Watching old movies is always a challenge, not because they’re boring or uninteresting, but mainly because times have changed. It’s easy to say “if I saw Star Wars when it came out in 1977 I would’ve been more blown away than I am today”, but that’s not enough. There’s an entire culture and atmosphere of that era that is no longer present and without them, the experience can never be the same. So to fully appreciate a movie that premiered in 1946 is an even bigger challenge than appreciating one from the ’70s, but it’s not impossible. Once you’re able to get past the low-budget effects and the numerous faux backdrop shots, genuinely liking the movie becomes a lot easier.
But there are still a lot of other things that must be taken into account, such as the difference in acting styles, the obvious unnatural lighting, the occasional over-dramatic (or under-dramatic) reactions to events, and the simplicity with which the entire movie is staged, designed, set up, and shot.
Notorious has an incredibly simple premise: an American government agency recruits a slightly damaged but patriotic woman (whose father’s a convicted Nazi spy) to uncover certain secrets from her father’s former Nazi colleagues. The colleagues have found sanctuary in Rio and their leader is a moderately charming man who’s still locked under the grip of his mother. As the patriotic woman ingratiates herself with the man, she will discover dark secrets that could prove fatal.
But the plot of Notorious is not so simple. There is an unspoken dialogue between the movie’s three leads, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains that deepens their relationship with each other. It’s more like a subtext, working beneath what we actually see to help guide us in sympathizing with the right people. As the movie starts, we’re not obliged to sympathize with Alicia (Bergman) because we know her father’s a Nazi spy. In the next scene, her boorish and drunkard behaviour reenforces our lack of sympathy. She chases her guests out of her house and not only demands to go for a drive with the mysterious Devlin (Grant) but also insists on doing the driving herself. Devlin, of course, just plays along. He knows precisely what his job is.
To cut a long story short, Devlin finally persuades Alicia to take on the duty requested of her, more or less against both their wills; they’ve fallen in love you see. It is now that we begin to sympathize with Alicia. By using his power as an authoritative figure, Devlin stamps his role as the tease, the man who’s really in love but fails to admit it because he needs his woman to carry out a job. And in this case, that job is sending her off into the arms of another man. So we sympathize with Alicia because she’s put in a dangerous position against her will and not with Devlin because he has the control.
But Notorious gives us a treat, and spins the tables. As Alicia begins to trick her target — Alex Sebastian (Rains) — into believing her, he falls hard and even proposes to marry her. Naturally, Alicia checks with Devlin first to see if he has any objections. He doesn’t, and so Alicia accepts Alex’s proposal. This is where the table-turning happens: Alicia is now the one with control and relinquishes our sympathy. Alex gains our sympathy the more he uncovers Alicia’s ulterior motive. And so this interplay between the characters forgives the movie’s slow pace and gives us a story that’s more intriguing than at first it appears.
Speaking of appearances, I don’t necessarily think that Notorious screams Hitchcock. Maybe I’m just not familiar enough with movies from the ’40s to accurately tell them apart, but I found it difficult to identify Hitchcockian trademarks. He was forty-six when he made this movie and definitely already set in his ways, so why does it still come off generic? Suspense and tension are still present, that’s for sure, but the framing, compositions, and mise-en-scene seen in his later works (Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho) seem to be lurking in the shadows, unseen. The movie’s still a visual treat though, and the famous shot of the camera gliding down a second floor balcony and resting just above a key in Alicia’s hand is still an amazing feat of camera movement.
So why do I think this is a good film even though I can’t sense Hitchcock in it? Because it’s a solid exploration of the shift in power, and despite its failure to look fresh in today’s context, its story has endured. If you’ve seen the horrendous Mission Impossible II, you’d have realized just how much of Notorious is in it; not only the plot, but apparently some of the dialogue made it in as well. It’s managed to survive all these years and still influences the movies of today, and that says something. Nevertheless, if you asked me to choose between this movie or Vertigo, I’d choose Vertigo.
Best Moment | In classic Hitchcock suspense style, the scene in which Alicia and Devlin break in to Alex’s wine cellar to find out if anything’s fishy just as Alex and his colleague decide it’s time for more wine is great drama.
Worst Moment | Most probably the scene where Devlin and Alicia first arrive in Rio, and Alicia–for whatever reason–is determined to cook dinner for the both of them. A tad over-romantic too soon into the movie?