The Web of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious
Alfred Hitchcock’s midcareer suspense classic Notorious, about a beautiful young spy living among killers, is a tale of international intrigue intensified by the forces that separate the love-struck, brooding hero from the courageous heroine. This map casts a net out from Notorious to capture some hallmarks—the ominous staircases, thwarted romances, domineering women, speeding cars, timorous ingenues, cups of poison, thrilling camera work, sly humor and high style—of the great director’s work.
Halfway into Notorious, imperious matriarch Madame Sebastian (Leopoldine Konstantin) glides portentously down a monumental staircase. Alfred Hitchcock never uses a staircase lightly, nor does he employ a gentle touch with frosty, controlling female characters. And Madame is not just any domineering mother: Alex, the son she constantly belittles, is a fugitive Nazi, a member of a cabal staging a post–World War II comeback in Brazil. The corresponding figure in Rebecca, sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson)—who can also command a staircase—is not only cold and cruel to that film’s trembling heroine, she is dangerously insane.
Ingrid Bergman plays the steelier heroine of Notorious: the daughter of a Nazi collaborator, doing penance for her father by spying on Alex and the conspirators. Rebecca features no Nazis, but real-life German spy Johannes Eppler claimed he had used a copy of the 1938 novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, on which Hitchcock’s film is based, to smuggle code to Erwin Rommel, the relentless German commander who battled the Allies in North Africa. In the 1970s Rebecca costar Laurence Olivier played both a Nazi hunter, in The Boys From Brazil, and a Nazi, in Marathon Man.
One of Hitchcock’s most indelible scenes takes place in Suspicion, when Cary Grant, as Johnnie Aysgarth, carries an eerily glowing glass of milk up a shadowy staircase while his wife, Lina (Joan Fontaine), lies quaking in bed. Johnnie has been discussing an untraceable toxin with a crime novelist neighbor, and Lina—and the audience—suspects him of plotting to poison her.
Early in Notorious, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) learns her Nazi-spy father has committed suicide by ingesting a poison capsule. After infiltrating a den of uranium-smuggling Nazis by marrying one of them, she discovers poison may be her fate, too. Her mother-in-law, Madame Sebastian, takes the lead upon learning Alicia is a spy—“Let me arrange this,” she exults—and begins to leisurely kill Alicia with tainted cups of coffee. A staircase also sets this film’s climactic scene, when Cary Grant, as Agent Devlin, slowly descends one with the sickened Bergman while their enemies lurk below.
Hitchcock planted a lightbulb inside the glass in Suspicion to give the milk a toxic gleam, and he used the milk-glass prop again in Spellbound: The camera looks directly into the glass as it’s downed, prompting the audience to wonder, Is it poisoned?
Joan Fontaine performed so well as an unworldly young woman swept away by a dashing, mysterious man in Rebecca that Hitchcock cast her in virtually the same role a few years later in Suspicion (for which she won the best actress Oscar). In both pictures she plays the kind of woman whom men don’t notice, and the courtships couldn’t be less promising. “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool,” Laurence Olivier’s Maxim de Winter winningly puts it in the former film. In the latter, Cary Grant snaps, “I think I’m falling in love with you, and I don’t quite like it,” to the wife-to-be he calls Monkey Face.
The films lead Fontaine to cliffs overlooking the roiling ocean—scenes of an attempted suicide (or two?), three possible near-murders and an apparent death at sea. In 1944 Fontaine again played an ingenue who loves an alternately cruel and caring authoritarian in the countryside, when her Jane Eyre submits to Orson Welles’s Mr. Rochester and his menacing, lightning-lit marriage proposal. In both Jane Eyre and Rebecca (which is mentioned in the Jane Eyre trailer), the husband’s grand home is torched by a madwoman who represents his secret impetuous past.
The thwarted love between Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia Huberman and Cary Grant’s Agent Devlin heightens the suspense in Notorious. Bergman earlier stirred hearts when her love for Humphrey Bogart went unrequited in Casablanca (1942), and for much of Notorious Devlin seems as immovable as Bogart’s Rick. Devlin’s tenderness in a dangerous love scene is thus all the more convincing. When he finally declares his true feelings—as the pair escapes Alicia’s captors with excruciating slowness—the audience may indeed believe love conquers all.
In Spellbound, Bergman and Gregory Peck play besotted psychiatrists who fall for each other early and hard. Their love too is postponed when Bergman discovers Peck is an amnesia victim, and she begins to unlock his mind by exploring his suppressed memories. Hitchcock once said, “Psychiatrists say that if you can trace the origin of your fear, it will disappear.” Although this tack succeeds in Spellbound, Hitchcock insisted the premise “is a confounded lie.” Grant, however, found truth where Hitchcock did not, unearthing his own “repressions, inhibitions and insecurities” through the therapeutic use of LSD—and disclosing it in the pages of Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping in the 1960s.
Director François Truffaut pinpointed one key to Hitchcock’s success: “He shoots scenes of love as if they were scenes of murder.… He shoots scenes of murder like scenes of love.” The poster for Suspicion confirms that viewpoint with the teaser “Each time they kissed…there was the thrill of love…the threat of murder.” In this film, Joan Fontaine’s Lina McLaidlaw lays down her glasses and her child-psychology book for rakishly immature Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) after she overhears her parents discussing her likely spinsterhood. She rues her uncharacteristic impetuousness when she begins to believe Johnnie is a killer, not merely a playboy and gambler.
Spellbound’s tagline simply asks, “Will he kiss me or kill me?” Ingrid Bergman’s bespectacled Dr. Constance Petersen, called Miss Frozen Puss by a patient, lacks sensual experience—which a male colleague, in a colossal case of workplace sexual harassment, says “is bad for you as a doctor and fatal for you as a woman.” But such experience, once Gregory Peck appears as Dr. Anthony Edwardes, may indeed prove fatal. Hitchcock shows the doors of Petersen’s psyche snapping open, symbolizing the release of sexual tension in the buttoned-down psychiatrist, when she kisses Edwardes—or is she kissing his killer?
Thirteen years after Cary Grant induced Ingrid Bergman to infiltrate a crime syndicate in Notorious, Hitchcock turned the tables on Hollywood’s quintessential leading man in North by Northwest. It was Grant’s turn to become the pawn of government agents and be spurned by a lover whose motives he can’t understand. And the drunken Bergman’s car speeding along the Miami coastline is replaced by a “gassed” (as he puts it) Grant careering along Long Island’s North Shore.
The somber look of the black-and-white Notorious gives way to a breezier, more stylish aesthetic in the later Technicolor film. Bergman’s wardrobe, by iconic Hollywood costumer Edith Head, defines the evolution of her “notorious” character outfit-by-outfit—starting with a midriff-exposing zebra-print ensemble. In North by Northwest, just one suit characterizes Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill. According to Todd McEwen’s essay “Cary Grant’s Suit,” the “perfectly tailored, gracefully falling, lightweight dusty blue” ensemble is the film’s star: “It’s like the victim of repeated cartoon violence—in the next shot, it’s always fine.” Prototypical ad-agency “Mad Man” Thornhill seemingly mocks his sleek deportment when he gives his secretary the memo “Think thin,” echoing the “Think Pink!” campaign in the Fred Astaire–Audrey Hepburn fashion picture Funny Face (1957).
Minutes into North by Northwest, Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill becomes a victim of mistaken identity. Soon he is a fugitive wanted for murder and later an unwitting, then unwilling, government pawn. We know Thornhill isn’t the mysterious “George Kaplan,” nor is he guilty of any crime. Frenetic scenes in hotels and train stations echo those in Spellbound, in which Gregory Peck’s character also goes on the lam, although we don’t know who he really is or whether he committed murder. A favorite Hitchcock character actor, Leo G. Carroll, plays important, ambiguous roles in both. As the Professor in Northwest and as the kindly asylum director in Spellbound, he too may not be what he seems. (Carroll also appears in Rebecca and Suspicion.)
Both films embrace the contemporary art world. Salvador Dalí designed Spellbound’s surrealistic dream sequence; Hitchcock claimed he had wanted the celebrated Spanish painter not for publicity but because of his work’s “architectural sharpness.” That phrase aptly defines Northwest’s scenes accentuating the United Nations buildings and a cantilevered modern house atop Mount Rushmore, along with the stylishly animated title sequence by influential 1960s graphic designer Saul Bass (who also created unsettling opening credits for Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Psycho).
Finding laughter compatible with murder and suspense, Hitchcock enjoyed fulfilling his audiences’ desire for “dipping their toe in the cold waters of fear” while he simultaneously displayed his mischievous sense of humor. In North by Northwest and Suspicion, Cary Grant treads what Hitchcock called the “fine line between comedy and tragedy,” which shows that “slipping on a banana skin is very painful.”
Grant’s Suspicion character evolves from a fast-talking jokester mugging with his friend Beaky (Nigel Bruce) to a suspect in Beaky’s murder to a wife-killer-in-the-making. But Grant takes perhaps his finest tragicomic turn in Northwest when, under arrest for drunk driving and auto theft, he unwisely ruffles the feathers of officer Emile Klinger.
The scene leading to his arrest places Grant absurdly in the driver’s seat, carrying out a murder—his own!—plotted by thugs who forced a bottle of bourbon down his throat and got him behind the wheel. The situation recalls the end of Suspicion, when Grant, in a speeding convertible, seems intent on literally driving his wife to her death. When Hitchcock finally reveals his cards, we have to mentally rewind to the point, common in his films, when things stop seeming simply funny and suspicion takes hold.