1001 Classic Movies: Notorious

Notorious (1946), starring Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, is one of the 1001 classic movies you should see.

Each Monday, I'm going to recommend a classic movie you should see (for the reasons behind the 1001 series and reviews of earlier films covered go here). February's theme is the leading ladies of Cary Grant. This week's actress is Ingrid Bergman who appeared with Grant in two movies, including director Alfred Hitchcock's spy thriller, Notorious (1946).

Notorious tells the story of Alicia Huberman (Bergman), a German-born American citizen whose father is convicted of treason during World War II. Alicia is loyal to her adopted country, but her ties to the Nazi community lead government agent T.R. Devlin (Grant) to choose her to infiltrate a high-ranking group of Nazis who are operating a spy ring in Rio de Janeiro. However, Alicia and Devlin fall in love during her training, which leads to unforeseen complications when she is asked to romance a high-ranking Nazi (Claude Rains).

Notorious is based on a 1921 short story, "Song of the Dragon" by John Taintor Foote about an actress who is recruited as a secret agent during World War I. Hitchcock fancied the idea as his second collaboration with both Bergman and Grant, and he approached independent producer David O. Selznick, who owned the rights to the story, about making the film (the cash-strapped Selznick eventually sold the script and the services of Bergman and Hitchcock to RKO Pictures for $800,000 and 50 percent of the profits). The result was an intricately plotted and surprisingly prescient film that is now regarded as one of Hitchcock's masterpieces.

Notorious was the first of two films Grant and Bergman made together: The other is the romantic comedy Indiscreet (1956). Both actors were top Hollywood stars when they made Notorious, but, while Bergman was coasting on a string of successes, Grant was at a frustrating point in his career. He was tired of the light comic persona that had made his name, but he had already tried his luck with more serious fare with mixed success. Grant finally achieved the right balance of glamour and great acting  with Notorious, which allowed him to be a romantic leading man while also proving his acting chops by playing a character who is sometimes manipulative and devious.

Notorious Viewer's Guide: This movie is a favorite among Hitchcock aficionados for its intricate plot and dazzling camera work. Here's what to look for when you watch:
1. Nazis in South America. Anyone with basic cable knows that more than 70 years after the end of World War II reality shows are still hunting Hitler, but Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht detailed the Nazis' flight to the Southern Hemisphere, and their alleged attempts to gain nuclear weapons, less than a year after the end of the conflict.
2. Alicia's sacrifice. While Hitchcock certainly supported the war effort, gung-ho patriotism just wasn't his screen style. About halfway through the film Alicia makes a decision that is both painful and humiliating, and the director spares us none of her private torture or the casual indifference of the American agents to her plight.
3. Intricate camerawork. Hitchcock and cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff outdid themselves in Notorious with several spectacular shots. Watch for a long tracking shot that moves from a balcony to a closeup of a key in Bergman's hand.
4. Madame Konstantin. Hitchcock wanted Ethel Barrymore for the part of Rains' domineering mother, but, when she turned him down, he cast Austrian actress Leopoldine Konstantin in her only English language film. Konstantin makes an unforgettable impression as a chain-smoking and and German-plait wearing matriarch who is even more dedicated to the Nazi cause then her son.

Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Alfred Hitchcock on the set of Notorious (1946).
Other critics: Notorious has a 97 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and Leonard Maltin calls the movie "frank, tense, well-acted with an amazingly suspenseful climax" in a three and 1\2 star review for his Classic Movie Guide. Critics in 1946 handed in mostly rave reviews. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote that the film was "about as thrilling as they come—velvet smooth in dramatic action, sharp and sure in its characters and heavily charged with the intensity of warm emotional appeal."

The bottom line: If you've already seen all of the well-known Hitchcock movies, do yourself a favor and watch Notorious. You'll be rewarded with two great stars and one iconic director at the top of their game.

Availability: Notorious is available on DVD and Blu ray.

Next week, I'll continue the February theme of the leading ladies of Cary Grant with he and Deborah Kerr in the romance, An Affair to Remember (1956). Next week's article will be published on Tuesday (2-21) so I can participate in the Movie of the Week Blogathon.