Notorious is, more than likely, not the first film that comes to mind when one mentions Alfred Hitchcock. It doesn’t float atop the idea bucket that is lodged in the back of our brains. It’s not one of the films that we subconsciously attribute to Hitchcock when we see a tiny wooden Buddha statue. That may be because Notorious is not as ground-breaking as Psycho. It is not as shocking as The Birds. It doesn’t fly by the seat of its pants like North by Northwest. Notorious is not as romantically charming as To Catch a Thief nor is it as cringing as Rear Window. It’s certainly not as bewildering as Vertigo. For all of these reasons and more Notorious just isn’t, forgive the pun, as notorious as Hitchcock’s more culturally significant films.
However, it is absolutely one of Hitchcock’s best films. It contains elements of all the films mentioned above mixed together in a perfect concoction. The film is subtle and takes its time telling the story and the payoff is more than worth it. Notorious is actually Hitchcock’s 3rd highest grossing film, yet it is not his most popular film today. Released in 1946, it couples Ingrid Bergman (Alicia) and Carey Grant (Devlin), at the height of their film careers, as two spies trying to infiltrate a group of Nazis who have fled to Rio de Janeiro. Alicia marries a member of the Nazi group, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains, an acting staple in classic noir films), in order to get more information. Alex and Devlin learn of the Nazis’ plans with Uranium, but leave their own evidence behind in the process. Alex exposes Alicia as a spy and tries to slowly poison her in order to both kill her and also keep his Nazi friends from realizing that he has been married to an American spy.
Notorious has a bit of the romance and thrills, but its main attribute is that it is incredibly suspenseful. The audience knows that Alex is poisoning Alicia, yet this only increases the suspense. If there’s anything that Hitchcock has taught us it is that a film is more suspenseful when the audience is aware of the details of what’s going on. Hitchcock himself describes this suspense theory as if watching 4 men playing cards at a table for 15 minutes. All of a sudden, a bomb goes off and we are surprised. We rewind the scene and now know that there is a bomb underneath the table and the clock on the wall says 10:45. The scene suddenly becomes so much more suspenseful when we know the fate of the card players the second that the clock strikes 11:00
The final scene of the film is one of the best final scenes in movie history. Devlin strolls out of Alex’s mansion during a party with Alicia in his arms as Alex and his Nazi friends watch on. Up until the very end we’re not exactly sure what is going to happen, though our minds race with multiple possibilities.
Notorious was the first Hitchcock film that I saw on the big screen. An opportunity to view such fine film-making by one of history’s greatest directors on the big screen doesn’t come often. Fear not!! Notorious is playing at the Belcourt Theatre in Hillsboro Village this Saturday and Sunday, May 1-2. If you want a great film-going experience, you must visit the Belcourt Theatre. It is over 75 years old and to this day still preserves it’s southern classic and independent style.