Notorious: Movie Review
Notorious, starring Cary Grant as Devlin, Ingrid Bergman as Alicia and Claude Rains as Sebastian, was directed by Alfred Hitchcock from a screenplay by Ben Hecht and released in 1946. Critics often describe it as one of the best spy movies ever made.
Note: this is a review of the 1946 spy thriller not the recent biopic of the rapper, Notorious BIG.
An American agent asks the self-destructive daughter of a convicted traitor to seduce a Nazi in South America. When the Nazi asks her to marry him, she has to decide how far she will deceive him in order to discover his plans.
Notorious: Plot Summary
Warning: My plot summaries contain spoilers The major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s 1946. Straight-laced American agent, T.R. Devlin recruits Alicia Huberman, the self-destructive, heavy-drinking daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, to infiltrate a group of German expatriates in Brazil.
In Brazil, Alicia and Devlin begin an affair, but Devlin’s superiors order him to persuade Alicia to seduce the leader of the Nazi group, Alex Sebastian. Alicia, who has fallen in love with Devlin, hopes he will offer her a way out, but he, unable to believe in her, doesn’t.
Devlin arranges a ‘chance meeting’ between Alicia and Sebastian while horse riding. Sebastian has been infatuated with Alicia for years, he’s delighted to see her again. He invites Alicia to dinner at his house. At the dinner, Alicia suspects there is something secret in the wine cellar.
Devlin debriefs Alicia. Alicia tells him of her suspicions about the wine cellar and remonstrates with him for forcing her into the mission. He says he knew she couldn’t change her ways, upsetting her. Sebastian sees Devlin and Alicia together and is jealous and suspicious. Alicia tries to persuade Sebastian she loves him. He asks her to prove it by marrying him.
Alicia goes to Devlin and his superiors to ask them what to do. They tell her to go ahead, although Devlin is not happy about it.
What’s in the Cellar?
Alicia and Sebastian get married and go on a short honeymoon. When they return, Devlin asks Alicia to hold a party and invite him, which will give him an opportunity to investigate. Alicia steals the key to the wine cellar and they search it. Devlin accidentally breaks a bottle, which turns out to be full of a metallic substance. Devlin takes a sample and tries to clean up, and they sneak out again just in time. Later, Sebastian notices the cellar key is missing. When it reappears overnight, he realises Alicia is a spy…
Sebastian [blackout]decides to poison Alicia, as the other Nazis will kill him if they suspect his wife is a spy, but if she dies after a brief illness they will be none the wiser.[/blackout]
Devlin [blackout]discovers the substance from the cellar is uranium, suggesting that the Nazis are trying to build a nuclear weapon of some sort. He meets Alicia, who already ill from the poison but, hurt by his callous attitude, tells him she has started drinking again.[/blackout]
Alicia finally realises [blackout]Sebastian is poisoning her, but collapses and Sebastian traps her in her room, at his mercy.[/blackout]
Devlin [blackout] realising that Alicia was ill, not drunk, at their last meeting, goes to the villa, sneaks into Alicia’s bedroom and rescues her. Sebastian tries to stop them, but Devlin threatens to expose him to the other Nazis, who are waiting downstairs. Realising his predicament, Sebastian allows Devlin and Alicia to leave and asks them to take him with them. Devlin refuses, leaving Sebastian to his fate.[/blackout]
Notorious has a Mission plot (see spy movie plots).
The ‘Mission’ Plot
- Is given a mission to carry out by their Mentor.
- Will be opposed by the Antagonist as they try to complete the mission.
- Makes a plan to complete the Mission.
- Trains and gathers resources for the Mission.
- Involves one or more Allies in their Mission (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
- Attempts to carry out the Mission, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they meet them.
- Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
- Narrowly avoids capture by the Antagonist (or is captured and escapes).
- Has a final confrontation with the Antagonist and completes (or fails to complete) the Mission.
A woman seducing a man she doesn’t love on the orders of another man, who she loves but who may not love her, sounds like a classic noir theme, but Notorious is not a true film noir.
Noir elements include:
- A love affair between two cynical, alienated and mistrusting people.
- A man who treats the woman who loves him callously and manipulates her for his own gain.
- A man whose love is being manipulated by a woman who cares nothing for him and who intends to betray him.
- Characters willing to transgress moral boundaries to reach their goals.
Non-noir elements are:
- Glamorous protagonists (Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman).
- Characters being able to avoid their fate and resist the forces dragging them down.
- A redemptive ending for the protagonists.
Fundamentally, Notorious is a romantic thriller that incorporates film noir elements. The spy mission causes the couple’s problems, but their misunderstandings and mistrust keep them apart.
For a much more light-hearted treatment of the story of a woman infiltrating a spy organisation through a romance with the mastermind, see North By Northwest, also starring Cary Grant, but with the female spy played by Eve Marie Saint.
Hitchcock’s movies often revolve around a MacGuffin – an item that is of no direct plot relevance, though the characters are all searching for it or seek to possess it. In Notorious the MacGuffin is the secret in the wine cellar, which could be almost anything. Supposedly in some versions of the screenplay, the cellar held stolen diamonds. The question of what exactly the Nazis are up to with their uranium is unresolved, which is a weak point.
Characters and Attitudes
Alicia is the most sympathetic character in Notorious, unable to cope with the discovery that her father is a traitor and embarking on a self-destructive binge. All she wants is a chance of redemption, something that Devlin denies her until the denouement.
Sebastian is also a sympathetic character, despite being a Nazi. He is charming, attentive and eventually destroyed by his love for Alicia. His decision to kill her is the blind revenge of a betrayed man who has had everything taken from him.
Maybe in 1946 Devlin’s attitude to Alicia would have seemed normal, but to a modern eye, his behaviour seems grotesque. He forces Alicia into the mission, then blames her and her ‘lack of character’ for doing what he asked her to do. He manipulates her into a terrible position and spends the movie feeling sorry for himself because of a situation he has helped to set up. However, in the end, he realises what a fool he has been, saving himself from being a completely negative character.
Reality: Honey Traps
Although a staple of espionage fiction, honey traps – sending agents to seduce the enemy – are rare in reality. One notable exception was the East German spymaster, Markus Wolf, who regularly used male ‘Romeo’ agents. These men sought out West German women in sensitive positions, romanced them, and turned them into spies. The programme was so successful that eventually NATO had to start monitoring all single women in their employ to make sure they weren’t in relationships with East German spies.
Notorious: My Verdict
A great romantic thriller with a noirish edge. Recommended.
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