*If you need a plot synopsis, here it is. I won’t be recapping it, so if you aren’t familiar with the movie, by all means read one or better yet, see the movie. You can thank me later.
Alexander Sebastian is poisoning his wife. More properly, his mother is doing the actual poisoning, the patient dosing of his wife Alicia Sebastian’s coffee with arsenic so that she won’t go too suddenly but will get sick and then sicker, and when she finally slips away it won’t arouse suspicion.
This last is crucial: Alex and his mother have a number of reasons for doing away with Alex’s beautiful bride—they were only recently married after a whirlwind courtship—starting with the fact that Alicia is an American agent spying on Alex and his Nazi colleagues, and that if they get wind of his bungling they will kill him without hesitation. The only way to keep Alicia from spilling the beans is to knock her off. That’s what it boils down to, though the aristocratic Sebastians would say it more elegantly.
Alicia is new in Rio. She has no family or friends to come sniffing around in the event of her untimely demise, except the handsome Devlin (he uses only the one name, like Cher and Madonna), whom Alicia had introduced as a pesky Lothario she met on the plane down from Miami. She tells Alex that Devlin does public relations for Pan Am. It was Alex’s suspicions about Devlin and Alicia, his jealousy over his spectacularly beautiful young wife, that led to his discovery that she has not only betrayed his love, but that the woman he has taken into his home and given his name works for a foreign intelligence agency out to destroy him.
That’s Alex’s viewpoint, anyway. That we know all this and feel even a scintilla of sympathy for this murdering Nazi sumbitch is a credit to Hitchcock and his screenwriter, Ben Hecht, and of course to the impeccable Claude Rains, who portrays him.
When Alex discovers Alicia’s perfidy his feelings threaten to boil over, and he goes to the one person he can trust with the awful truth: his mother. Marrying Alicia was Alex’s stab at independence from his controlling mama, at emerging from her shadow into full manhood. He tells her what’s wrong in one of the most famous lines from Hitchcock: “Mother, I am married to an American agent.” Her fear of discovery and rage at Alex for pushing her aside is tempered with the satisfaction of having been right about Alicia. Alicia’s betrayal brings her son back to her, and Alicia’s murder will bind them together even more tightly, like Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, “straight down the line”—they will pull this poisoning off or be caught, but they will go down together in death as in life.
Arsenic is only the most obvious of poisons in Notorious, and Alicia the most obvious victim. Alicia’s father dies by self-administering a poison capsule, and his allegiance to Germany over America is the first poison that makes Alicia sick by destroying their relationship and by tainting her in her own eyes so that she no longer knows how to move through the world as if she has any value. Devlin is poisoned by jealousy, distrust, cowardice, and shame that reinforce Alicia’s self-appraisal of doom and unworthiness. Alex’s mother is poisoned by Nazism and an unnatural possessiveness of her son. And Alex, suspicious from his first meeting with Alicia in Rio, is consumed by jealousy of Alicia and Devlin (“You two make a pretty couple,” he says to Alicia on their first date.)
Objects of passion
Hitchcock’s objects are famous for seeming to have lives of their own, and in Notorious several are enormously significant to the story: a scarf, a key, and vessels used to imbibe—a series of liquor and wine bottles, coffee services and china cups, and highball and Champagne glasses.
Devlin: You’ll need a coat.
Alicia [tipsy]: You’ll do.
The scarf is a token of Alicia’s and Devlin’s love. On their first night he wraps it around her bare midriff, ostensibly to keep her warm. It’s his only solicitous act until the movie’s last scene (well, this and the hangover concoction), and though he ties it around her waist mockingly, she seems moved by it—Alicia has been treated so badly that even this insignificant act is a big deal to her. When she learns from their boss that Devlin has requested a transfer, she returns the scarf. He doesn’t remember leaving it with her, but when she gives it back he finally realizes that she really loves him and always has, and this realization seems to release him from the enchantment that has left him impotent, unable to stand up with and for her. During Alicia’s time as Alex’s mistress and then wife, Alicia has kept the scarf, which for her is the promise that Dev might one day really love her.
The key (hullo, MacGuffin!)
In Notorious, the MacGuffin is the uranium sand stored in the wine bottles, and the key is central to that. It’s also related to the poison theme because of what it reveals and conceals: It unlocks Alex’s wine cellar, where Dev and Alicia find crucial evidence hidden in the bottles, so the key is also connected to drinking and therefore poisoning. On the night of the reception, when Alex finds the key missing from his keychain (and also finds Dev and Alicia kissing outside the wine cellar door) his jealousy unlocks new vistas of suspicion, validated early the next morning when the key reappears on his keychain and he finds the shards of the wine bottle Dev had accidentally broken during the search. This discovery plunges Alex into the uncertainty and despair Alicia has felt so often since her father told her about his crimes. Hitchcock told Truffaut that the famous shot in the reception sequence, which starts as a high angle shot from the top of the stairs and winds its way down to Alex and Alicia, finally landing on Alicia’s hand, nervously clutching the wine cellar key she will pass to Dev when he finally arrives, was what really interested him. First, he said, we are shown a large social event with many guests, but the real event is this tiny, hidden object: the key.
Drink Me II
“The serious drinking hasn’t started yet,” Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) says in the first party scene, at her bungalow in Miami. She is already tipsy. Her father has just been convicted of espionage, so she might be forgiven for desperately trying to escape from herself and the world. But the world has come calling in the person of Devlin (Cary Grant), a U.S. intelligence agent who recruits her to spy on some of her father’s old cronies down in Rio. Devlin is opaque; we don’t learn anything about his background. “I’m scared of women, but I get over it,” he says.
Meanwhile, Alicia talks a lot about drinking a lot but doesn’t actually seem to do that much of it except when she’s feeling worried and abandoned. She’s been sleeping around, and she’s been under surveillance for three months, so the feds know it all, who she’s slept with and when. Alicia seems to have been engaged in that curious combination of escapism and self-destruction so common among women who have lost all sense of self-worth. She doesn’t have to wait for the morning after to hate herself. Her father’s betrayal of her country has isolated and confounded her, her reckless behavior since her father’s revelations reinforces her sense that she is damaged goods, that there must be something intrinsically wrong with her just because she is her father’s daughter.
Devlin offers her two things: the possibility of redemptive love, if she can coax him from his caparace—although Alicia is ostensibly the hot mess, it is Devlin who is not up to the challenge of love—and a chance to “make up for your daddy’s peculiarities” by spying for the U.S. It is Hitchcock’s genius to weave together these interrelated possibilities, then to make one of them (love) impossible because of the other. To be a good spy, to atone for her father’s betrayal, she must first sleep with, then marry Alexander Sebastian, and jealousy drives Devlin ever further into the smirking sarcasm that is his refuge from the challenges of actual intimacy.
Hitchcock is frugal; he never wastes a shot. So every last shot of Alicia drinking anything from a hangover remedy to coffee to cocktails and Champagne, of glasses, cups, and bottles, is telling us something crucial about the plot or the relationships between the characters.
The Champagne bottle Dev leaves on the conference room table? It tells us that there is no longer anything to celebrate, that Dev and Alicia’s developing love affair is about to lose its fizz because of the job their boss has just briefed him on.
The cooler of Champagne at the big reception Alex throws, ostensibly to introduce his bride to Rio society but actually to allow Dev into the house to snoop? It heightens our anxiety regarding the risk of Dev and Alicia being caught while snooping.
The loving closeups of coffee cups? They remind us of what is happening to Alicia. She drinks after her father’s conviction; she forces herself, on Dev’s orders, to swallow some of the hangover cure he has thoughtfully placed right in front of her suffering head; she loses her taste for booze when she and Dev are in the first flush of love (“Well, whaddaya know, I’m practically on the wagon”); and she pours herself a stiff one when Devlin tells her that her job is to cultivate Alex, her father’s old friend and colleague who was in love with her a few years ago. Then, during their first date, her expression reveals her sickening awareness of what has agreed to do, spasms of fear and revulsion she contains with skillful flirting, and she takes a long swig of her cocktail to help her swallow her disgust and horror.
Later, when we know about the poison, we wince every time she casually sips the coffee she doesn’t yet know is tainted. Alicia, no dummy, figures out what’s happening to her in a bravura scene. A guest has just asked her when she started feeling ill, and she answers, Right after the party, so she’s halfway to figuring it out. When the guest then accidentally picks up her coffee cup and the Sebastians freak out, Hitchcock shows us the sickening swell of her realization. She is overcome by waves of adrenalin and nausea, the realization that she is trapped, that her husband and mother-in-law are quietly and methodically poisoning her, and that there is no escape or help.
Dev is restored after Alicia gives him back the scarf. For the first time he is present, able to observe what’s actually happening rather than remaining trapped in his tortured fantasies. It’s clear from his well-controlled responses that seeing Alicia with Alex, even hearing her voice, reminds him that she’s not with him but with this other man. He seems to think she’s having a high old time. But once he becomes himself he can act on her behalf, and he does. Watching the movie very closely, almost frame by frame, to make screen captures for this post, the difference in Devlin before and after his last meeting on the park bench couldn’t be clearer. “Before” Dev is incapable of engaging on any but a physical level, and even there he tends to deflect anxiety by violence, as he does in the midnight drive scene when he first karate chops Alicia’s hand and then, back to the camera so we can’t see it, punches her to subdue her. “After” Dev is formidable. He is cool in danger and absolutely committed to getting Alicia out of that death house to a place where they can “get the poison out of her.” Grant’s facial expressions are different, too, as is his general physical aspect. It is as though a flood of vitality and intensity have suddenly overtaken him.
Dev’s clarity and courage, and especially his declaration of love, give Alicia something to live for. Sick and sedated, she makes it down the big staircase and down the outside steps to Dev’s car. As the car pulls away leaving Alex doomed to return up the steps to his waiting partners, she smiles for the first time since the reception, but this is different: She’s not performing. Not flirting, not repressing her feelings. It is a radiant smile, the smile of a woman who knows she is loved.
This post was written for the ‘Til Death Us Do Part blogathon, July 24, 2017, hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. Go see the other excellent submissions here.