The film begins in Florida, shortly after World War II. Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) is the daughter of a Nazi agent who has just been imprisoned for his treasonous activities. Disillusioned by her father, Alicia has become notorious in her own right for her sexual promiscuity. She is recruited by Devlin (Cary Grant), a U.S. intelligence agent who knows that she strongly disapproved of her father's activities, to undertake a secret mission in Brazil to uncover the activities of a Nazi cell whose members are still plotting world domination. Devlin and Alicia (the spy couple)
go to Rio together, and while waiting for Alicia to get her instructions, fall in love. Devlin, however, remains wary of the former playgirl.
Alicia's assignment in Rio is to be a kind of Mata Hari. She is to establish intimate contact with a past friend of her father, Sebastian (Claude Rains), who harbors a cell of prominent Nazi refugees in his mansion. Alicia, by means of her sexual allure, is to gain entry to the house and then report to Devlin on the Nazis' activities. Sebastian, too, falls in love with Alicia and, despite the opposition of his jealous mother, proposes marriage. Alicia hopes Devlin will object, but when he does not she accepts Sebastian's offer, in order to prove her determination to redeem herself by carrying out her mission. Ironically, her willingness to go through with the marriage strengthens Devlin's suspicion that she is nothing more than an adventuress.
As the new mistress of the Nazi household, Alicia has access to every room in the mansion except for one—the wine cellar. Only Sebastian has the key to this room. Suspecting that something vital is hidden there, Devlin instructs Alicia to steal the key from Sebastian, which she does at great personal risk. Under cover of a formal reception at the mansion, Devlin and Alicia search the cellar and discover uranium ore hidden in wine bottles, part of a Nazi plot to create a bomb which will enable them to dominate the world.
According to Hitchcock, the politics of Notorious didn't interest him at all: "I wanted to make this film about a man who forces a woman to go to bed with another man because it's his professional duty."10 The uranium ore found in the wine bottles was simply a "MacGuffin," Hitchcock's term for the sought-after secret that sets the plot going but in itself means little and could be any of a number of things. "It [the uranium] didn't really matter," Hitchcock commented, "We were telling a love story."11 Hitchcock's comment would imply that Notorious was about Devlin's dilemma, his painfully conflicted emotions about what he forces the woman he loves to do. But the film actually focuses primarily on Alicia's predicament, building sympathy with her at the start of the film when she, like Larita in Easy Virtue, is being hounded by aggressive newspaper reporters.12 The film's title Notorious refers to Alicia's reputation, and the film mostly centers on her feelings and the two impossible double binds in which the film's plot places her. First, to redeem her promiscuity and her father's treachery, Alicia must become both promiscuous and treacherous; and second, to win Devlin's love and respect she must sleep with another man, thereby losing Devlin's love and respect.
The other center of sympathetic identification in Notorious is, surprisingly, the villain, Sebastian, who according to Hitchcock loves Alicia more genuinely than Devlin.13 Sebastian's love for Alicia is presented as a positive developmental step in his life. At long last he has freed himself from the domination of his jealous mother, who has hitherto successfully prevented him from marrying. When Sebastian learns he has been betrayed, he becomes once more engulfed in his mother's dominating sphere of influence, forced to murder the woman he loves. Hitchcock gives haunting visual expression to this theme when, from Alicia's point of view, we see Sebastian's shadow merge with his mother's as the two join forces to murder her (figure 44), a precursor to the moment in Psycho when Norman Bates, psychically and physically merged with Mrs. Bates, kills Marion. What Hitchcock says began as a fantasy, a man "forcing" a woman to go to bed with another man out of "duty," is developed into a complexly structured, deeply felt meditation on the perverse connections among love, hate, and self-destruction. Sebastian's love for Alicia leads to his humiliation and betrayal and then his desire to kill her, while Alicia's love for Devlin leads her to degrade herself as a Mata Hari and nearly die from poison when she is found out.
Hitchcock was less interested in working out the twists and turns of a spy plot than he was in exploring the moral and psychological predicaments of human beings who become spies and hence, by necessity, must engage in illicit activities such as theft, murder, and especially, sexual betrayal. Thus while his spy plots have the dangerous situations and mysteries that appeal to a mass audience, they also provide pretexts to place his characters in a moral and psychological pressure cooker. Hitchcock's characters are never one-dimensional but are instead complex human beings who suffer terrible emotional and sometimes physical consequences when they pervert their morality out of need—for the sake of love or for a supposedly higher good, or both.
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