Notorious (1946) was directed and produced by a 46 year old Alfred Hitchcock. The film stars Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains. It was shot in late 1945 / early 1946, and was released by RKO in August 1946.
To give himself utmost control, Hitchcock shot nearly all of the film indoors, on RKO sound stages. Second unit crews shot establishing exteriors and rear-projection footage in Miami, Rio de Janeiro and at the Santa Anita Park racetrack. This also allowed for long days of filming without worry about changes in light and enabled Hitchcock to overcome some other small problems that arouse. For example; Claude Rains, was 4 inches shorter than Ingrid Bergman. For the scenes where Rains and Bergman were to walk hand-in-hand, Hitchcock devised a system of ramps that boosted Rains’ height yet were hidden from the camera.
A MacGuffin is a plot device, in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist is willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to pursue. The MacGuffin often has little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so desirable. In Notorious the MacGuffin is Uranium ore hidden in bottles of wine, however it could just as well have been–maps, codes, diamonds etc.
Creation out of limitation
The censors at the time forbade a kiss lasting longer than 3 seconds, and so to overcome this Hitchcock got Bergman and Grant to alternate kissing with dialogue, while never leaving each other’s arms. The sequence lasts 3 minutes in all, it begins on a balcony overlooking Rio, encompasses a telephone call and a discussion of the dinner menu, and finishes with them parting at the apartment door. The 3 second rule led to a better scene.
Hitchcock choreographs the visuals so that they precisely reflect what is happening to the characters internal world. For example there is a famous shot that begins early in the film when Alicia awakens with a hangover, and there is a gigantic foreground close-up of a glass of Alka-Seltzer. From her point of view, she sees Devlin in the doorway, backlit and upside down. As she sits up, he rotates 180 degrees.
Devlin then suggests Alicia act as a spy for the US. When she refuses he plays a secret recording of her that that highlights her patriotism. As the record begins, she is in shadow, as it continues, she is in bars of light. As it ends, she is in full light.
The most famous and well crafted shot begins with a wide from a high landing above the entrance hall of Sebastian’s mansion and finishes, all in one motion, with a close-up of a key in Alicia’s nervously twisting hand.
During his interviews for his book on Hitchcock Francois Truffaut told him “Notorious gets a maximum of effect from a minimum of elements…. Of all your pictures, this is the one in which one feels the most perfect correlation between what you are aiming at and what appears on the screen…. To the eye, the ensemble is as perfect as an animated cartoon…”
NB: Hitchcock’s cameo in Notorious does not come until after the one-hour mark; when he became a television star in the 1950s, he slotted his cameos in the first few minutes so audiences would feel free to watch the film without watching for him.
Notorious (1946), tells the story of the infiltration of a Nazi Cell based in Brazil, researching nuclear fusion in the hope of re-launching an attack on the Allies post WW2. Recruited by American Agent R T Devlin, played by Carey Grant, Alicia Huberman, played by Ingrid Bergman, decides to undertake this infiltration after the imprisonment of her German Nazi father, by the American court for treason against the United States. In making this decision Alicia appears angry, adrift and confused over her American patriotism and her paternal loyalty. With nothing of great promise or hope on the horizon, and after falling in love with R T Devlin, Alicia, in a somewhat nihilistic, pseudo patriotic fashion, decides to go along with the proposal.
The film starts with Alicia’s father being sentenced to life imprisonment for treason, introducing the them of loyalty and betrayal into the storey, that underpins much of the psychological tensions between it’s Devlin and Alicia throughout the film. The relationship between Alicia and Devlin is the film’s core storyline and allows Hitchcock to address the traditional dyad of duty and love. However, in Notorious (1946) this dyad is re-framed under the over arching narrative of fidelity. A narrative immanent to both subject positions, for love as conceived in Notorious (1946) is more than a question of romantic attachment and attraction. In Notorious (1946), love is a question of fidelity and commitment to a promise of the transformation of a troubled life. A rupture to a troubled subjectivity. In the case of duty, we also see a commitment but this time to an ideology, be it American or German politic, and set against an event of love we are asked, what is the nature of fidelity. For the American Secret Service, there is necessity in searching out and prohibiting the re-growth of Nazism. For Alicia there is necessity in the relationship between herself and Devlin. In both cases necessity proves a fidelity to the nature of the truths innate in them. The traditional conflict between love and duty is re-conceived as a competition between loyalties and fidelity, both produced in pursuit of our private and collective desires. The theme of fidelity is thus explored in a number of ways through the power relations within the dimensions of the political and the romantic, the latter albeit a perverse romanticism that increases the psychological pressures between the two fidelities
Once in Brazil, Alicia is asked to make acquaintance with Alexander Sebastian, the host for the Nazi cell, a fellow German businessman and a friend of Alicia’s family. An added twist to the tension between Devlin and Alicia is that Alicia was previously in a lover of Alexander. Devlin’s seniors, wishing to exploit the advantage they see in Alicia’s past order Devlin to convince Alicia to seduce Alexander. An interesting scene then occurs wherein we see both Devlin and Alicia’s loyalties oscillate between their love and the project, as each attempt to gauge the commitment and fidelity of the other, as well as how they each feel about the increased cost of infiltration. Devlin in an almost adolescent manner, appears ambivalent to Alicia’s trajectory and side steps his loyalty to the truth of their love, by placing the entire decision at Alicia’s feet. But, we know Alicia is not in a position to walk away, not least as she is much more under the spell of her love for him, and in a somewhat confused state, decides to go ahead with the proposition out of loyalty to Devlin as an American agent and out of spite to him for not prohibiting the proposal. Their loyalty to one another, is thus infiltrated by their own ego defences and the super ego of the state: an infiltration that mimics the infiltration of the Nazi Cell but in reverse i.e. a state decree infiltrates a private love the inverse of a staged love infiltrating the Nazi Cell – a double ontology of conflicting loyalty. In similar fashion to Nazi politic, the American state de-humanises Alicia and unknowingly Devlin, by de-humanising the love between them. Alicia and Devlin in turn, actively become instrumental in this de-humanising process. Hence American state espionage demonstrates it’s fascist politics in the utility and de-humanising process of Alicia. What is inferred in the exploitation of Alicia is a fascistic subjection of the human to state power. America Secret Service and the post-Reich Nazism are juxtaposed and found to mirror one another’s politic of exploitation and dominance over the subject. A fine line is scored out between faithful patriotism and fascist pragmatics, again raising the question of to what are we faithful? Having asked this question, the conflict between love and ideology is fleshed out between Alicia and Devlin producing a further question of what is the substance of fidelity? Moving us away from the assumption that fidelity is always of substance, whether personal or collective, we are troubled by a notion that fidelity is often performed, hollowed out and commodified.
The psycho-drama between Devlin and Alicia play with the tension innate in the appearance of fidelity and the desire for a truth in it. In witnessing the destructive testing of Alicia and Devlin’s commitment to their love or the espionage, we are asked to question the difference between the appearance and substance, or the real and performed love. We see Devlin’s loyalty to America become hollowed out in light of his love of Alicia, and at the same time he attempts to hollow out his love for Alicia to defend against the pain he feels in being instrumental in her soliciting to Alexander (albeit unbeknown to Alexander). In turn Alicia, out of love and loyalty to Devlin, under the guise of American patriotism pretends to fall in love, hence pretend a fidelity to Alexander and her Germanic, “Nazi-fascist” heritage. In both realities, Alicia must hollow out herself in order to be filled in with the characteristics of the person she claims to be for the each ideology she embodies; that of American patriot, German sympathiser, lover or liar, faithful or cheat. Embodying one requires a loyalty and thus a conflict between the others, thus, the question becomes: What is the cost of loyalty? To whom are we loyal and Why? What drives us to choose these positions?
To answer these we might do well to return to early scenes in the film, when we see the unfolding of an event in which Alicia and Devlin begin to fall in love with each other, setting the stage for an analysis of fidelity. These scenes can be understood to demonstrate an event in the sense of Alain Badiou’s (1992) concept of an event. That is, an event that ruptures our subjectivity, beginning a process of re-constructing truth in light of the experience of the event. Known as a truth procedure, its emergence begins to produce new understanding and subjectivity to which we become faithful. Badiou goes on to conceives four forms in which specific types of events occur. These domains are, Art, Science, Politics and Love. In Notorious (1949), we see the interplay between politics and love and how these forms produce a political or romantic subject and the consequence of the corresponding fidelity to our human relations. In Notorious (1946), we find Alicia, Devlin and Alexander caught in the liminal zone between these two forms, wrestling with the pain of their conflicting truths and fidelity, which often results in destructive actions towards themselves and others. It seems for these characters, the conflict within materialises in their relations without, often resulting in suspicion, or resentment and even violence. This rhythm and repetition of destructive relating appears throughout the film and drives home the notion that desire, truth and fidelity are often incongruent with one another leading to perverse performances of all three. Sexual attraction is commodified and utilised to create an event for Alexander, are we to think Devlin may had also orchestrated such an event for Alicia? Alicia hollows out herself to perform love for Alexander that simultaneously begins a hollowing out of the authentic love between herself and Devlin. We see the stages of a tragic affair, the joys of falling in love; playful flirting, the joy of finding contentment, testing the love, the pain of past behaviour, mis-trust, resentment, paranoia and hypersensitivity. Stages that are identified in both the authentic Alicia-Devlin as well as the staged Alicia-Alexander affair. Leaving us to question the appearance and authenticity of love, fidelity and truth in general. Between Alicia and Devlin the question becomes, is this love real? Between Alicia and Alexander, for Alicia, the question becomes, how can this love appear real? And, for Alexander, the repeat question; is this love real? Finally, back to Alicia and Devlin, was this love ever real? Hence, we see a folding back of a staged love and fidelity, onto an originally authentic love and fidelity that is now threatened by the possibility of inauthenticity. The trajectory of this narrative thus begins to consume itself in a neurotic, nihilistic paranoia, all but complete save the near sacrificial annihilation of Alicia. Only in the final act is this cannibalistic trajectory redeemed by a rupture in Devlin’s subjectivity that begins a new truth, and thus a new consequence of fidelity to Alicia.
In the end the final questions becomes what is the nature of freedom and autonomy? Can we really become free of power, desire and the consequence of our decisions? Or, is it more a matter of understanding we cannot be free, but rather how to choose well, in what or to whom we are bound?
By Leon Pierre Cooley