Alfred Hitchcock’s “Nortorious” works on many levels — as a spiritual sequel to “Casablanca,” a left-of-center postwar warning to fear the surviving remnants of Nazism more than the communists, a brilliant star turn for Ingrid Bergman (who seemed to be in every movie of that era) and Cary Grant, and simply as an espionage movie in its highest form. For whatever reason, the movie seems to carry some extra weight and prestige that’s harder to identify.
Like most movies of the film noir era, “Notorious” carries a deep sense of loss for the world. The trauma of World War II is too fresh for everyone. A sense of duty to higher ideals still overrides instincts to love and protect individuals close at hand. In that respect, “Notorious” is the antithesis of the 1970s individualist/hedonist nightmare. It’s an examination of people who have just been through hell, but still need to put out its contact fires.
Our tour guide through hell, which takes form in postwar Rio de Janeiro in all its glory, is Ingrid Bergman. Her hell consists of life inside a beautiful mansion, where lavish parties are thrown, in the protective care of a wealthy husband who has adored her for years.
But this life is all pretend for Bergman, who has been recruited for a deadly espionage mission to find out what the surviving corporate leadership of IG Farben, the conglomerate partially responsible for arming the Nazi regime, is doing down in Brazil. Bergman accepts this role partly out of patriotism, partly out of guilt for her father’s treachery (his sentence for treason is the film’s opening scene) but mostly for her love of an American spy played by Cary Grant.
It feels strange to call “Notorious” one of the all time great film love stories because the characters are so often taking actions in denial of that love. But it’s undoubtedly true. Duty separates these characters, not selfish motives or neurotic fears. These are people who have to fight back the full expression of their desires because the fate of the world is still on the line. Still.
It’s that weariness that hangs on “Notorious” in every scene, a subtext of “how long must we carry on this fight?” Why wasn’t the war enough? Why shouldn’t the atomic bomb be deterrent enough? Why can’t we just get back to foolish, playful love affairs like we enjoyed before the depression and Hitler and when everything went black?
They can’t because they are, in the deepest most meaningful sense of the word, awake. The fairy tales have left their world. The love that remains must be restrained and unleashed only when required to rescue Bergman from imminent danger.
The beauty of “Notorious” is that we don’t even know for sure at the end if that rescue succeeded. Did Bergman live? Did the couple ever get to express their love and enjoy their lives? We do not know. There are bigger issues afoot and the movie closes with the mission complete. Write your own happily ever after. These characters did their duty and probably expect more dark challenges to follow.