honorable federal agent Devlin offers disgraced Alicia a chance at redemption. As the story continues, however, the characters’ ethics become as convoluted as the spy games that they are engaging in as damaged Alicia becomes the film’s emotional center. Rather than focusing upon the greater good goal of her mission, the script frankly portrays Alicia’s assignment ass government endorsed prostitution with Devlin her reluctant pimp. This approach, while accurate, was nothing short of subversive in the tense atmosphere of the post-war era as the film called the war-time actions of allied governments into direct question. The film consistently maintains its political stance as its shows Alicia experience disillusionment, betrayal, and abandonment at the hands of the very government organization that claimed to protect and redeem her. The film even goes so far as to draw parallels between the brutal and deceptive methods of the ex-Nazi’s Alicia is infiltrating with the questionable counter-intelligence methods utilized by the FBI.
|Explosive liquor; a surefire way to start your night off with a bang|
Beyond its sharp political criticism, the film also offers social commentary through its portrayal of the twisted love triangle between Devlin, Alicia, and her mark turned husband, Alex. While Devlin is initially presented as the story’s hero, his treatment of Alicia is hardly knight in shining armor material as he constantly judges and berates her for her vices. At first glance, his attitude could be dismissed as understandable given her behavior and the norms of the era. The fact that he continues to malign her even after learning of her efforts to stop her father’s fascist activities and that she uses her vices to escape the guilt of failing to do so is nothing less than cruel. The script goes on to portray him in an even more negative light when he tasks her with selling herself under federal orders after previously chastising her for her promiscuity. His hypocrisy, and the film’s biting criticism of it, reaches its peak when Alicia reluctantly agrees to her assignment only to be confronted with rejection and condemnation from Devlin when she succeeds. In an interesting contrast, the film’s villain, Alex, is portrayed as understanding and tolerant when he not only pursues a relationship with but marries Alicia with full knowledge of her past. In its sympathetic portrayal of Alicia and its exploration of her relationships with the two very different men in her life, Notorious highlights the hypocrisies of sexual double standards in a way that few Hays Code era films would have dared. Through its scathing social and political commentary the film raises challenging questions that remain startlingly relevant today.
The film continues to thrill audiences thanks in large part to the stellar work of its cast. Claude Raines portrays Alex with a humanity and complexity that make him a surprisingly sympathetic villain. Leopoldine Konstantin rivals Hitchcock’s other infamously evil mother, Mrs. Bates, in her wonderfully wicked role as Alex’s oppressive mother. Cary Grant makes for an impressive anti-hero in a performance that combines his characteristic charm with an underlying bitterness and menace. Ingrid Bergman inhabits the outwardly tough but inwardly vulnerable Alicia in a way that will leave viewers as susceptible to her charms as Raines’ and Grant’s characters.
Easily one of the most intelligent films to tackle international intelligence, Notorious is another masterful effort from the master of suspense. At once a tale of political intrigue and a powerful political criticism, the film is far more than just another spy story. Through its gripping script and uniformly excellent performances the film weaves a twisting web of suspense and deceit that will leave viewers guessing until its final frame. With its scathing social commentary and subversive take on post-war politics Hitchcock’s 1946 hit remains Notorious.