In the wake of World War II, Alfred Hitchcock brought audiences “Notorious,” a romantic thriller with political undertones. To audiences of the era, I’m sure it was slightly scandalous. Not only in its dealing with Germans living in Brazil post-WWII and handling uranium, but also with its co-stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman kissing on and off for an extremely long take. It’s safe to say that was particularly sensual for film in 1946, but for modern viewers, their love affair seems almost childish and unfounded. The one aspect of this film that has not withered over the last 60-some years, however, is the immaculate direction of Sir Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitchcock is not only a master of suspense in “Notorious,” but also of grace and creativity. His every directorial choice is inspired and brilliant, creating every emotion and audience reaction he could’ve possibly intended. From his elegant zoom-ins on a memorable key to his object-focused transitions such as bottles of wine, Hitchcock is what makes this film truly great. Writer Ben Hecht has certainly crafted a screenplay of carefully placed tension and brilliant turns of events, but it’s Hitchcock telling this story through the details that makes it a classic.
Grant and Bergman star as two people with a mission who fall for each other. He’s a government agent in charge of persuading her, the daughter of a German-born traitor who’s just been imprisoned, to go undercover in Rio. She must use her womanly wiles to gain access to the house of one of her father’s old acquaintances who has always had feelings for her. Tension between the two lovers rises when she marries him for the sake of the operation.
The romantic aspect of the film is definitely weak by modern standards. It’s got a juicy old- world feel that when things get tough for them, acts like it’s a whole lot more intense than it is. Grant and Bergman, however, do their part to charm the audience into going with it. Once you get over the hump that they’ve starting taking themselves way to seriously too soon, it becomes an intriguing part of the film.
As a thriller, after the first 45 minutes the film starts to pick up. Hecht and Hitchcock hold the film’s only secret over your head for as long as they can to keep your attention and it pays off. There’s something just classically suspenseful about our heroes trying to gain access to the restricted cellar at a party, but if the party runs out of champagne, they’ll get caught. Hitchcock keeps showing the number of bottles in the cooler diminishing and the tension builds. Classic technique and there’s nothing stale about it.
The political edge has also kind of worn down on this film. I can imagine that would feel like a bigger deal right after WWII, but today the undertones are too subtle to come across the viewer completely. Hecht’s storytelling, however, premise aside, is superb. Ultimately, even if the romance is a bit out there and the magnitude of the situation diminished over the years Hitchcock and “Notorious” have you hooked, as always, on what will happen next.