I’ve been fighting off a cold the past 24 hours (an apparently failing fight, by the way). While this is inconvenient in all sorts of ways, it HAS given me a chance to re-connect with one of my all-time favorite movies: Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. I love this movie, and not just because Ingrid Bergman’s is possibly the most beautiful face ever projected on a big screen.
I could ramble on about it for hours. In fact, I actually have: In college, I recorded a full-length commentary for Notorious as my final project for an incredibly engaging independent study on the Master’s films and theories.
The film is rich enough and so multi-faceted that you can watch it over and over again and find new aspects of its storytelling and filmmaking to admire each time. Revisiting it tonight, the thing I was most into wasn’t how perfectly edited it is, or the way Hitchcock used wardrobe color to such simple, powerful effect. No, tonight I was amused, because this movie casts Cary Grant in a less-common light.
In the movie, Ingrid Bergman plays a high-profile playgirl whose father was just convicted of being a German spy. Cary Grant plays a federal agent assigned to recruit her to gather intelligence on some of her father’s friends. She falls in love with Cary Grant, and though he’s too cold to admit it, he loves her, too. Then he finds out her assignment is to seduce a man who used to be in love with her.
That’s where Cary Grant goes from being cold to flat-out cruel. He sneers his way through his scenes with Bergman, accosting her in Hays-approved innuendo for going through with the plan, while she grows to resent the fact that he didn’t ask her not to. This is not the dashing, charming Cary Grant or even the funny and accessible Cary Grant that producer David O. Selznick wanted to hire as a way of ensuring that the film would turn a profit. No, to us today, this is more like tuning in to watch this show Dexter you’ve heard so much about because that father from 3rd Rock From The Sun is in it and being treated to John Lithgow’s tortured, horrifying performance as the so-called “Trinity Killer.”
People knew the range Grant was capable of, but I think we can all agree he’s primarily known as a dreamy leading man. Selznick sent notes throughout the re-writing process asking that Hitchcock and his collaborators be sure that Grant’s character be charming enough, but Grant and Hitchcock took his character in a slightly different direction. From the moment Bergman meets him, we as the audience trust him. This is partly because Cary Grant carries certain cultural baggage nowadays, but mostly it’s because he does bring the charm. (His response when she tells him her car is outside is easy to miss, but something few other actors could have pulled off quite so well.) We don’t know what his angle is, but we decide that Bergman should trust him.
And then, five minutes later, he decides to just up and knock her out.