“A man doesn’t tell a woman what to do. She tells herself.”
29th August marks the anniversary of Ingrid Bergman’s birth (and death, she died on her 67th birthday), and it seemed as good a time as any to reflect on one of her best screen roles.
There are many eras of Bergman’s career you could focus on – from her work with David O. Selznick to the cruelly banished years in Italy days, and of course her iconic role in Casablanca (1942), but her portrayal of Alicia Huberman in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), her third film with the director, has always been of fascination to me. A multilayered and contradicting depiction of a woman caught within a web of espionage, Bergman’s Alicia eventually uses her wiles AND her intelligence undercover in a cutthroat enemy territory cunningly disguised high society in post-World War II.
Notorious is essentially the story of one woman used as a political pawn to reveal the secrets of Nazi criminals for the American intelligence based in Brazil. Traces of feminine perception and intervention continually drive the plot as well as highlighting the masochistic tendencies of the male characters surrounding the female. Furthermore, it typifies a trend of emerging post-war cinema in which the female narrative helms the film and highlights male inadequacy. The schemes in Notorious heavily rely on Alicia’s compliance in the mission, and though from the outset we are aware that she is being used (and being asked to essentially ‘sleep with the enemy’), Alicia remains the active participant among passive men: Devlin (Cary Grant) and Sebastian (Claude Rains).
As Slavoj Zizek concluded, Hitchcock’s films in the 1940s are “thematically centered on the perspective of the female heroine, traumatized by an ambiguous (evil, impotent, obscene, broken…) paternal figure” with Notorious being the archetype of this. Devlin, unable to admit his love for Alicia, cruelly rebuffs her and encourages her mission to investigate Sebastian. Sebastian meanwhile appears to really love and care for Alicia but is unaware of her double-crossing until his manipulative mother influences him. Both men appear weak and emotionally volatile, while Alicia, though prone to excesses (alcohol and, shock horror…parties), is forced to put aside her emotions at every development of her mission. We as viewers are invited to side with Alicia and become frustrated at Devlin’s detached character.
A year earlier, Bergman had starred in Spellbound (1945), a film bursting with strange imagery and essentially works as the prototype gender swapped Vertigo (1958). A love story of two damaged, compromised people (Bergman and her on and off-screen lover, Gregory Peck), this description works to define Notorious too. Bergman enthralls her co-stars and viewers within intelligently realised female narratives. Spellbound is mostly Constance’s movie, just as Notorious is finally Alicia’s.
Hitchcock’s gaze lies firmly with Alicia during the film, it is through her binoculars we spy on the other players in the tense few movements at the race day, and though we are witness to a female being influenced and cajoled into action, the camera sympathises with Bergman throughout. In the famous ball scene we see the camera in one smooth, descending close-up zoom into Alicia’s hand to show her holding the key which would open the wine cellar and reveal Sebastian’s criminal plot. We are left in no doubt that Alicia’s agency is being acutely emphasised and Alicia is a ‘heroine’ indeed.