Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) is one of the movies of my life. I watched it so often between my teen years and my thirties that I got tired of it, and I hadn't seen it for probably ten years. Then I came across the cleaned up Criterion Collection DVD at the library.
When I watched it last night, it was like I was watching a different film than the one I remembered.
This is one of the qualities of a classic piece of art: it is multiplicitous, so as you change, you see different things in it--or, you see different parts of yourself.
The main difference was, and I don't know how I missed this, I realized what a jerk Cary Grant's character, Devlin, is, and that it is *his* transformation that creates the arc of the story.
Devlin is an agent for a U.S. intelligence agency (unnamed, but the OSS/CIA). His job is to recruit and run Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the American daughter of a Nazi, as a spy. Since she learned of her father's treasonous behavior years earlier, Alicia has led a life of notoriety, drinking and carousing. But, in fact, as her name implies, she is the superior character, the "über woman."
Devlin thinks he's superior to this tramp, but we gradually come to see that it is he who has made a deal with the devil--his CIA boss, Prescott, a nasty piece of work of the sort we've seen too much of this century, who thinks the end justifies the means. Devlin performs dirty jobs that disgust him but serve the greater good.
That's part of the strength of this movie, and something that keeps it topical: there is no moral black and white. The onerous duty truly is for the greater good:
Devlin's job is to recruit Alicia to use her sexual wiles on Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), in order to penetrate a group of her dead father's Nazi friends, who are indeed a threat, as they continue plotting after World War II, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Essentially they're a terrorist cell, working to develop WMDs.
We first see Devlin filmed from the back, a stiff neck at one of Alicia's drunken parties. He is and remains literally rigid with righteousness, and, we come to see, with the effort to control his own pain, fear, and longing.
Alicia invites him for a "picnic" and they end up struggling for control of the car. And this is something I'd never registered until this viewing:
Devlin finally gets the upper hand over Alicia by punching her. It's a small move, seen from the back as they fight in the car, but it's quite clear. After, she lies knocked out and he climbs into the driver's seat with a little smile on his face. I had remembered their struggle as funny, sexual play, and there is some of that, but it's also frighteningly violent.
I wrote that I don't know how I missed what a jerk Devlin is, but I do know: when I was a kid watching movies from the 1940s, much as I loved them, I saw them as less sophisticated, less serious than the graphically violent, sexual movies of my era. But that's because I was a kid and I had not really experienced those things personally. So I misread these movies. Cary Grant was just a handsome, harmless devil to me. But that's not who he is here. He falls in love with Alicia, and she with him; but he invests her with his own self-disgust and won't let himself love her. Along with his fear of women (which he admits to her), this leads to a lot of harm, as his cruel display of indifference pushes her to marry Sebastian.
Alicia gradually dwindles as a person--something I didn't see either, as a kid. She has no one and nothing. Her father has committed suicide; the man she loves has pimped her out; the man she marries discovers she's a spy and, with his mother's help, begins to poison her. Alicia can't escape, and where would she escape to anyway?
As she slowly succumbs to a poisoned sleep, like Snow White, finally Devlin wakes up. He realizes that she's in danger--and he's put her there--and he goes to the rescue, despite his boss's order not to take risks. (Prescott views Alicia as nothing more than a pawn who has served its purpose.)
Devlin goes to Sebastian's house and waits in the empty hall. Visibly more and more agitated, he finally gets up and heads toward the staircase (a central symbol in the film, linking the private, feminine upstairs and public, masculine downstairs).
Here's the movie moment:
He starts to walk up the stairs. After a few steps, he starts to stride up them two at a time. By the end, he's running.
Finally, this rigid man we never see except sitting or standing almost motionless, is moving.
He goes into her bedroom, where she lies near death, tells her--finally--that he loves her and that he couldn't admit it before because he was "a fat-headed guy, full of pain" (a ridiculous line that doesn't sound it, in his mouth). He takes her back down the stairs, facing down a very ominous group of Nazis, the scariest of which is Sebastian's mother, a foreshadowing of Norman Bates's.
Devlin's trip up the staircase into the realm of feeling is Alicia's--and his own--salvation.
I'm sure PhDs have been written about Hitchock's stairways, but I couldn't find stills of Grant going up the Notorious one. These are the photos of him as he finally gets off his duff and heads toward the stairs.
Pix from Notorious screencaps.