Friday, May 18, 2012

Performance Spotlight: Ingrid Bergman in Notorious

Note: This is the third post in a series dedicated to For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III, looking at some of my personal favorite performances in Hitchcock films. The donation button and links for the blogathon can be found by scrolling down.

Ingrid Bergman in Notorious
"Dry your eyes, baby, it's out of character."

In 1950, Ingrid Bergman was denounced on the Senate room floor because she had left her husband Peter Lindstrom for her director Roberto Rossellini. She was already pregnant with Rossellini's baby. Senator Edwin C. Johnson denounced her as "an apostle for degradation" and a "powerful influence for evil." It was a bizarre twist in a career that, Joan of Arc aside, was far from being a parade of saintly good girls. Her breakthrough role had, in fact, been as the adulterous lover in Intermezzo. You have to wonder if Johnson (who never gained much greater fame than "the man who slut-shamed Ingrid Bergman") was much of a movie-goer. It was one of those scandals that would have popped like a soap bubble if it had come around only a few years later. As it is, it stands as the strange dark side of America's love for Ingrid Bergman.  And in that sense, it's an eerie parallel to one of Bergman's greatest roles in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious.

In Notorious, Bergman is Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, who is recruited to bring down her father's friends. But Alicia is a perpetually sloshed good-time girl who, to co-opt Bogart's line, sticks her neck out for nobody. The task of convincing her falls to the attractive, brooding agent sent to tail her, T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant). Devlin and Alicia fall in love, but their affair is cut short by the news that Alicia must go to work. And for Alicia, work means "landing" Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a wealthy Nazi spy who was infatuated with her once before. Alicia urges Devlin to convince her not to do it, but instead, he bitterly eggs her on. This frustrated love triangle only becomes more twisted when the besotted Alex marries Alicia, drawing the cold anger of his mother (Leopoldine Konstantin). Alicia's spying soon hits pay dirt, but her suspicious actions alert Alex to her true nature. And once he realizes what she is, he'll use any means to dispose of her before his compatriots find out.

As a Hitchcock fan, I've had to endure many glib assessments of the Master of Suspense, one of them being, "Man, Hitchcock had problems with women, didn't he? What a misogynist." And it never fails to make me grind my teeth. He tortured his female characters, he had a blonde fetish, he obsessed over women he couldn't have so sure, he's a misogynist, it's that simple. But for me, the central dividing line of misogyny isn't about mistreatment or sexualization, it's about viewpoint. Hitchcock's female characters always have a viewpoint and a very strong, complex one at that. Hitchcock was fascinated by the problems women had to face, by their nightmares and questions and strengths. Sometimes his female characters are strong heroines like Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt, sometimes they're spunky and sharp like Patricia Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train, and sometimes they're duplicitous and conflicted like Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest. But it's rare to find any Hitchcock female who's reduced to something as simple as "madonna" or "whore." Which brings us back to Notorious.

Notorious gives us a heroine who's racked up quite a sexual history and because of that, the man she loves refuses to trust her. Yet because of her past, the government will ask her to essentially prostitute herself to a Nazi so that they can gain information. She does this, not so much out of self-sacrificing nobility as out of hurt that her lover Devlin won't even try to talk her out of it. He is likewise unable to accept that she could do a thing like that.  But one of the many fascinating things about Notorious is that Alicia, and by extension Ingrid Bergman, is no ambiguous femme fatale. We are never left in doubt that she loves Devlin and hates what she's being asked to do. She's the sympathetic heart of the film, the sole woman in a movie that seems only to exist of men who want something from her. Well, until Leopoldine Konstantin enters the picture, but that's not exactly consolation.

It can be difficult to appreciate how intelligent and nuanced Bergman's reactions are until you break down the script and realize just how many scenes boil down to "Devlin says something nasty, Alicia is upset." Imagine how unbearable that could get with an actress who played only that single note of wounded love. But Bergman always shades her responses. In the scene where a newly sober Alicia is celebrating that fact with Devlin, Bergman gives a barely-hidden vulnerability to the sarcastic line, "I'm pretending I'm a nice, unspoiled child whose heart is full of daisies and buttercups." After Devlin cuts her down with a cold, "Nice daydream," Bergman immediately orders another drink, her expression daring him to throw another insult. Then she follows it with the achingly sad, "Why won't you believe in me, Dev, just a little?" Bergman flashes an almost imperceptible smile after that line, as if the urge to smile is a compulsion she can't fight (If you tried to count how many times Bergman smiles in this film, you would be forced to give up before the half-hour mark). In the immediate scene after, as Alicia is taunting Dev with the possibility of his attraction to her, Bergman gives just the barest touch of anger to the line, "Makes you sick all over, doesn't it?"

Give credit to Ben Hecht's excellent script for the character of Alicia. As written, she's a woman who uses her own pain as a weapon, cutting herself down with insults ("tramp," "drunk," "no-good gal") and sarcastic quips ("I'm only fishing for a little bird call from my dream man").  She would rather insult herself than wait for Devlin to do it for her. But she also wants to draw a reaction from him, some proof of his emotion for her, and if the only way she can do that is by picking a fight then she will. It's one of the cruelest love stories ever put on the film. Cruelest because it is a love story and these two need each other and we have to spend an entire film watching them hurt each other.

Bergman's performance is so crucial to this film that I can't imagine any other actress taking the part. I could picture Gloria Grahame playing up the abusive and sexual elements of the script but could Grahame seem quite so comfortable moving about this glittering world? I could see Linda Darnell or Rita Hayworth as the innocent bad girl but neither of them had Bergman's gift for emotional need. Or her ability to take an overly literal aspect of the story and make it ring true. Take an early scene where Alicia explains why she is the way she is:
"When he told me a few years ago what he was, everything went to pot. I didn't care what happened to me. Now I remember how nice he once was, how nice we both were. Very nice. It's a very curious feeling, a feeling as if something had happened to me, not to him. You see I don't have to hate him anymore - or myself."
This is an easy way out for the audience. Now they don't have to worry about sympathizing with a loose woman. She's not bad just because she enjoys sex and alcohol, she's bad because her father damaged her. But Bergman manages to save this speech. She starts out dazed, wondering. But her voice gradually grows in strength, and instead of pop psychology, we see a rare moment of Alicia understanding a relationship and feeling better because of it. 

I sometimes feel that Bergman doesn't get the credit she deserves for this performance, partly because it's Bergman and we expect her to be great, and partly because Cary Grant and Claude Rains are so flat-out, height-of-their-careers superb that the temptation is to talk more about them. Well that and Leopoldine Konstantin's ability to stop a film in its tracks just by lighting up a cigarette. I think that although Bergman has the most overtly emotional role, Grant and Rains perhaps reveal more to the audience. They have more to conceal and so we play closer attention to what they let us see. 

Hitchcock films always have revelations to offer and my latest one, upon rewatching this film is, "This ending owes a lot to Camille, doesn't it?" We have the woman who has sacrificed health, love, and security for a man who only realizes it as she lays dying. But while Camille is the story of a woman who's led a shallow life and finds nobility in her sacrifice, Notorious takes the view that maybe it's the men who ask her to make such sacrifices that are truly the sick ones. Alicia's cause may be a patriotic one, but the movie sidesteps on the issue of whether that redeems her or whether she needed to be redeemed in the first place. What we have is the story of the crimes men and women commit for love. If Senator Johnson had gone to the movies more often, he might have learned something.

This post is part of For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon. If you want to make a donation (proceeds are going towards the restoration of The White Shadow, a formerly lost film that helped kick-start the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock's career), here is the link.


  1. There's a reason Spellbound and Notorious are my favorite Hitchcock films--Ingrid Bergman. Unlike some of his other heroines (or whatever you want to call them), Bergman's characters don't play second fiddle to the male leads. She is her own woman. I really enjoyed reading this.

  2. Rachel, your post about NOTORIOUS really blew me away! Your in-depth look at this emotionally complex film and its characters -- adult in the best sense of the term -- truly does justice to the story and the actors playing them. You nailed it with your discussion of the men in NOTORIOUS, and how it's "the men who ask (Alicia) to make such sacrifices that are truly the sick ones." Hitchcock's characters were never cookie-cutter types to begin with, but the women get the best of it acting-wise, with the complicated women and the men they have to put up with! :-) Color me wowed, Rachel -- superb post!

  3. Wonderful essay. I think Rita Hayworth MIGHT have been able to handle the role, but not as well as Bergman; she's not quite vulnerable enough. Thanks, too, for giving credit to Hecht.

  4. A wonderful piece, Rachel. It is a while since I saw this film but I must do so again soon - I remember that all the three leads work together brilliantly. Judy

  5. KimWilson: You sum up Ingrid Bergman very well, I think.

    Dorian: Thanks so much for your comments. I do feel that if I were going to properly dig into this film, I'd have to take an in-depth look at Grant and Rains too. Each player in this triangle is so fascinating and full of depth to me. And I agree that Hitchcock had incredible parts for women.

    Tinkyweisblat: I like Rita Hayworth and Gilda is perhaps the closest she came to this kind of role but even so, I think the part is unquestionably Bergman's.

    Movieclassics: Thanks for stopping by, Judy. Glad you liked it.

  6. Hi Rachel, dont know if you will see this but I need your email address so I can send you the questions for your stint next month as my guest on my blog All Good Things. That is if you still can do it. My email is

  7. Thanks for the great post on Notorious. I love Bergman in this movie more than any other. She is truly amazing in what I have always considered her best role. Thanks again.