Sunday, August 13, 2017

Notorious

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.


Yes, it’s Alfred Hitchcock time again. This 1946 film deals with the issue of who can one trust, especially when the only aspect of a person that one knows is his or her reputation. How someone appears on a superficial assessment may not truly represent the inner workings of a person.
After the titles and a statement that we are in Miami, the first scene is of news reporters peering into a courtroom as a verdict involving the crime of treason is pronounced. The shot implies that we are getting only a part of the whole story, since the camera is like a voyeur, objectifying the object of observation, not considering peripheral elements. In this case, the journalists only want a sensational story, without a search for depth. We get the ramifications of the legal sentencing as the focus shifts to the daughter of the convicted person, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman). We see her at a party, getting drunk, which is not what one would expect since her father has been sent to prison for having been a Nazi spy. So, the title of the film refers to Alicia’s father. But, it also includes his daughter by association. Add to that, we have a woman who likes to drink, have rowdy parties, and has a promiscuous reputation. On the surface, she would seem to be someone who would raise trust issues. There is an intoxicated man at the party who talks about fishing. The reference seems to imply that there is a need in the story to “fish” for clues to find out what is really going on, but one may encounter a few “red herrings,” that can lead a character astray.
The irony is that Alicia can, based on appearances, be a good double agent to infiltrate the circle of her father’s associates. We see the back of a man at Alicia’s party. This shot implies that his true character is an unknown, also. The man is Devlin (Cary Grant). The two flirt, and even in their back-and-forth there is a cynicism, a suspiciousness about anything noble or pure. She says, “Nothing like a love song to give you a good laugh,” and he confirms the feeling by saying, “that’s right.” Her overt sexual nature is evident when he asks her when they go outside if she will need a coat. She says, “you’ll do.” This statement, however, just reinforces his preconceived notion of her as being a tramp. Alicia takes him for a drunken drive. Her shame involving her father comes to the surface when she says she might as well get arrested, then her whole family will be in jail. She drives recklessly, but he is pretty cool under the circumstances, and we soon learn why. When a policeman pulls Alicia over, Devlin flashes his ID, and the cop quickly  becomes subservient. Alicia, who has been followed by authorities who think she has information about her father’s contacts, is angry that Devlin is just another policeman harassing her, and she has trust issues with him now since he was not what he appeared to be. She physically struggles with him, and he knocks her out with a short jab, effective given her consumption of alcohol. But, it does show his hard edge, that he is committed to getting his job done, no matter the means.

As Alicia wakes up, we see the surroundings through her eyes. Things seem crooked, out of focus. Devlin is there, but he appears upside down. We are in a world where things are not straightforward, right and wrong may have exchanged positions, and its deceptiveness makes it difficult to navigate morally. Devlin tells her he has a job for her. She knows her father’s Nazi associates who are in Brazil, and may be able to “sell her trust” to them so she can provide the American intelligence community with information. It is interesting that “selling” here is equated with a type of sham, which makes sense since it is self-serving. Trusting someone can be a treacherous risk. She is resistant, saying that Devlin’s patriotism is insincere, self-serving. But, he had her place bugged, and recordings show that Alicia was against her father’s activities, hated him for it, and loved her new country, the United States. So, her true American patriotism is revealed, and her morality, ironically, through deceptive eavesdropping. She agrees to help, but she will be putting herself in danger, raising the question of how much must be sacrificed to get the job done?
Before her assignment, the two spend some time together, and romantic feelings emerge. She says she is a changed woman. He doesn’t want to admit, even to himself, that he is falling in love with her. His skepticism emerges about her ability to be faithful to him when she says that he will probably say he is really married and has a family. He tells her that she must hear that line a lot. The implication is that she has been with many men, even ones that are married. They fly down to Rio together along with Devlin’s boss, Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern). On the flight, Devlin tells Alicia that her father poisoned himself in prison, and is dead. (The poisoning here turns out to be a foreshadowing event). She remembers how nice it was with her father before she found out that he was involved with Nazis. Another deception, even worse here because it involves father and daughter. In Rio, she tells Devlin that she has dreams of being an innocent child. But, her “notorious” past keeps interfering with Devlin’s ability to trust her. She has been eight days sober, and he sarcastically says that she is trying to “whitewash” her past. She feels helpless that he believes, “once a tramp, always a tramp.” When she accuses him of feeling ashamed of falling for her, he kisses her, illustrating his torn feelings.
The tension on their relationship is increased because of her assignment, which is to rekindle her relationship with German industrialist Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), with whom Alicia was once romantically involved. Alicia hopes that Devlin will admit his love for her, and then she would refuse the assignment. But, he can’t get past his doubts concerning her past, and his jealousy will not allow him to think clearly. He leaves it up to her. She says that their love affair is a strange one, because “you don’t love me.” In the absence of any protestations from Devlin, she feels defeated, and goes along with the mission. She may also want to punish Devlin for not committing to her.

The plan is to have Alicia meet Sebastian at a horse riding club. Horses, as was noted in the posts on Equus and Hitchcock’s Marnie, are archetypal symbols for male sexuality. A staged runaway horse allows Sebastian to rescue Alicia in manly fashion, and their reunion progresses from there. Devlin’s presence is explained as a chance meeting on the plane to Rio, where Devlin became infatuated with Alicia. This set-up promotes interest through romantic competition, but, ironically, Devlin is secretly emotionally fixated on Alicia. Whereas Devlin’s jealousy undermines his clarity of thought, so, too, does lust blind Sebastian to any possible intrigue concerning Alicia’s presence in Rio. Indeed, Sebastian says that meeting Alicia again brought back an old “hunger,” which suggests how sexual desire is associated with a person’s “appetites.” How a man allow a woman’s attractiveness to place him in a precarious situation is one of the main themes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as was explored in a previous post. Sebastian does recognize the spy boss Prescott, but Alicia explains, truthfully, that she has been harassed by U. S. Government officials  because of her father’s actions. She lies, though, when she says she came to Rio for an escape from those agents, and says her father was unselfish, and wanted her to leave America for her safety.

Sebastian’s mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) is immune to Alicia’s charms, and is suspicious of her. She questions why she did not testify at her father’s trial in his support. Mrs. Sebastian does not seem to buy Alicia’s explanation that her father wanted her to be kept away from the legal proceedings. Sebastian has been won over, and does not listen to his mother’s misgivings. He accuses her of her own maternal jealousy, wanting to always keep him away from romantic interests. At a party held by Sebastian with the Nazi sympathizers in attendance, Alicia notices that one of the men, Emil, gestures and makes a bit of a scene about a wine bottle. Later, the conspirators decide that Emil almost exposed their plans, and must be eliminated in what will look like an auto accident. Later, at the horse races, Alicia slips away (with Mrs. Sebastian noting her prolonged absence), and meets Devlin. She tells him about the fuss over the wine bottle. She adds, probably again to get a reaction from Devlin, that he can add Sebastian to her list of “playmates,” meaning she slept with him. Devlin seethes, and says she didn’t waste any time. She counters with it’s what he wanted. She was testing him, seeing if he would protest her role, which would show Devlin’s love for Alicia. But, at the same time, he was testing her, waiting for her to not agree to getting close to Sebastian, which would demonstrate her love for him. The suspicion, the lack of trust, caused them to hedge their bets, and kept them apart. He says if he had prevented her from doing the job, then they wouldn’t achieve the government’s mission. The thrust here is that there is a great deal of personal compromising sometimes when the bigger stakes are in play. The irony is that in the spy game, the chances of success are improved when people with moral flexibility are involved.
However, when Devlin meets with his colleagues and one comments on Alicia’s “notorious” background, Devlin comes to her defense, praising her courage. He says, “Miss Huberman is first, last, and always not a lady. She may be risking her life, but when it comes to being a lady, she doesn’t hold a candle to your wife, sitting in Washington, playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue.” He basically is saying being held in high esteem without action to back up the admired position is worthless. Alicia meets with the agents because she asks for advice about the extreme position she is in. Sebastian has asked her to marry him. They agree that she should go through with the marriage, with Devlin giving a sarcastic approval.



After the honeymoon, they return to Sebastian’s mansion. Alicia gets Sebastian to get keys from his mother so she can have access to all of the closets in the house. This action symbolically shows how she can get him to unlock his secrets through her feminine manipulation. But, the wine cellar is under lock and key, and it would be too suspicious if she tried to ask for the keys and investigate the area herself. She does take the key off of Sebastian’s chain when he is not carrying it. Devlin tells Alicia to get Sebastian to throw a party, and she should invite him to the event. Sebastian discovered them at the racetrack, but Alicia said that despite Devlin’s romantic persistence, she keeps rejecting him. Devlin says that she should tell Sebastian that when he, Devlin, sees how happy they are, he will relinquish his pursuit. When she tells Sebastian, he says, “It’s not that I don’t trust you.” But, he shouldn’t. The irony here is that her appearances with Sebastian are insincere, but he allows himself to be duped, while, she is straightforward about her feelings for Devlin, and he won’t trust her, because of her superficial reputation.
At the party, Alicia goes with Devlin to the wine cellar. He accidentally knocks over a bottle. In it, it turns out, is a mineral substance used in making a nuclear weapon. He tries to hide the broken bottle shards under the racks, and pours the contents into another bottle of wine that he has emptied of its liquid. On the way out, Devlin sees Sebastian approaching. He kisses Alicia. Their story is that he tried to force himself on her, but she resisted. Devlin apologizes and leaves. But, Sebastian sees the wine cellar key is missing from his chain. When he wakes in the morning, it has been returned. He also found spilled wine from the bottle Devlin emptied, broken glass, and sees that there was an attempt to make another bottle to appear as if it was still sealed. Sebastian goes to his mother and says he has been fooled and is married to an American spy. He fears for his own life now, because the others would kill Sebastian if they found out he allowed their plans to be compromised. Mrs. Sebastian says, to avoid suspicion, Alicia’s death must be slow. They decide to put poison in her coffee. This action again stresses the theme of how appearances can be deceiving. While the Sebastians on the surface appear to be caring for Alicia as she becomes weak and dizzy, they are in fact hiding their treachery in an innocent looking beverage.
Devlin meets with Alicia at one point, and she looks terrible. She says it’s due to her drinking, because that is what Devlin wants to believe. But, when Prescott says that they haven’t heard from Alicia for a while, Devlin starts to get over his prejudices concerning Alicia, and realizes that she looked sick, not hungover. Alicia discovers that the Sebastians are poisoning her when they refuse to let someone take her to a hospital, and yell out when a guest accidentally picks up her coffee cup. They place her isolated in her bedroom, and remove her telephone, under the pretense of not wanting her disturbed. In the meantime, agents start following Sebastian, and the latter’s conspirators take notice, so they become suspicions of Sebastian. Devlin shows up at Sebastian’s house while the other Nazis are there. He finds out from a servant that Alicia has been in bed for a week. He goes upstairs and finds the gravely ill Alicia, who says that she realizes she has been poisoned. She tells him that the mineral ore is brought in from nearby mountains. He says now that he has loved her from the start, and she professes her love for him.
Devlin carries Alicia out, warning Sebastian that he will tell his “guests’ that he has been compromised by American spies. Sebastian turns to go inside the house, the fellow Nazis waiting there for him, and the door closing behind him shows that he is about to meet his doom. Devlin drives Alicia away to safety.


As Billy Joel sang, “everyone is so untrue.” Trust is, indeed, hard to come by, in international politics, and especially in matters of the heart. But, having preconceived, stereotypical notions about people, just makes it more difficult to fairly judge others.

The next film is Ex Machina.

2 comments:

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