Analysis of ‘Notorious’

Notorious is a 1946 spy film produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and written by Ben Hecht. It stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, with Claude Rains, Louis Calhern, and Leopoldine Konstantin.

The film was a watershed for Hitchcock artistically, having a heightened maturity. It was his first attempt to create a serious love story, with two men (played by Grant and Rains) jealously vying for the attention of a beautiful woman (Bergman) within the context of a spy thriller.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

What’s curious about this film is how it depicts clandestine operations by ex-Nazis in Brazil just after WWII, when the Nazis had just been roundly defeated. One would think that the ex-Nazi war criminals hiding out in South America would want to keep a low profile by not doing anything suspect just after their defeat, with Nazi hunters after them.

The ex-Nazis of this film are high-ranking members of IG Farben, the German chemical and pharmaceutical conglomerate infamously associated with such atrocities as the creation of Zyklon B, which killed over a million people in gas chambers during the Holocaust. These IG Farben executives, it is discovered, are mining uranium ore, to be used in the making of atomic bombs. (Incidentally, from the discovery of nuclear fission to the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, the Nazis were hardly motivated to develop nuclear weapons; getting rid of Jews was their priority at the time. And only now are these ex-Nazis interested in uranium ore?)

What is odd about the villain conspirators being from IG Farben is that the conglomerate was seized by the Allies at the end of the war in 1945, its directors to be put on trial from 1947 to 1948, thirteen of the tried twenty-three directors being convicted of war crimes. If a Nazi conspiracy to make nuclear weapons were afoot, it would seem unlikely that its men would allow any association to be made with IG Farben.

What’s more, while at the end of the war there would have been plenty of animosity felt towards the Nazis by the general populace of Western countries, there were also plenty of people among the Western bourgeoisie who had expressed sympathy for the Nazis as a group dedicated to destroying communism. Accordingly, not only did many Western bourgeois hope that Hitler would invade the USSR, and encouraged such a move at the Munich conference, but also a great many ex-Nazis were given prestigious jobs in the American government, in NASA, in NATO, and in the West German government, as part of the Cold War offensive against the Soviet states. Recall also that a number of Hitler’s business backers were American companies and other Allied multinationals.

Now, Operation Paperclip wasn’t made public through the media until December of 1946, well after the release of Notorious. Truman hadn’t officially approved of Operation Paperclip until September of 1946, again after Notorious was finished. It was therefore extremely unlikely that Hitchcock and Hecht would have known anything about the operation.

Still, with the Nazis decisively defeated, and not yet having the knowledge of the mining of uranium ore, it seems unlikely that the American government as portrayed in the film would be so concerned with the activities of a few ex-Nazis hiding out in South America. The Nazis were no longer an effective challenger to Western imperialist interests; on the contrary, it was now the Soviets who were such a challenge. And as I said above, the Western ruling class still had a soft spot in their hearts for commie-hating Nazis.

So what’s the real point about having ex-Nazis as the villains in Notorious?

Well, the movie-going public, as opposed to the capitalist class, would have had an unequivocal dislike of Nazis just after WWII, so the IG Farben men would have made fitting villains. Hecht, as a Jew, would naturally have hated Nazis, too. Finally, the mainstream liberals in Hollywood at the time, in their defence of bourgeois democracy, would have seen Nazis as appropriate villains whose presence in Notorious would have made the film appealing to the public.

On a deeper level, though, Notorious reflects the ambivalence that the liberal bourgeoisie of the time would have had towards such villains. This ambivalence is seen in how surprisingly sympathetic Alex Sebastian (Rains) is, as an ex-Nazi in love with (and his heart broken by) German-American Alicia Huberman (Bergman), the beautiful daughter of a German traitor in the US who has been convicted of aiding the Nazis.

Indeed, the love triangle between these two and the American government agent, TR Devlin (Grant) can be seen to be an allegory of this Western capitalist ambivalence to Naziism. Alicia, a woman exploited by the American government to seduce Sebastian–or, put more bluntly, to prostitute herself to him–in order to spy on him and discover what wickedness the IG Farben men are up to, personifies the land and resources that the US (as personified by Devlin) and Nazi Germany (as personified by Sebastian) are competing for, to possess and to dominate.

The men’s mutual jealousy over her is thus an allegory of 1) the Western capitalist use of fascism to counter communism, and 2) the inter-imperialist conflict of WWII when Hitler showed that he wanted much more than just to invade and colonize the Soviet Union; he also wanted to muscle in on the territory of Britain and other Western imperialists.

Alicia, as that American daughter of the German traitor, also fits in with my allegory in how she’s, on the one hand, looked down on, is notorious, as an alcoholic and a tramp who, at the beginning of the film, is suspected of being sympathetic to her father’s politics; yet on the other hand, is also such a desirable beauty. Western liberals despise fascist brutishness, yet they nonetheless find it politically expedient in furthering capitalist and imperialist interests.

Now, the object of desire here is a beautiful woman who drinks, and drinking–of alcohol especially–is a major thematic motif in Notorious (indeed, Hitchcock’s cameo in the film shows him drinking a glass at a party). This drinking is recurrently associated with danger and destruction: we see this first in her drunk-driving scene with Devlin, then later in the discovery that the uranium ore is being hidden in wine bottles in the cellar of Sebastian’s house.

This association of alcohol, wine in particular, with danger and destruction reminds us of Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and madness (consider the violence and wildness of his Maenads). The rivalry between Devlin and Sebastian over the charms of Alicia is the essence of irrational jealousy, leading to her near-death by poisoning and Sebastian’s downfall at the end of the movie, when he can no longer hide the fact that he has fallen for an American spy. This understanding deepens my allegory in that the madly jealous inter-imperialist rivalry during WWII between the capitalist West and Nazi Germany resulted in so much death and destruction.

While I’m sure that neither Hitchcock nor Hecht consciously intended to present the allegory I’m describing here, I consider the political circumstances that led up to WWII and those depicted in Notorious to be such that my allegory is inevitable, if only through the unconscious emergence of a few Freudian slips. Accordingly, I don’t find it to be too far out of place to see Devlin as a pun on devil.

Devlin takes Alicia by plane from her home in Florida to Brazil; through the airplane window, she can see the statue of Christ the Redeemer. It seems as though, through her working for the American government, she is about to redeem herself for her father’s treason. During the flight, and by an interesting juxtaposition, she also learns of her father’s death in prison by swallowing a poison capsule. She sees the statue immediately after hearing the news; it’s as if her father’s death is a Christ-like sacrifice freeing her of her family’s Nazi past.

They fly into Rio, and it isn’t long before Devlin and Alicia fall in love. Their love affair being in Brazil of all places, where she is to seduce Sebastian, adds more depth to my political allegory of this film when one considers how the Monroe Doctrine led to an increasingly possessive attitude towards Central America (i.e., the Banana Wars) and South America, that is, in imperialist terms. Since the beginning of the Cold War especially, any attempt at a leftist liberation from US imperialism would lead to a CIA coup d’état, replacing the erstwhile leftist government with an authoritarian, right-wing one, reminding us in a way of the ex-Nazis hiding out in South America.

The US government, thus, has been like a jealous, possessive lover of Latin America, just as Devlin has been of Alicia. A comparable kind of possessiveness can be seen in the US occupation of the southeastern and central part of West Germany just after WWII. German-American Alicia is eyed this way by Devlin, and Sebastian’s later jealous eyeing of her in Brazil allegorically suggests the ex-Nazi presence in South America. The allegorical interpretation of the Devlin/Huberman/Sebastian love triangle is complete when one considers the above-mentioned American use of ex-Nazis in their government from the beginning of the Cold War.

That closeness of America and Germany, apart from being personified in Alicia herself, is also seen in her famous extended kissing scene with Devlin, in which Hitchcock deftly evaded the censors of the prudish Production Code by briefly breaking up kisses that could last as long as the three-second limit. Indeed, one could think of the breaking up of the kisses as representative of the ambivalent attitude of the US government towards a Germany with a fascist past: love her, Devlin, but not too much.

Anyway, his love for her will soon turn into animosity when he learns from his superiors, including Captain Paul Prescott (Calhern) of the US Secret Service, that her job is to seduce Sebastian so she can find out what he and the other IG Farben men are up to. As I said above, Devlin’s and Sebastian’s mutual jealousy over the German-American beauty represents the ambivalent attitude the US government has always had towards fascism.

Like all good little liberals, the American ruling class is supposed to hate Nazis…but this doesn’t mean the Nazis don’t have their uses, as do other kinds of fascists, that is, in how they can serve imperialist interests by, for example, thwarting the advancement of socialism. Even now, the American liberal establishment, in order to avoid feeling any cognitive dissonance, pretends that the Russian/Ukraine war is a fight for liberation against the ‘aggressor’ Putin, while also denying, or at least minimizing, the neo-Nazi elements in the Ukrainian government and military, who are perfectly content to ban opposition parties and persecute ethnic Russians living in the area.

So, to get back to the story, Devlin is more than uncomfortable to know that the woman he’s attracted to is being used to attract another man. That the Americans can’t just go in and arrest the IG Farben men–because they’d then just find others to replace Sebastian et al, and so their sinister work would continue–is reasoning whose validity I’m not convinced of. Nazi war criminals are war criminals…arrest them! When the replacements come, arrest them, too. Nazis as of 1946 ceased to be a threat to US bourgeois imperialist interests (and as we now know, Nazis were actually helping the American government against its then-real threat, the Soviets), so just arrest the IG Farben men.

Devlin’s jealousy will be swelling when he learns that Sebastian wants to marry Alicia, who will agree to it…and he isn’t the only one feeling this jealousy over the marriage that’s coming; so is Sebastian’s mother, Madame Anna Sebastian (Konstantin). Though Rains retained his British accent while playing German Sebastian, Grant spoke with his Trans-Atlantic accent (bringing up associations between American, British, and Nazi imperialism in the context of Notorious), and Bergman largely managed to hide her Swedish accent in her portrayal of a German-American, the Austrian actress Konstantin spoke with her German accent undisguised, which really brings out the stereotypical Nazi associations in her role, as not only one of the main villains of the movie, but also as Sebastian’s ruthless and domineering mother.

There is a parallel to be observed in his relationship with both his new wife and with his mother–one of servile love. Just as Sebastian is uxorious towards Alicia, so is he Oedipal in his attitude towards Madame Anna, something she can use to her advantage in controlling him. One is reminded of the love Hitler had for his mother, Klara, after whose death he grieved for the rest of his life.

Hitchcock’s mother died four years before Notorious was made and released; he addressed his own mother issues for the first time in this film, and the notion of a domineering mother like Madame Anna, a reservoir of her son’s guilt, anger, resentment, and Oedipal yearning, was something Hitchcock would explore further in films like Psycho and The Birds. Indeed, he would often incorporate psychoanalysis in such films as these and in Spellbound, a film he did the year before Notorious.

The unhealthiness of an unresolved Oedipus complex that is exploited by a cunning mother just adds a deeper level of villainy to this group of ex-Nazis, for properly understood, the Oedipal longing for a parent’s love and undivided attention–combined with the frustration of never fully having that attention–is a narcissistic trauma. Sebastian’s unhealthy relationship with his mother, in which he is weakened and made vain and foolish, ends up being transferred onto Alicia, making him uxorious in his feelings for her. She, as an American spy, can exploit his weakness in getting to the key to the wine cellar to find the hidden uranium ore.

She’s being exploited, too, recall, by the American government, and to complete the job, she must agree to marry Sebastian and allow him into her bed–a conquest of his comparable to the American takeover of aboriginal land (I’m reminded of lines 25-32 from Donne‘s Elegy XIX, ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’), which inspired Hitler to want to conquer Slavic land. Alicia must go along with this fake romance, to keep up appearances so Sebastian will never suspect she’s an American spy. Devlin must also keep up appearances and maintain a professional attitude, pretending he’s had no romance of his own with her.

Indeed, keeping up appearances is a major theme running throughout Notorious. Alicia’s mission as a spy includes keeping up appearances that she’s as much in love with Sebastian as he is with her. She imagines Devlin’s love for her is pretend, while he keeps up appearances of a stoic lack of interest in her, always hiding his jealousy behind a feigned contempt for her, all for the sake of keeping the mission going. The IG Farben men keep up appearances of wine bottles innocently containing wine when some of those in the cellar actually contain uranium ore.

Ironically, when Sebastian intrudes on Devlin’s and Alicia’s moment alone in the cellar just after discovering the “sand” in one of the wine bottles, Devlin has her pretend to kiss him in order to keep up appearances of having an affair to hide their real offence against Sebastian, the discovery of what’s hidden in that bottle. This ‘appearance’ of being in love, of course, hides the fact that they really are in love…though they won’t admit this until the end of the film.

The penultimate keeping up of appearances is when Sebastian and his mother pretend to be concerned for Alicia’s declining health–to cover up for his foolish falling in love with an American spy–when it’s their piecemeal poisoning of her coffee, another drink Notorious associates with danger and destruction, that is causing her declining health. And the final keeping up of appearances, which ultimately fails, is at the end, when Sebastian and his mother pretend that Devlin is just taking Alicia to the hospital instead of actually rescuing her from her two poisoners.

Sebastian pretends not to fear death as Devin is taking Alicia down the stairs towards the front door, but when she’s put in the car and Devlin is about to drive away, Sebastian is desperately anxious to have them take him in the car, too. More keeping up of appearances.

Sebastian has everything to fear, for the other IG Farben men, knowing there’s no telephone in Alicia’s bedroom from which Devlin could have called the hospital, proves that the hospital story is a lie…so Sebastian must meet the same fate as that of Emil Hupka (played by Eberhard Krumschmidt) for having reacted with shock, in front of Alicia, at the wine bottles, which tipped her off to their significance.

The paranoid intensity of security maintained by the IG Farben men is what makes me doubt the plausibility of there being any substantial American cause for suspicion of sinister plots by these ex-Nazis against American imperialist interests. They’re hiding their conspiracy so tightly that it seems virtually impossible for the Americans to have discovered anything; Alicia’s being tipped off by Emil’s display of agitation seems little more than a fluke.

Such a tight keeping up of appearances by the IG Farben men leads me to discuss the ultimate pretense of this film, whether consciously intended by Hitchcock and Hecht or not: that the US government, just after having defeated the Nazis, would still regard fascism as an intolerable evil in any form. The American moviegoing public would surely have continued to vilify Nazis, so it would have been expedient for Hollywood producers to keep up the appearance of despising fascism, too…for the sake of ticket sales, at the very least.

But bourgeois liberal Hollywood interests aren’t all that far removed from those of capitalist imperialism and colonialism. Hecht as a Jew would have justifiably hated Nazis in all sincerity, but he was also an avid supporter of the establishment of the settler colonial state of Israel, whose persecution of the Palestinians has been every bit as evil as the Nazi persecution of the Jews was. Notorious‘s keeping up of appearances of regarding Nazis as an enemy of America covers up how useful the West has always found fascism, which they’ve since falsely equated with communism…another deft move of propaganda on the part of the ruling class.

Western capitalism’s appeasement and, therefore, encouragement, of the rise of fascism in the 1930s, in its attempt to thwart socialism, was ultimately the creation of a monster they’d quickly regret. The Western bourgeoisie were Dr. Victor Frankenstein; fascism was the monster. WWII was the horror story. Notorious was, in my opinion at least, an example of a bourgeois attempt to save face over its creation of that monster.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s