Why I love Ingrid Bergman’s performance in Notorious

The Swedish star was never better than in this 1946 thriller from Alfred Hitchcock.

Words

Matthew Anderson

There are very fine, often blurred lines between notoriety, fame, popularity and infamy in the movie business and few stars had to so persistently endure their objectifying slings and arrows as Ingrid Bergman. Over the course of a glittering career the wilfully independent Swedish actress made front page headlines for scandal and success in equal measure; most famously for an affair with Italian neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini which would lead to children and a second marriage.

It is telling, or rather sadly prophetic, therefore, that after denoting a time and place – Miami, Florida, Three-Twenty PM, April the Twenty-Fourth, Nineteen Hundred and Forty-Six – the first thing we see in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious is a reporter’s camera. A powerful weapon of scrutiny and invasion used to incite public outrage as much then as it is today, a succession of bursting flash bulbs and notepads flutter as Alicia Huberman’s father is condemned for treason. Whether through the lens of a paparazzi or Hitchcock’s all-seeing camera, Bergman’s character becomes the bewildered, unwitting pawn of spy games engineered exclusively by extraneous male forces.

The ongoing machinations of a German war machine decamped to South America become the high stakes in this understated thriller, but it is the politics of gender, power and control that the director foregrounds and navigates so superbly. In the opening scene press vultures circle outside the courtroom knowing that Alicia is the story, the spectacle, stunned and stunningly beautiful. CIA men, principally Cary Grant’s Devlin and his superior, Prescott (Louis Calhern), are just as speedy in swooping down to recruit her as the “daughter of a traitor” and useful departmental tool. Demands are made of her, and men actively want something from her at every turn. However, though controlling public opinion and her involvement in a dangerous operation respectively, these men are entirely dependent upon her. They are callous in their manipulation but without her would have nothing.

And yet she is neither cat nor mouse in this conundrum, finding herself in a curious no (wo)man’s land of opposing exterior and interior forces. The central party sequence, and discovery of the sinister intrigue, hinges on a key to the wine cellar. Alicia fulfils a similarly crucial role but one that evolves: she is at once a catalyst for the story, the linchpin of dominant male plans, an object of physical desire and a damsel in distress.

Bergman’s soft delivery and porcelain complexion lend a fragility that perfectly suits the character. There is no doubt as to who is pulling the strings behind the camera but onscreen misconceptions of the ‘type of woman’ she is, pronounced upon by men who know only gossip, elicits sympathy from the viewer and momentary indignation from Devlin who swiftly falls for her. Initially a characteristic measure of stillness, exuding calm and a feline surety of movement, Grant’s self-control and ability to maintain a clear head evaporates as his heart takes hold. It is his late realisation that saves an ensnared Alicia from Alex and his domineering mother (Leopoldine Konstantine) slowly poisoning her coffee.

That said, when Alicia is manoeuvred into position to entrap aristocratic Nazi sympathiser Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) and duly sleeps with him, believing that to be part of the CIA’s plan, Devlin’s jealous reaction epitomises the male hypocrisy on show here. Alicia is at least consistent in her patriotic determination and love for Devlin, to the extent she marries Alex in order to ingratiate herself with the target, ultimately foiling their plan. Who is using who is clear but without her female sexuality, cunning and intelligence, stuffed shirts behind desks would get nowhere. She achieves a lot more for Uncle Sam than the bigoted pencil pushers, so who’s really wearing the trousers here? It’s the dame in the long black dress.

Published 12 Aug 2016

Tags: Alfred Hitchcock Cary Grant Ingrid Bergman

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