'I couldn't see straight or think straight. I was a fat-headed guy, full of pain.'
- Devlin in Notorious
Lo, how the universe’s void echoes in the chasm from soul to soul. How language breaks down in all directions, particularly on the straight line to someone’s heart. Yet we thrust and parry with such confidence and self-importance. Don’t we gleefully open new wounds like new pathways in which to fall through? Motivations seem simple, but there are always under-formulated and hence deniable truths waiting to be sucked up by the roots. Most times we know these hidden drivers, for we are not half as dumb as we play for ourselves or others, but neither are we half as tough. And when you start picking the scabs of pride and judgement and self-loathing that keep us apart, what you see is fear. What you have is need. It is the fear of hurt that keeps us from our need for love. Some people believe there to be only two real emotions - love and fear - and that the two wrestle unable to exist in the same space. Thus is the playing ground of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious - the answer I give when people ask for my favorite movie.
Fans of both Hitch and cinema of that glorious post-WWII era typically disagree most, while most others think I am talking about a bio-pic of rapper Biggie Smalls. I don’t know about B.I.G.’s movie, but this Notorious has about a dozen cinematic and storytelling highlights that could be used in a film narrative class. And its emotional roots run deep through a precisely told, morally ambiguous suspense story, effortlessly creating the subtexts above. But when people inevitably ask ‘why?’, I usually answer ‘because there’s lots of sex’. Not exactly, of course. The movie was made to 1946 purity standards, so there are no kisses longer than three seconds, but the meaning and power of sex - the home of such fear and love between us - occupies a good part of the movie’s heart. One of the smartest things Roger Ebert ever said was that Ingrid Bergman combines the noble and the carnal like nobody else, and it is her lusty, vulnerable flame that gives the movie heat. Ingrid (Alicia) is the notorious one of the title, which means she has like a national reputation for getting down. Ripe for the picking then, she is recruited by all-business secret agent Cary Grant (Devlin) to love up on an expat Nazi in Brazil and find out his evil plans. In a brilliant bit of smarmy yet sentimental casting, Claude Rains plays the horny Nazi, who turns out to embody the flip side of all of this fear – for he is left the fool, killed because he was not scared enough of the vagaries of love.
In the guise of this intrigue, we are treated to a frank back and forth about trust and politics within a relationship. As Devlin falls for lovely, charming Alicia, he keeps his distance, for how could he believe in someone willing to seduce and eventually marry a man for information – even if it was at his request and for the good of the world?! She is ‘notorious’ after all, and he is only doing his job. Alicia just wants someone good to show some faith in her, but how good could Devlin really be if he’s willing to pimp her out? Or perhaps she really is worthy of her notoriety and not anything but pimping anyway. In a movie of slings and arrows, there are a few beautiful, shining moments of coming together – the most famous of which is the so-called ‘longest kiss’ in movies. It is a delicately erotic, gentle way around the rules of what could be shown at the time. No denying Hitch was a genius, but unlike in some of his other movies, here his artistic solution displays a sweet sexuality instead of an obsessive one.