|"Alex, will you come in, please. I wish to talk to you." Reinhold Schünzel, Ivan Triesault, and Claude Rains in the final scene of Notorious|
Alicia Huberman: Ingrid Bergman
Alexander Sebastian: Claude Rains
Mme. Sebastian: Leopoldine Konstantin
Paul Prescott: Louis Calhern
Dr. Anderson: Reinhold Schünzel
Eric Mathis: Ivan Triesault
Joseph: Alexis Minotis
Walter Beardsley: Moroni Olsen
Emil Hupka: E.A. Krumschmidt
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Ben Hecht
Cinematography: Ted Tetzlaff
Music: Roy Webb
The critics have canonized Vertigo (1958) as the greatest film of all time, but I don't think it's even Alfred Hitchcock's greatest film. That would have to be Notorious, with Rear Window (1954) close behind, and North by Northwest (1959) and maybe Psycho (1960) edging up in the pack. I have a theory that Hitchcock threw himself so whole-heartedly into Notorious because it was begun under the infernal meddling of David O. Selznick, who was forced to sell the project to RKO in order to devote himself full-time to the impossible task of making Duel in the Sun (1946). Hitchcock had just suffered through making Spellbound (1945), with Selznick and Selznick's shrink, May Romm, breathing down his neck throughout the filming, and he must have felt such a great relief at being freed from Selznick's control that he was determined to make Notorious as good as it could be. He succeeded: It's a tight, witty, suspenseful showcase of everything that Hitchcock could do well. It has two or three of his most impressive directorial touches, specifically the two minute, 40 second single-take kissing scene that follows Devlin and Alicia from room to balcony and back again, and the great crane shot that begins on the balcony of Sebastian's entrance hall and swoops down to the key clutched in Alicia's hand. But technical mastery is only part of the glory of Notorious. It begins, after the sentencing of Alicia's father, with a film noir moment: "bad girl" Alicia entertaining her rather dubious friends as Devlin, whom we see only from behind, watches. And it ends, not with a lovers' clinch, but with the villain being summoned to a doom we know will be very unpleasant. Hitchcock trusts the audience to feel a little bit sorry for Alex Sebastian at that moment when the door shuts him inside with his mother and some very angry Nazis. But the whole film is full of masterly touches, including the characteristic concentration on objects like wine bottles and coffee cups and keys, which play almost as important role in the narrative as the actors. Not that the actors are ignored: Hitchcock was one of the few directors* who saw and exploited the dark side of Cary Grant, who effectively lets his mouth grow tense and his eyes grow cold in his first scenes with bad-girl Ingrid Bergman, so that he can loosen up as they fall in love and then resume the icy tension when Devlin is forced into virtually prostituting Alicia to Sebastian. Hitchcock also invents wonderful business for Leopoldine Konstantin as the sinister Mme. Sebastian, such as the wonderful moment when, awakened by her son with the bad news that Alicia is a spy, she sits up in bed and calmly lights a cigarette before getting down to business. I also love that when Devlin comes to confer with his boss, Prescott, over Alicia's plight, Hitchcock has the usually debonair Louis Calhern stretched out in bed insouciantly eating cheese and crackers. In short, Notorious is a showcase for everything Hitchcock had learned in his first 20 years of moviemaking, as well as a demonstration of the great things to come. When Alicia overhears the argument between Sebastian and his mother, it's a foreshadowing of Marion Crane's hearing the argument between Norman and Mrs. Bates.
*The others would be Howard Hawks in Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and George Cukor, who was the first to glimpse Grant's darkness in Sylvia Scarlett (1935), but I think Hitchcock exploited it best.