I’m suspicious of a filmmaker who makes Nazis the bad guys in his movies.
It feels like a cop-out to introduce bad guys that we already loathe instead of taking the time to create new, interesting characters.
The only thing lazier than a movie with Nazis is one where the Nazis are so bland that we can’t even be bothered to root against them.
Enter the unique cinematic world of Alfred Hitchcock: the most overrated director of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
“Notorious” begins pleasantly enough. Ingrid Bergman plays an intelligent, vivacious young woman named Alicia Huberman. She is apolitical, but her father was a Nazi sympathizer and has recently been imprisoned.
Finally, Alicia is free to move on from the war and enjoy her life, right? Nope. Enter T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant): a federal agent whose job is to pressure Alicia to go under cover for Uncle Sam.
Because Devlin looks like Cary Grant, Alicia agrees to fly down to Rio De Janeiro with him. Just as Alicia begins to fall in love, Devlin drops a bombshell: her mission is to seduce a local businessman – Alex Sebastian – who is in league with the Nazis.
This sets the stage for a dramatic and preposterous love triangle.
There are two fundamental problems with “Notorious.” The first is that Devlin is a horrible person. It is an insane misuse of Cary Grant to have him play such a jerk.
It’s obviously wrong to send an innocent young woman off on such a dangerous and sexually exploitive mission. And on top that, Devlin doesn’t emotionally support Alicia at all. She begs for a sign that Devlin loves her, too, to help motivate her. He just gives her the cold shoulder.
With Devlin’s aid, Alicia goes from charming leading lady in the first act to a miserable, humorless victim.
Meanwhile, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) isn’t such a bad guy. Alex falls for the ruse and eagerly invites Alicia into his mansion and into his life. He is a caring, understanding, patient boyfriend.
Even more oddly, Alex and his Nazi buddies don’t seem to be doing anything particularly naughty. It was 1946 and yet I don’t think Alfred Hitchcock understood why people didn’t care for the Nazis.
You can’t just call a character Nazi and expect us to loathe him. He has to do some Nazis things. We hate Nazis because of the warmongering and the organized street violence and the tendency to enslave and mass murder people.
If you have a Nazi who doesn’t do any of those things, he’s basically just a nice boyfriend who is hiding some uranium in his basement.
This uranium is the only thing that makes Alex seem like a villain at all. And Hitchcock doesn’t bother to explain what his plans are. We are forced to guess. Is he going to enrich the uranium in the lab he doesn’t have? Is he then going to build an A-Bomb in the factory he doesn’t own? Is he then going to drop the bomb on Miami flying in on the B-29 that he doesn’t possess?
“Notorious” is an impressive cinematic accomplishment. Alfred Hitchcock managed to make Cary Grant a jerk. He made Claude Rains boring. And he made Nazis unthreatening.