by Allan Fish
(USA 1946 101m) DVD1/2
Chicken in the icebox
p Alfred Hitchcock d Alfred Hitchcock w Ben Hecht ph Ted Tetzlaff ed Theron Warth m Roy Webb art Albert S.d’Agostino, Carroll Clark spc Vernon L.Walker, Paul Eagler cos Edith Head
Ingrid Bergman (Alicia Huberman), Cary Grant (T.R.Devlin), Claude Rains (Alexander Sebastian), Louis Calhern (Paul Prescott), Leopoldine Konstantin (Mme Sebastian), Reinhold Schünzel (Dr Anderson), Moroni Olsen (Walter Beardsley), Ivan Triesault (Eric Mathis), Alexis Minotis (Joseph), Wally Brown (Dr Hopkins), Gavin Gordon,
“This is a very strange love affair” Ingrid Bergman muses to Cary Grant during their extended love scene in Hitchcock’s romantic masterwork. Indeed it is, and it’s also one of the most psychologically perverse romantic chillers in Hollywood history. One recalls Sam Neill musing over his childhood movie-going in his look at New Zealand cinema for the Channel 4/BFI Century of Cinema series and saying how he saw the greatest movie ever made at a certain picture house – Hitchcock’s Notorious. Though I wouldn’t go that far, one can hardly rubbish such a statement. Notorious is a masterpiece and, as such, is as entitled for discussion as any other film to that most perilous of titles.
It begins with a neo-Nazi being tried and condemned for treason by a US court. His daughter is grilled by reporters leaving the courtroom and returns home for a party to forget everything. There she is propositioned by an American agent who gradually both involves her in acting as a spy and becomes obsessed by her. The problem is twofold; he doesn’t trust her as he knows her background as an alcoholic and a near nymphomaniac (“she’s good at making friends with gentlemen” Calhern says) and that she is about to be prostituted to another Nazi in Rio, who has always loved her.
Notorious was Hitch’s last real classic of the forties and possibly the one film in his canon whose appreciation is growing by the year. The plot in itself holds no surprises, but it is subtly developed, masterfully handled, and perfectly cast, with Bergman, in particular, never better, or more scrumptious. For someone who made her fortune out of looking wholesome, innocent and good (think of The Bells of St Mary’s and Casablanca), she gives as dynamic a performance of subdued nymphomania as is possible without taking your clothes off. Just watch the stars devour each other in the cinema’s most celebrated snogging binge before Grant leaves her on heat and loses his only chance to get his willing companion into bed. Then watch Grant torture himself for allowing himself to fall in love with someone who, not to put too fine a point on it, has a bed that is as well trodden as the Appian Way. Watch Grant place an empty glass on the right breast of a passed-out party guest, then cover Bergman’s bare midriff with a scarf (a deliberate swipe by Hitchcock at the censors, with Grant representing the Hays Office) and then go on a drunken drive along a road after a party (“I want to make it eighty and wipe that grin off your face…”). Watch the two of them weigh each other up in a bit of verbal foreplay at a café table in Rio, with Bergman resting her head on her black-gloved hands more sexily than a Playboy playmate can pose for a beaver shot. But best of all is when Bergman smiles suggestively to Grant and purrs, “you’re quite a boy!“ It’s the finest proposition Grant had had since Mae West mistook him for a Sally Army Major.
For all their charm, the cast (Rains is great, too, as the Nazi who is actually, politics aside, not a bad fellow) are merely the icing on the cake. What about those wonderful pieces of directorial bravado (such as the massive crane zoom in on the key in Bergman’s hand), the gorgeous noir photography (as befits RKO) and script of Ben Hecht, full of bitter longing? Not to mention that ending. Though all these things are unforgettable, they pale beside the face of Ingrid Bergman, a face to intoxicate the most unromantic of fellows. Indeed, this is the anti-romantic’s romance. As Bergman says “there’s nothing like a love song to give you a good laugh.” Notorious is not a film to make you laugh, but one to make you drool. And who knows, Sam Neill may be right after all.