TB: This weekend we’re looking at another collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman. While SPELLBOUND had been released a year earlier through United Artists, this production was done at RKO. It seems rather obvious that producer David Selznick has a guiding hand behind the scenes. This was the first time that Bergman had been cast in a film with Cary Grant.
The two would be reunited in 1958 for the European flavored romantic comedy INDISCREET. Grant had already made SUSPICION with Hitch, and of course would go on to make two more films with the director in the 1950s. NOTORIOUS benefits not only from its strong cast which includes Claude Rains in a pivotal role, but from Hitchcock’s direction, and from a finely crafted script.
JL: When discussing SPELLBOUND, I failed to give credit to screenwriter Ben Hecht. Perhaps it doesn’t matter because he was essentially a co-writer there with Angus MacPhail and its ventures into psychoanalysis were not “typical” Hecht. The subsequent NOTORIOUS, which Hecht wrote on his own, is a much more the expected combination of Master Screenwriter Cynic with the Master of Suspense. The screenplay for NOTORIOUS includes a few prominent juicy and subtly sexist lines like “A man doesn’t tell a woman what to do… she tells herself” and “Dry your eyes, baby; it’s out of character.”
TB: What do you think Hecht was trying to say with this particular story?
JL: In Hecht’s view of the world affairs in 1946, those who merely sat idle while fascism destroyed a continent must now work hard to compensate for their idleness. Ingrid Bergman here plays party girl Alicia, the daughter of a Nazi spy, who has done a bit too much drinking and carrying on. Had U.S. agent “Devlin,” a diabolical name for Grant’s character, not been around, she would be in jail for a DUI. Hecht kind-of/sort-of makes a parallel between her and the people of Germany who, in his personal view and those of many other Americans as well (since we revisit similar themes in later Hollywood perspectives like JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG), the Germans allowed their country to slip into the dark side without fighting as hard against it as the opposing side.
TB: That seems like a lot of drama to hang on poor Alicia. Of course, Bergman excels at these kinds of flawed heroines who strive to become more virtuous by the end of the film.
JL: Alicia must now counter everything Daddy had done by working hard, very hard. She must now start rooting out future Nazism in areas it managed to escape to after the war. Even though she falls in love with Devlin her recruiter, she is forced to marry the best friend of her late father, Alexander Sebastian, played by Rains.
TB: Rains does a truly superb job here. In many ways his character leads the story, even when he is not even on screen! Plus we have the intriguing subplot of Sebastian’s relationship with his mother. It sort of foreshadows the mummy-son scenarios in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and PSYCHO.
JL: Alicia and Devlin attempt to get evidence to convict Sebastian down in Rio de Janeiro. However, Sebastian isn’t naive since both he and his mother Madame Anna (stoically played by Leopoldine Konstantin) decide to poison Alicia slowly to death once Alicia’s plot is uncovered. As far as lady spies goes, even Mata Hari had it easier than Alicia!
TB: Care to comment on other aspects of the storyline? Maybe specific scenes that seem to capture viewers?
JL: There isn’t a whole lot of story to this one, but it doesn’t matter. It is still a fan favorite of the Hitch filmography for a multitude of reasons. There are several great set-up scenes like the spectacular panoramic shot over the mansion banisters. Plus a shot through a crowd before a zoom-in to a wine cellar key that Alicia is handling under Alexander’s watchful eyes. Not many classics, even among the Hitchcock films, have achieved such a stunning visual effect and this image gets discussed in the movie history books often.
Each time I watch this scene, I am oddly reminded of those famous scenes of Jacques and Gus the mice stealing a key from stepmother Lady Tremaine in Walt Disney’s adaptation of CINDERELLA. Since that film began production after this one, I have to wonder if the Disney animation staff studied it to steal a few, um, “key” ideas.
TB: It is certainly possible.
JL: Naturally this is one of Ingrid Bergman’s finest performances since she has so much to do on screen. Hher face is full of emotional expression in practically every shot. Like the famous key zoom-in, the zoom-ins to her and Cary Grant kissing have been discussed almost as much as Marion Crane’s shower scene. This is primarily due to the clever way Hitch’s team got around the Production Code.
TB: What do you mean?
JL: The performers were only allowed a certain number of seconds for kissing so we get a lot of short kisses, stopping and starting in quick procession. Personally I feel more “heat” coming from Bergman than Grant here, although he compensates in the final act when he becomes her knight in armor saving her life and, to be fair, his character is supposed to be a bit cool and distant due to his jealousy of her marrying another man in the service of her country. The way she constantly fondles his face with her hands is pretty hot stuff for the forties.
TB: So while Alicia is married to Sebastian and being “romanced” by Devlin, she is desiring some sort of extra-marital affair. Again, that would violate the production code, which would technically be in favor or her making the marriage to Sebastian work…even if Sebastian is still a villain!
JL: I especially like the scene when Sebastian almost tears up in front of his mother about his discovery that his beloved wife, whom he does genuinely love at first, is betraying him. I do feel his sense of hurt after Devlin’s devliish line of “I knew her before you, loved her before you, only I’m not as lucky as you.”
We don’t often feel sorry for the villains, but Rains plays his role with tremendous sympathy. One possible criticism here is that he may play his role TOO sympathetic and is, therefore, less convincing as a villain. After all, before he and Mother plan their scheme against Alicia, he is a very caring husband who demonstrates more verbal affection towards her than aloof-until-the-finale Devlin.
TB: That’s an excellent point to make. Sebastian and Devlin sort of switch roles during the story, in terms of which one is meant to anchor Alicia and give her some definition in a domestic sense. Since Hitchcock, Hecht and the studio wanted the two more attractive youthful leads to end up together before the final fadeout, Sebastian’s villainy needs to overtake him, and Devlin’s heroism needs to become more evident.
JL: Supposedly there were three separate endings planned, according to the DVD extra commentaries for this movie. One ending actually had Alicia die from poison and Devlin is seen alone at a cafe hearing other people discuss her as a “notorious” woman while he mourns her.
TB: I don’t think that ending would have worked very well. It would have been way too somber. Audiences of the 1940s, conditioned to have romantic happy endings, would not have cared for it.
JL: There were also plans to make her character more of a “tramp” than already suggested (in lines like “You can add Sebastian’s name to my list of playmates”), but it was decided to make Bergman more pristine and steam cleaned for the screen. This was an example of the Selznick influence still in effect since the producer made sure his star (under contract to him) remained respectable in terms of her screen persona. It was also a major reason why her scenes were edited out of the bizarre Salvador Dali dream sequence in SPELLBOUND.
TB: Interesting. Yes, I think Selznick’s financial stake in Bergman’s services as an actress determined whether she played redeemable heroines. There is no way she would have been allowed to play a woman of ill-repute or a “bad girl” / villainess in any way. Not during this phase of her Hollywood career.
JL: Selznick’s fingerprints are all over this movie and his name appears on the credits, but he pretty much sold it outright to RKO Radio early in production because he was burning his pockets with DUEL IN THE SUN and needed the quick cash. The resulting film does resemble a Selznick International production in feel if not reality, almost as if it was being distributed through RKO instead of the usual United Artists but somehow missing the familiar sign-and-plantation house logo. While this is a classic romantic movie with plenty of Production Code Era love making, the music score by RKO regular Roy Webb tones everything down much more than in the previous SPELLBOUND and other Selznick pictures so that it is less gushy-slushy than we expect.
TB: Despite Selznick’s behind the scenes control over Bergman’s performance and other aspects of the production, it is of course, still an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
JL: Being one of Hitch’s most famous films, it is somewhat difficult to explain “what it is” that one likes about it. Probably because the story is simple yet presented in a complicated manner with so many special effects that you feel there is a lot more going on than you think. Sometimes the effects in themselves and the primary work of cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff is more impressive visually than functionally.
TB: Care to elaborate on that?
JL: Well, we discover that the wine bottles have uranium powder in them but there isn’t much discussion on that subject like there would be on microfilm leaks in the “pumpkin” that Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint discover in NORTH BY NORTHWEST.
Yet isn’t it groovy-cooly how Hitch makes sure one bottle gradually slides off the shelf in full view of the viewers while Cary Grant’s Devlin is too busy studying the year labels on each bottle? As if the labels focused on were somehow important to the story as well, when they are more likely “red herrings” to distract us.
TB: That is all we have time for this weekend. Thanks Jlewis. I’ve enjoyed your thoughts and observations about SPELLBOUND and NOTORIOUS.
JL: Sure. By the way, worth listening to is a condensed half hour radio version of NOTORIOUS for The Screen Guild Theater. It was aired on NBC, January 6, 1949 and also features Ingrid Bergman.