Friday, 1 July 2011

"First Last and Always Not A Lady"

I think it is high time I took a moment to explain to why Notorious is a title I choose to relate myself with. 

Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) is my default answer to the impossible question, "what is your favourite film?" and indeed it is often my favourite Hitchcock and easily one of my general all time favourite. It is the film that introduced me to Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), definitely my favourite woman of the silver screen.

The first time I was introduced to Alicia Huberman was in university. I was already a passionate Hitchcock fan and quite confident that I know my Hitchcock and no film of his would be a great surprise. It seems Hitch had other plans.

The premise of Notorious is often associated with the story of Mata Hari, the famous exotic dancer who was accused of being a double agent during the First World War and was executed despite possibly being innocent. Mata Hari developed a dramatic reputation of femme fatale and a men eater. Her story became a legend and she an icon.

Unlike Mata Hari, however, Alicia is not exactly a men eater, though some may consider her to be, and definitely not a famme fatale. Her story is not the stuff of legends and I doubt that many, other than myself will consider her an icon. Alicia is first and foremost a misunderstood woman and, as the song goes, “A Woman in Love.” Morover, the position of a "Mata hari" is forced on Alicia by various men and, unlike the impression you might get from the Mata Hari myth, was never her choice.

Daughter of a Nazi spy convicted of treason against the USA, Alicia is put in a defensive position right from the start. She walks out of her father’s trial stoically, ignoring the reporters demanding her to take a stand against her father and prove her loyalty to the US. From that moment on Alicia is doomed. Her reputation, notorious, like her choices is forced upon her by the men in her life and her loyalty, private or national, will forever be questioned.  

There is a wonderful scene in Notorious in which Alicia meets Devlin, her handler, at the horse race track to give him information. In a desperate attempt to make him jealous and admit his love for her, she tells Devlin that he can now add Sebastian to her list of "play mates". This indeed makes Devlin angry and jealous, but instead of confessing his love, he tells her he knew this would happen and it was just a matter of time. When she tells him that all he had to do is tell her that he loves her, Devlin essentially admits he was testing to see if she would agree to do the job despite its unorthodox requirements and she failed him. What a terrible thing to do and what an impossible position to put poor Alicia in! If she refused to take the job, that his bosses forced on her, not only would she be considered “non patriotic” and would suffer the consequences of her father’s crimes, but also, and perhaps worse, she would have given in to the bullying of a man who is incapable of telling her he loves her. 

Ingrid Bergman is most wonderful as Alicia Huberman. She beautifully portrays the bitter, angry self destructive cynic as well as the love-sick child hidden within waiting to come out. Bergman is so sweet and so compelling as Alicia that I found myself waving a very angry fist at Devlin crying “How can you be so cold and stupid Cary Grant? Can’t you see how much she loves you?” It was the first time I loved an onscreen heroine more than the hero, something I never believed would happen, especially when the hero is Cary Grant!

Several feminist academics have, in the past, pointed a disapproving finger at Hitchcock's problematic represantation of women in his films. Feminist theory has evolved since and there were those who pointed out that Hitchcock's men are not exactly portrayed in a better light and that perhaps his films are not so much about representing women or men, but rather the complexity of the relationship between them.

In his well documented personal life, offscreen, it was clear that Hitchcock had a problematic attitiude towards women and he was often described as difficult and abusive, though with the exception of Tippi Hedren with whom he have crossed a line, it's hard to tell if it was Hitchcock or the way men in position of power used to behave at the time. Whatever the case may be, it was, and still is, quite unexpected that it would be Alfred Hitchcock who would portray a woman like the notorious Alicia Huberman so sensitively that though within the world of the film she is crushed by all the men around her, it she who conquers the screen and the heart. It is rare, even today, to find a film, with same scale stars as Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, in which my heart would belong to the woman. In comparison, in Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman's character, Ilsa, is flat and almost insignificant next to the mighty Bogart. 
For me, Notorious, the film and the adjactive, goes hand in hand with a powerful woman, whose power is to make me so angry with Cary Grant I actually turned my back on him for this film, a woman who can take the notorious label and throw it back in the faces of the men who have given it to her, a woman I care about, a woman I would like to have a conversation with and a woman I love with all my heart.

   Definitely my all time favourite kissing scene


  1. Thank you dear. I know this was quite an operation, so I do thank you.

  2. Alicia is an unusual heroine, very brave, and while the romantic in me was happy that Devlin came at the end to save her (literally sweep her off her feet!) the abrupt ending made me think their love could never actually work out.

  3. Exactly! That is why I don't think it is your usual happy ending. I think it's a very problematic ending for the lovers. What kind of a relationship will these two have when she needs to be near death for him to tell her that he loves her?
    This is one of the things I love about Hitchcock so much, many of his endings might look happy in first look, but as you think about it you ask yourself is this really the happy ending we wanted? It always comes with a sting.
    Tuffaut discuss this in his book as well. If you want I can lend it to you to read what he said about Notorious and other films as well.

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