Hitchcock was the master of suspense, but the majority of his American-produced films were imbued with the lusty throes of a blossoming romance or a scorching love affair. Despite working with some of the most charismatically bankable leads of Hollywood’s Golden Age, I’ve always felt his romantic threads usually played second fiddle to his characteristic suspense and thrills. The majority feel rather disinterested. Or maybe perfunctory, obligatory, a commonplace but much demanded erotic insertion for audiences of the 50s and 60s who wanted their raunchy escapism to equal the violent twists of a Hitchcockian narrative.
My feeling likely originates in Hitchcock’s preoccupation with casting the prickly, yet admittedly winning James Stewart. Before Tom Hanks rolled around to take his place as Hollywood’s most likable star both on and off-screen, Jimmy’s presence in a classic cinematic romp was usually an encouraging sign. However, despite his storied history as a dependable romantic lead in the 30s and 40s, from It’s a Wonderful Life to The Philadelphia Story, his roles during Hitchcock’s late period veered on the obsessive. And it didn’t help that the star, well into his late 40s, was still pitched alongside actresses in their early 20s.
In Hitchcock’s voyeuristic Rear Window, Grace Kelly is an afterthought to Jimmy’s prying, persistent pursuit of the truth but, of course, almost as an afterthought, he still gets the girl in the closing minutes. Think of Vertigo, an even more dated psychological drive for answers, in which Kim Novak’s allure and identity becomes the uncanny center of an unraveling romantic mystery. Masterpieces of filmmaking, certainly, but those marked distances of age and interest ensure the pictures don’t quite get the loins tingling like I’m sure they used to back in 1958.
Incidentally, Hitchcock’s worst offender, at least of which I’ve seen, has to be The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which a bumbling, finicky and, at points, blithely racist Stewart pits his stammering worst against Doris Day, who could look frankly adolescent next to the 48-year-old Stewart.
The BFI is releasing Notorious in a new 4K restoration on 9th August, giving old fans and new viewers a chance to see every detail and gesture of, arguably, one of Hitchcock’s only truly effective romances in sharp clarity. Despite the domineering auteur of three decades or more often displaying the romantic sensibilities of a burnt chicken, Hitchcock’s 1946 thriller is thankfully just as lusciously tender as it is ferociously tense. So electric and instant was Ingrid Bergman’s chemistry with the famed charmer Cary Grant that the film languidly, desperately pushes the then severe production codes to its very limits. With the mandate of on-screen kisses only lasting for three seconds apiece, Grant and Bergman’s tender embraces were concurrently interrupted and encouraged in order to sneak a 2 and a half minute make-out session past the censors.
Hitchcock’s reputation as a known lecher aside, this genius move of direction could only have been implemented in the first half of the 20th Century. What undoubtedly began life as a shrewd loophole to satiate the director’s perversions eventually marked the co-leads’ narrative affair as one of the most sensual in 1940s cinema, as well as being pointedly demonstrative of the film’s scrutinous tone. Although the word Nazi is never uttered, the two lovers kiss as if under constant observation from a group of newly defeated fascists, translating the watchful eye of 1940s film codes into a perilous romantic partnership.
Far more similar to Casablanca than Psycho, the post-war tension of Notorious feels ever more defiant with this new restoration. It becomes sharper how close each tender nuzzle brushes against the co-leads’ skin, each subtle breath and gesture of affection between Bergman’s former German sympathizer and Grant’s dazzling US spy a microcosm of romance as protest. The European (Swedish and German) Bergman’s floating stake in Hollywood cinema had the worrisome possibility of becoming possessive on the part of her directors. An ambiguously foreign accent anchored to a smoky, deliberate command of the English language framed the actress as representative of America’s imperialist jingoism throughout the Second World War that still lingers; by placing her in the arms of all-American heroes like Grant and Bogart she became ours (or ‘theirs’ I should say, as a Brit). Not only idealistically, but physically tempted by the allure of US liberation.
But Bergman was savvier, lacing her characters with the same agency and tactical methods she embodied behind the scenes. Famously bending producer David O. Selznick’s contractual rules by agreeing on just four pictures rather than his usual demand of seven, Bergman’s worldly approach to the oft-advantageous and manipulative studio system established her as a crucial influence in evolving Hollywood’s dated approach to femininity. Like Katherine Hepburn’s co-accreditation in screwball comedies and a far cry from the sexually dangerous womanhood in so many noir thrillers, Ingrid Bergman was every bit Cary Grant’s equal.
Not only blindsiding the living daylights out of her shrewd producers but audiences too, Bergman’s fierce elegance is undeniably gorgeous, but structured so independently as to even transcend Hitchcock’s famously crude male gaze. As Alicia Huberman she dominates the screen, and holds her own against Grant’s T. R. Devlin remarkably during the film’s earlier comedic laps before leaving him in the dust with her smoky resilience and delicate nudges towards romantic devotion. Although her role as the tenacious double agent wavers dangerously towards damsel in distress near the conclusion of Notorious, her spirited position as a key tactician during the pair’s heist of Alexander Sebastian’s (Claude Rains) lavish Rio de Janeiro home ensures she never feels bereft of her crucial agency.
Notorious is all about Bergman. From the all-time technical marvel of its tracking shot from the ceiling all the way to the cellar key clutched perilously in her hand, to her fraught interior conflict of loyalties, it’s this female focus and, more importantly, respect, that Hitchcock’s future romantic endeavors are sorely missing. Although the thrilling, globe-trotting escapades are present and accounted for, this sort of tight melodrama and psychological torment can be found throughout the filmmaker’s entire repertoire.
With Notorious, however, Hitchcock perfected his romantic stylings. As his later career moved more towards a predisposition for making his audience clutch their hands to their chests, his 1946 romantic thriller remains perhaps his more mature work. By caring deeply for its characters’ romantic plight, their teetering situation of subterfuge and misdirects feels all the more palpable, the stakes at their most potentially ruinous.
It’s tempting to pitch Hitchcock’s sleazy game of chicken with the ratings, Grant and Bergman’s ferocious kissing, as microcosmic of the film’s romantic tension, but his formally adept tracking shot is all the more representative. A vast, luscious and sprawling international adventure that slowly creeps and pushes towards something dangerously intimate, Notorious is beyond all a snapshot of forbidden, unstoppable love, and is all the more thrilling for it.
The British Film Institute released Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious in a new 4K restoration on August 9th.