“Notorious” — Obscure Identities

by Virginia Craft

Analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Notorious

A recurring theme in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Notorious that I noticed is that of the masking of identities. I found it extremely difficult to understand the true identity of Alicia’s character except through the manner in which she chooses to conceal herself from others.

From the beginning of the film, Alicia Huberman (played ever-so-perfectly by Ingrid Bergman) is shown drunkening her state of being at a party immediately following her German father’s conviction of treason against America. She turns to alcohol, seemingly to evade having to face her reality, in which case she assumes very child-like and childish behaviors. After her father’s trial and conviction, the camera shows us a road symmetrically lined with palm trees, cutting to Alicia’s party—a kind of immature, created paradise, or drunken ‘bliss’. She proclaims to want “good times […] and laughs with people who’ll treat [her] right and like [her] and understand [her]”, such as that which every child desires who is unstable with confronting their own identities—in this way, other people’s approval is used to shape their identities.

Like a child instantly rejecting anyone who tells them what to do, one of our first encounters with Alicia is her vocalizing her utter discontent and despise for policeman and authoritative figures. This is visited again in the car with Devlin (another amazing performance by Cary Grant) when a policeman pulls her over for speeding and driving drunk; when Devlin gets them out of a ticket by showing his ID to the policeman, Alicia realizes he’s an authority figure and starts whining and throwing a temper tantrum for him to get out of the car, swatting and pushing him away with a childish attitude. Alicia, the morning after this incident, awakes with a bold, assertive Devlin standing at her doorway, then handing her a glass of liquid to drink for her obvious hangover. By doing so, Devlin assumes a sort of paternal character for the frivolous Alicia to lean on. After losing her father to prison and then later in the film to his inflicted suicide, Alicia seems to surrender her identity to Devlin in exchange for his attention and love. She leaps into this sort of ‘love’ with Devlin before she even gets to know his identity. Like many people who are forced to experience things that disrupt the ‘comfortable’ patterns of things, she seemed to prefer a dependence on someone to ease any transitions in life—usually someone to offer love—rather than to sit with the changes and the identity that is ever-molded through these experiences (however unpleasant they may be). When speaking of her father’s death, Alicia says, “It’s a very curious feeling, as if something has happened to me and not to him. You see, I don’t have to hate him anymore. Or myself.” This statement appears to reveal a part of her identity that was attached to her father and essentially thrown out upon his death. Whatever void this left in her life, she submitted it fully to Devlin in order to fill it for her.

Hitchcock, once again, gives us a peak into Alicia’s identity through an opposition of what she is not when she admits, “I am pretending I’m a nice, unspoiled child, whose heart is full of daisies and buttercups.” We can assume, therefore, that she intends the opposite to be true for her: Perhaps that she is a spoiled child, whose heart is empty and thirsting for easier, more child-like remedies.

Asking Devlin for his opinion on her taking the job to spy on her father’s Nazi comrades, Alicia glares with a wide-eyed ambivalence at Devlin for him to mold her uncertain feelings for her. She ultimately accepts the job, saying later that she only did it because she thought Devlin wanted her to and because he did not try to stop her—as if she was expecting a dramatic scene laced with love’s intrusion to keep her from taking the job. Alicia dishes out more of her identity to her work spying on the Nazis, and sacrifices most of her remaining Self to her decision to marry Sebastian (Claude Rain, fittingly); marrying him as a way to prove to him her dislike for Devlin, though really just burying her Self deeper. This plastic identity is shown during her and Sebastian’s first dinner in the film: Alicia is embellished in sparkling, sequined apparel, expelling superfluous words with empty meanings in order to manipulate Sebastian with her created identity.

On the other hand, Devlin dodges the blinding rays of love by not letting amorous words decide for Alicia which path to take when it came to taking or not taking the job to spy. He admits to Alicia (at the horse races when she tells him that she is going to marry Sebastian) that he never told her to take the job as a spy because the answer had to come from her, not from him. This showed his intentions for a sort of test of love, in which Alicia mindlessly lost because of her infantile dependency on trying to fit an identity by making a decision that may appeal to Devlin—a naïve call for approval on her part. Alicia’s duties to her work eventually consume much of her masked identity, which is realized by the more reserved, collected Devlin. However, if Devlin had verbally articulated his feelings for Alicia when she had asked him to essentially make the decision for her, then the entire story as we know it would cease to be, including Alicia’s eventual poisoning. Perhaps Devlin’s realization of this coupled with Alicia’s poisoined and debilitated state of being in the final scenes leads him reveal and affirm his love for her. In the final scenes, I saw both Alicia and Devlin’s identities to be the most authentic: Devlin reveals and confronts his feelings of fear and pain when confessing his love to Alicia, and Alicia calmly replies the same without getting sucked in by excessive feelings (perhaps also because of her languid state).

It is also worthy to point out that in many cases Sebastian acquired an identity to hide many revealing aspects of his character. The most profound recognition of this is in the last scene when he clings to Alicia with a phony care and a desperate urgency to keep hidden Alicia’s position as a U.S. Agent. He not only cowardly flees this particular situation, but he imprudently tries to preserve his flimsy reputation with his fellow comrades. Obviously lacking the assertion behind an affirmed, authentic identity, Sebastian uses the very person he poisoned (Alicia) to further escape his Self. There is also undeniably a reliance on his mother, which is similar to that of Cody (James Cagney) in White Heat. Like Cody, he lacked the emphatic will to act diligently when put under pressure. He could not even decide, much less carry through, what to do when Alicia’s job is revealed. His mother was the one who thought up the ‘remedy’ to poison Alicia, and she planned and executed it as well. Sebastian, like an ill-curious child, just cowardly watched his malignant mother do the dirty work. Even at the end, walking down the stairs with his mother, Devlin, and Alicia, Sebastian mindlessly stutters lies to his Nazi comrades before clinging to his only hope for safety: a poisoned Alicia. As Devlin and Alicia climb in the car to the hospital, Sebastian presses himself against the car, begging to go with them—not because he cared, but because his ‘reputable’ identity relied on convincing his comrades of Alicia’s ‘innocence’, as well as his own.

The recurrence of alcohol (namely, wine) is something I see to be symbolic in the film as a means for concealing and even revealing identities. From the beginning when Alicia is drinking herself into juvenile behaviors (a desperation for identity lost), to the dinner party at Sebastian’s; the latter of which shows a mansion full of guests sipping on champagne and drowning themselves in regurgitated verbiage to fit this or that cloned identity. The wine cellar can be seen as a prison cell hiding the identities of the people involved with the uranium ore that is, also symbolically, stowed away inside of an empty wine bottle; yet it is revealing when Devlin and Alicia discover the uranium and the secrets attached. The moments leading up to the party’s running out of champagne guide Sebastian down to the wine cellar, in which case Devlin and Alicia’s more-than-friendly relations are revealed (though instantly re-concealed with a lying mask when conversation between the 3 comes into play). Moving back to the beginning of the film again when Devlin first finds out about Alicia’s proposed mission to spy on her father’s Nazi friends, the camera zooms in on the champagne bottle he accidentally forgets in his boss’ office after leaving for Alicia’s. He arrives at Alicia’s apartment, empty-handed having forgotten the wine, and their feelings for one another are then revealed. Hitchcock reveals their love in an on-again-off-again kiss that lasts for several minutes, never leaving their tight embrace. The camera launches the audience into their moment, as we move closely with them across the floor, enjoying their kisses. As a symbol, the wine’s absence perhaps allowed for this intense moment of their revealed feelings for one another. Similarly in a symbolic way, the camera showed us that Devlin had left the bottle of wine at the office where his boss and the other agents were—this perhaps highlights alcohol’s physical and emotional place in the concealing of identities in the film; leaving the wine in the place where Alicia’s mission to conceal her own identity (a.k.a. to spy) was discussed among the business men.

The symbolism can even be taken further, and it might be said that drinks in general played symbolic roles in the film, representing various faces and stages of identity. For example, the coffee in which Sebastian’s mother laced with poison for Alicia was not only for the further concealment of Alicia’s identity, but also for the defense and protection of her and Sebastian’s own identities from their fellow Nazis.

Insofar as elements of film go, Hitchcock mastered the art of purposeful camera focus, movements, and placement most especially in Notorious. He brings the audience into the film by altering between objective and subjective points-of-view. At the beginning of the film during Alicia’s party, the camera is placed directly behind an opaque figure whose identity is a cryptic shadow and who sits mutely in observance of the party. Here we are put in both an objective and a subjective point-of-view; both objectively seeing the ambiguous, dark figure and subjectively observing Alicia and her party from his perspective. Also, when Alicia was in the midst of her post-party hangover, Hitchcock allowed us to objectively see Alicia in her bed, then subjectively we become a dizzy, scrambled Alicia waking up and seeing Devlin standing patiently at her doorway. We further become her vision as the camera curiously moves in the moment with Devlin’s movements and her vision blurs in and out of focus; an effective representation of the physical, objective state we see her in. Another example is toward the end of the film when Alicia realizes she has been poisoned: the camera moves closely to her face and we see her panicked expressions, while sweat drowns her pores, and the camera circles around her head vertiginously. Then we are placed subjectively in her position and we experience her perspective as the colors invert, voices echo, faces become shadows, and the room distorts. As a viewer, I can say that Hitchcock’s techniques invariably created a convincing experience, because I found myself looking away from the screen with a sick feeling in my stomach and a queasiness in my head during this scene.

Hitchcock has a way of revealing only what is necessary, and amplifying things in the most compelling of ways in his films. Throughout Notorious, he does not use overly obvious means of expressing his intent through excessive violence, language, or sexuality, but instead he lets the camera do the ‘talking’. There is no doubt that the script is well-written, but he goes beyond mere linguistic explanation and he shows his audience with the eloquence of his camera. In my opinion, this is a perfect match for the engaging plot and themes which contribute to my overall appreciation for the film.