Cary Grant to Ingrid Bergman: ‘Dry your eyes, baby – it’s out of character.’ Is he kidding? These two are lovers and fellow US agents performing an elaborate tango of distrust and self-abnegation in Hitch’s swooning, often cruel 1946 masterpiece. Bergman’s the ‘loose’, free-living daughter of a convicted Nazi, persuaded by Grant to abandon the high life in Miami to fly down to Rio to infiltrate Claude Rains’s ugly set of wealthy National Socialist conspirators, with their cellar of uranium-filled Pommard.
Uniting Bergman and Rains, ‘Notorious’ has obvious links and makes a superb post-war companion to ‘Casablanca’, although it’s stripped of any of that film’s outlandish, if stirring, sentimentality. More than that, it’s fascinating how this romantic thriller refers to Hitchcock’s finest work: from the oh-so emotive use of silent-era close-up and the playfully sado-masochistic pairings in his British-made adventures, to the cinematic purity and dramatic clarity achieved in ‘North by Northwest’.
The script by the great Ben Hecht and Clifford Odets may give the film an iron structure and add a bracing, hard-boiled edge to its psychologically acute dialogue, and Ted Tetzlaff’s finely shaded cinematography may provide the film’s striking visuals, but it’s the accuracy, efficiency and control of Hitchcock’s direction that most impress. They enable him to dovetail the film’s thriller format and romantic story to dizzying, expressive and unique effect.
Here’s an anatomy of a love affair where the story’s intimations of betrayal and loyalty, deceit and openness, honour and irresponsibility, suspicion and surrender, are mapped out on the faces of the main protagonists with such expert montage, mise-en-scène and editing that the film could run silent and you’d hardly miss a nuance. Not to mention the acting: Bergman was never more radiant and sexy nor vulnerable. But Grant is the revelation. It’s, arguably, the great actor’s most untypical, troubled performance – not least because he is often shot from behind. Watch how, in the clinches, he always kisses with his mouth closed. This guy is a mess of contradictions and duplicities. Which only serves to intensify the power of his final, hard-earned redemption and crown the film with a finale of almost Bressonian impact. A great film.