Classic Woman-centric Movie Review: “Notorious” (1946)

Unintended love blossoms out of a lucrative spy mission in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 film Notorious, starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Much like Orson Welles did with The Stranger, Hitchcock took advantage of the residual fears from World War II and used it as a subject for this romantic spy thriller.

Poster for the film.

Devastated by her father’s recent conviction as a Nazi spy, Alicia Huberman (Bergman) has lost all sense of purpose in life and parties away her waking hours as a way to forget. When she meets T. R. Devlin (Grant), who has crashed one of her parties, she finds him to be

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.

attractive. But there’s more to Devlin than his good looks and charm: he’s a government agent who seeks to recruit Alicia into the spying business. Alicia’s father had friends in Rio de Janeiro, friends who were – and still are – just as sympathetic to the Nazi cause as he was. The U. S. government seeks to know just exactly what they’re up to, and Alicia is the perfect woman to infiltrate her father’s circle and win their confidence, particularly the confidence of Alexander Sebastian (Rains). But there’s just one problem: During their time together, Alicia and Devlin have fallen in love. For Devlin, though, the mission and what it may lead to are more important. When Alicia shows her reluctance to take the mission because of her newfound feelings for him, he denies that she ever meant anything to him. Angry with him, but determined to see the mission completed, Alicia throws herself into creating the role that her mission demands.

Sebastian holds a dinner for her at his house to reintroduce her to her father’s group of friends. Alicia notes that one of her fellow guests becomes quite upset when he sees the wine bottles placed on the sideboard. He is immediately escorted into another room, and Alicia sees no more of him.

Despite this, Alex, who has always held a torch for Alicia, resumes his courtship of her, and soon he and Alicia are married. Try as she might, Alicia can’t find anything in the house showing that Alex may be connected with further Nazi activities. But when Alex gives her

Alex nearly catches Devlin and Alicia.

the keys to all of the rooms in the house, she notices that it’s missing the key to the wine cellar. She mentions this to Devlin, and they engineer a plan for Alicia to obtain the key so they can investigate the wine cellar at the Sebastians’ next big party, to which Devlin has been invited as a guest. Alicia and Devlin are able to slip into the wine cellar and discover that Alex and his friends have been up to something odd: The wine bottles contain black sand. One of the bottles breaks, though, and Devlin hides the pieces under the wine rack. He and Alicia leave and lock up the wine cellar just as Alex is coming to get some more champagne. Devlin pretends to be drunk and to make a pass at Alicia, but the two don’t cover their tracks that easily. While in the wine cellar, Alex discovers the pieces of the broken wine bottle and puts two and two together. He and his mother, who is also an active member of the refugee Nazis, decide that there is only one thing to do: get rid of Alicia.

Notorious is one of Hitchcock’s more flawless films. In just under two hours, we see the different facets of the three main characters. While each character might have a bad trait, there is a good trait to balance it out, and vice versa. This goes back to the old adage that no hero is truly good and no villain is truly bad. And throughout, we see the characters’ inability to cope well with their emotions: Devlin is in love with Alicia, but refuses to let his feelings for her get in the way of the mission; Alicia, heartbroken over Devlin’s supposed rejection, throws herself into sham marriage and possible danger to try and forget her feelings for him.

Hitchcock filming the shot in which Alicia steals the wine cellar key from Sebastian.

Hitchcock himself is a master of showing and not telling through the use of light and camera angle and the actors’ tones and expressions. As with many of his movies, he uses these to not only tell the story, but to build suspense and make the viewer wonder what is going to happen. For example, at the dinner Alex throws for Alicia, we see the other dinner guest grow quite agitated when he sees the wine bottles lined up on the sideboard. And if Alicia is supposed to be the new mistress of the house, why wouldn’t she have a key to the wine cellar, along with the keys to all of the other rooms? The little clues provided make you ask the questions and lead you to the final climactic scene where everything comes together. And of course, like with every Hitchcock movie, there is that very last scene where you’re holding your breath wondering if Devlin and Alicia are going to come out of this okay. And of course, there always is that tiny little question that you’ll ask yourself at the next gathering you go to: What exactly is inside those wine bottles on the wine rack?


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