Before the blonde, there was Bergman. In the second half of the 1940s, Hitchcock cast Ingrid Bergman three times, and on each occasion asked her to incarnate a different kind of leading lady. In the film noir Spellbound (1945) she was a psychoanalyst defrosted by Gregory Peck, and she played the loyal sister of a convict in 19th-century Australia in Hitchcock's first colour film, the costumed period piece Under Capricorn (1949). In Notorious (1946), she takes the role of Alicia Huberman, a good-time girl whom we find drowning her sorrows after her father is convicted as a Nazi spook.
She is soon recruited by TR Devlin, Cary Grant’s charming US government agent to infiltrate her father's old cohort of Nazi exiles in Rio. Among them is one of her many former lovers, played by*Casablanca co-star Claude Rains. The catch is that by the time they land in Brazil, Alicia and Devlin have fallen in love, causing each to doubt the other’s commitment as they proceed with a sting that requires her to seduce another man.
Bergman is matchless at portraying the blissful onrush of love
Although also a gripping spy drama, this was Hitchcock’s first serious stab at a full-bodied love story. It found Bergman once more making a romantic sacrifice in pitting herself against the Nazis. But Alicia Huberman is no Ilsa Lund. If it’s not quite possible to believe in the divine Bergman as the notorious slattern of the title, she delivers Ben Hecht’s wry lines – “When do I go to work for Uncle Sam?” – with brassy conviction. (Hecht, “the Shakespeare of Hollywood”, also scripted Spellbound).
But that’s only the half of it. Bergman had already proved matchless at portraying the blissful onrush of love. She not only does it all over again in her scenes with Grant (see gallery below) but, being the consummate actress, she also pretends to fall head over heels with Rains’ typically suave scoundrel, while inside her heart is breaking. It helps that Ted Tetzlaff’s camera is in love with her too. Bergman's eyes are shaded by her hat brim when we first meet her (in a scene in which she doesn't speak), but light in due course falls on those softly contoured cheeks and translucent eyes as on no actress of this or any other the era. Among the many visual tricks Hitchcock deploys is to see the world as Alicia does: a car sequence is shot through Bergman's wind-blown hair and, courtesy of Rains and his dastardly cronies, we later share her woozy eye-view as a victim of poison. But the film's true bravura shot scans across a glamorous party scene before homing in on a key – and such a vital plot device it featured on the poster (pictured above) - clasped in Bergman’s left hand.
She and Grant first put their sting into action on, of all things, horseback, only Rains doesn’t initially recognise his old flame. Alicia, who is looking for a way out of a role she no longer seeks, takes it on the chin. “I guess I’m the girl nobody remembers,” Bergman says to the lover who is pushing her in the arms of another man. As if.
- Notorious is showing in the BFI's The Genius of Hitchcock season on 12, 25, 26, 27, 28 and 31 August
Key scene: Hitchcock zooms slowly in on the key in Bergman's grip
Bergman and Grant in Notorious: click on the images to enlarge