Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Miami, Florida; 1946. Alicia Huberman's father is imprisoned as a Nazi spy. She drowns her sorrows with good times. But when Devlin, an American agent, woos her to work for Uncle Sam her better self answers the call. They fly to Rio De Janeiro where she infiltrates a group of Nazi Industrialists led by her former boyfriend, Sebastian. Torn between love for Devlin and duty to the job -- she marries Sebastian, going deep undercover to discover their secrets. But soon she's found out and is slowly poisoned. Devlin must see passed his jealousy and bitterness before he can save her.
"Notorious woman of affairs... adventurous man of the world!" -- the original tagline. But with Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains who needs taglines? There may be greater movie stars and there may be finer actors but there are no finer actors who happen to be movie stars. Put these three in a film, let Hitchcock direct, and you have the cinematic equivalent of a royal flush -- you simply cannot lose. And indeed 'Notorious' is a classic for the ages. It didn't always seem so -- the critics were tepid in their initial response. I suspect the story, which veers toward the tall end of the tall-tale camp, is responsible.
Alicia Huberman (Bergman) is the lady in question. Her father has been imprisoned as a German spy. She is determined to wipe the bitterness clean with gin and good times until T.R. Devlin(Grant) crashes her party and offers her a chance to work for the good guys. Devlin and company have had her under surveillance. They know that beneath the brash smirk lurks the heart of a patriot. And so with some reluctance she accepts the job and they fly to Rio where she infiltrates the Farben Group
Then the job comes as a thunderbolt. She must "land" a former boyfriend, Alex Sebastian (Rains), who is the head of the Farben Group, and find out what they're up to. In a cruel dilemma she must play 'Mata Hari' and bed down and marry him in order to conduct her 'undercover' work. Her affair with Devlin is finished -- however their love will not die and it simmers on beneath the surface and this is the true beating heart of the film.
On the surface Alicia is living a dream in a mansion surrounded by riches. Inside her spirit dies a slow weary death. For Devlin it is all business and he has no sympathy. In fact he's blind with jealousy. It is the life she chose, he tells her. Back to business -- Sebastian throws a party to introduce his wife to Rio society. Devlin manages an invite. There he and Alicia gain access to the wine cellar where they discover uranium ore in a wine bottle. When Sebastian stumbles on them they fake an embrace to cover their spying. Sebastian is coldly furious until he discovers he's married to an American Agent. Then he would gladly kill her except that it would alert his colleagues to his bungling. And so with the aid of his Mother he slowly poisons Alicia -- with coffee, kindness and arsenic.
Alicia discovers the trap but she is too weak to get away. She collapses and is confined to a bedroom. Cut off from the world and surrounded by enemies she faces certain death unless Devlin can see passed his bitterness and come to her rescue.
Filmed in sumptuous black and white by Ted Tetzlaff, ( Edith Head designed Bergman's gowns) these stars have never shone brighter. The chemistry between Grant and Bergman is electric, legendary. The moral of the story hasn't aged as well: that a party girl must be poisoned just shy of extinction before she can earn the love of a gentleman. But Alicia is more than that -- she is the German people, wayward at times but good as gold underneath. And this was America in 1946 -- a country with a huge German demographic in a hurry to forgive. Likewise we must forgive a rather gimmicky plot and recognize it's function: it is a torture chamber for the human heart and it works quite wonderfully. Watch for Hitchcock at the bar downing a glass of champagne.