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Always a manipulator of audience perceptions and expectations, director Alfred Hitchcock did a pretty audacious thing for 1945 - right at the end of World War II, he created a sympathetic Nazi character in Notorious (1946), a romantic thriller involving scheming Germans living incognito in South America. Not that Hitchcock portrays the activities and philosophies of the Nazis in a positive light or makes Sebastian (played by Claude Rains) the "hero" of the story. That distinction goes to Cary Grant as FBI agent T.R. Devlin, but there again, Hitchcock toys with our sympathies. Assigned to enlist the American-born daughter (Ingrid Bergman) of a Nazi war criminal in a plot to trap the Germans, Devlin often appears cagey, bitter, and apparently insensitive to the young woman's feelings or the imminent danger she faces. On the other hand, Sebastian is shown to be a cultured man who truly loves his colleague's daughter (possibly more than Devlin does); in essence, he's a put-upon, emotionally vulnerable man with a domineering mother, fatally betrayed by the one person he truly cares about. At the end of the movie, you almost feel sorry for him.
Playing games with the audience is not the only thing that makes Notorious a quintessential Hitchcock experience. There are the technical hallmarks - an incredible zoom-in from a high crane shot to an extreme close-up of a significant plot detail in Bergman's hand; a famous kissing scene (designed to override the objections of censors) with Grant and Bergman nibbling away at each other while talking about food; the suspenseful inter-cutting of the final scene. Here also are prime early examples of some trademark Hitchcock themes and motifs - a woman complicitous in her forced transformation to a different person, later brought to its most obsessive heights in Vertigo (1958); the figure of the mother both adoring and deadly, who appears in various forms in Strangers on a Train (1951), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), and Marnie (1964). And, of course, the MacGuffin, the narrative device Hitchcock once defined as the thing that motivates the actions of the characters but which is of minor interest to audiences.
The MacGuffin in this case is uranium ore hidden in wine bottles in Sebastian's basement. Hitchcock always claimed to be remarkably prescient in his choice of this detail. According to the story he told for many years, the idea came to him one day in March of 1945 (several months before the world became of aware of the atom bomb) during a script session with veteran screenwriter Ben Hecht. Hitchcock said he was aware uranium was an unstable, rare element that might eventually be used to develop a nuclear weapon. In fact, he claimed he was placed under federal surveillance for making such an accurate guess. Whether or not he came up with the idea during the early scripting phrase, or a couple months after the bombing of Japan when the final screenplay was delivered, is open to debate. But he was right about one thing - the audience didn't care about the mysterious wine bottles.
The real suspense in Notorious is generated not by the "MacGuffin" but by the love story, the triangle between a federal agent, a Nazi, and the beautiful woman perilously trapped between them. And that's another unmistakable touch of the director - a romantic involvement that is heavily shaded with repression, obsessiveness, and deception. Biographers have suggested that Hitchcock was an expert in depicting these complex relationships because of his own infatuation with Bergman, with whom he had earlier worked with on Spellbound (1945). Hitchcock once told the story of how Bergman, attending a dinner party at his home, hysterically refused to leave his bedroom until he made love to her - an episode that almost surely never happened. But his obsession with the star was obvious enough to cause tension between him and his wife of many years, Alma Reville, during the filming of Notorious. Mrs. Hitchcock may have also had another reason for jealousy. Even though she was her husband's longtime collaborator, script doctor, and adviser, she was shunted aside during his successful writing partnership with Hecht on this film. Hitchcock and Hecht worked together three times previously, creating Spellbound, Foreign Correspondent (1940), and Lifeboat (1944), and they would make three more films after this - The Paradine Case (1947), Rope (1948), and Strangers on a Train.
The love story was given an extra dimension by the presence of Madame Sebastian, whose relationship with her son is part firm-handed mother and part jealous spouse (some Hitchcock biographers have said it is based on the director's relationship with his own wife). After Ethel Barrymore rejected the role, RKO suggested Mildred Natwick. The part finally went to legendary German actress Leopoldine Konstantin (credited as "Madame Konstantin"), who had acted for three decades with Max Reinhardt's famous theater troupe and made several pictures in Europe. But she was so unknown here she only received a meager salary for her work, even though she was fifth billed. Notorious was her only American film and her last screen appearance.
Producer/Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Ben Hecht
Cinematography: Ted Tetzlaff
Editing: Theron Warth
Art Direction: Carroll Clark, Albert D'Agostino
Original Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Cary Grant (T.R. Devlin), Ingrid Bergman (Alicia Huberman), Claude Rains (Alexander Sebastian), Leopoldine Konstantin (Madame Sebastian), Louis Calhern (Prescott).
BW-102m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon