Spy 100, #10: Notorious

The top ten countdown begins with Alfred Hitchcock’s noir romance Notorious (1946), a dark, smoldering affair produced and set in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The title refers to the seedy reputation of Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), a Miami party girl with a penchant for too much drink and too many men. Alicia’s father is a German-American war criminal with connections to certain at-large Nazis in South America,  a connection that isn’t lost on American intelligence. Enter Agent Devlin (Cary Grant), sent by his superiors to recruit Alicia as an undercover agent. Smeared by her father’s treachery and her own sordid past, Alicia lights up when Devlin shows faith in her patriotism, and agrees to the work for them, unaware that the mission involves seducing an old family friend, Alexander Sebastien (Claude Rains). By the time the nature of the mission comes to light, alas, Alicia and Devlin have fallen in love. But Devlin is too buttoned-down and pig-headed to dissuade her from taking the assignment, and she’s too scarred by her past to walk away. Their tragic miscommunication plays out in a high-stakes love triangle, when Alicia goes above and beyond the call of duty to infiltrate Sebastien’s nefarious organization.

Notorious is an elegantly structured, low-key espionage caper that banks smartly on instant chemistry between the luminous Bergman and Grant. Indeed, the instant romance feels a little forced: Alicia is an emotional wreck, and Devlin is a perfect shit, and the icky gender politics of their early encounters don’t exactly grease the wheels of their attraction. In the end, though, sheer, charismatic star power sells it, and everything falls into place thereafter. Hardly a high-octane thriller, it positively boils with subtle tension and suspense, and while it lacks flashy set pieces it makes up for it with plenty of Hitchcock’s trademark visual story-telling. Beyond that, it lets Ben Hecht’s loaded dialogue do the heavy lifting. The fraught emotional baggage within the love triangle, which renders the dastardly Sebastien at least as sympathetic as his enemies, contrasts chillingly with the smiling, back-patting coldness of the intelligence officials overseeing the operation. Bergman is at her vulnerable best, here. Dated in places, but definitely a classic.

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