Spies Like Us

illustration by Brianna Ashby

What’s very best about Ingrid Bergman is when and how she surprises. I first encountered her the way many contemporary audiences do, watching her play Ilsa Lund in Casablanca. In the 1942 romance, she is the revered, remembered passion that turns Humphrey Bogart tough on the outside and twisted up emotionally. When that love is thwarted—they plan to escape the Nazis together but Ilsa doesn’t show up for the trip—Ilsa absconds with all of Rick’s best nature: his good will, his accountability, his humanity, his moral outlook. He becomes a hologram of himself, acrimonious in spirit, willfully humorless to the extent only a devastated sensibility can be.

This is all backstory: Rick begins with nothing, and the lack has become a posture and a revenge. A reel into the film, Bergman’s Ilsa appears with the illuminating burnish of a celestial body. She makes things glow and reanimate — intimacies, loyalties, dreams. She amplifies Rick’s own goodness by showing a generosity that he reaches only through his connection to her. For Ingrid Bergman prompts a vulnerability that cracks open all hearts. She even made the icy impresario of cinema, Alfred Hitchcock, fall unrequitedly in love with her.

Bergman first collaborated with Hitchcock in Spellbound, in which she plays the buttoned up psychiatrist Constance Petersen who runs off with an amnesiac patient. We find ourselves forgiving the breach of medical and ethical etiquette, partly out of wish fulfillment (the patient is the apogee of male beauty, Gregory Peck), but mostly because of Bergman’s innate decency. She’s a star who appears to resist all self-indulgence—and aren’t many kinds of attachment merely self-serving?—but who abandons herself to a feeling when it’s powerful enough to surpass considerable moral stricture. When an Ingrid Bergman character falls in love unsuitably, she certainly has applied all efforts to avoid doing so. She personifies the highest octave of morality in characters who are never prudish or repressed but always measured. In cinema, invariably, an Ingrid Bergman character encounters something—a feeling, a person, an ideal—worthy of allowing herself to become immeasurable. Conflict is the result.

As a director, Hitchcock liked to toy with certainties — emotional, sensory, and moral. Perhaps the smartest dramaturgical tack he takes in Notorious is to make Ingrid Bergman a fallen woman. Hitchcock and his screenwriter Ben Hecht can address and thwart the hypocrisies of the day by employing this singularly good actress to play an erratic and impetuous human being.

In Notorious, her Alicia Huberman offends patriots and puritans: she is the daughter of a Nazi sympathizer and a woman of loose character, indulging in reckless drinks and impulsive flings. Whether these habits are a coping technique or a worldview at work do not factor — Alicia is, foremost, a fallen woman. The story takes its title from her character’s ill repute. We meet Alicia’s circumstances before we meet her. She is under surveillance after her father has been convicted of treason. To distract herself, she throws a party and makes plans to sail away to Havana. Devlin (Cary Grant) appears at her house, without explanation or invitation. We understand very little about Devlin’s motivation in being there; he’s unusually silent for a Cary Grant role but characteristically dashing. The intimacy between them is immediate.

She confronts him: You’re a party crasher. I like you. On a whim, she dismisses her guests, save this silent and mysterious admirer. Maybe it’s time for a picnic, she murmurs. Outside?he asks. Too stuffy in here for a picnic. I’ll drive, she adds, daring him to deny her. She’s unsteady on her feet, swilling liquor until she gets to the door. She takes the wheel — the first of Hitchcock’s many erotic tropes in which his male protagonist succumbs to the thrill of allowing a woman to be in control. They swerve and skitter across the road. What’s this fog, she squints at Devlin, and he points out that it’s a strand of her own hair falling over her eyes.

Like an experienced Lothario, Devlin uses influence to ingratiate Alicia. He shows protection from the cop who pulls her over for drunk driving, but he also treats her with disdain, wrestling and overpowering her when she gets emotional. He is as cruel to Bergman as Bogart’s Rick, though by the time of the film’s release in 1946, the movie-going world understood the nature of this savagery: it is a defense. Then he proposes a bit of light espionage. Perhaps her guilt or self-loathing are appeased if she tarts herself out for the right side; perhaps Alicia is in need of direction. Devlin convinces her to become a field operative, spying upon Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), a colleague of Alicia’s father who lives in Rio and consorts suspiciously with a ring of former Nazis.

As they arrive in Brazil, Devlin informs Alicia of her father’s death by his own hand: cyanide pill. The great tension of Alicia’s life has dissipated — she has nothing to rebel against or run from, and she finds herself liberated of her vices when there’s nothing she needs to blind herself from. It’s a very curious feeling. As if something happened to me and not to him. You see, I don’t have to hate him anymore.

Alicia leans to look at Rio through the plane window, and we sense in Devlin the uncomfortable undertow of attraction. It’s only a threat when it makes you feel vulnerable; that is, when it makes you feel. Let’s remember this is a Hitchcock film—a thriller not a romance—and the story in part addresses the nature of woman – not what she wants but what she is: kaleidoscopic, sexual, capricious, venal. Devlin’s scenes with Alicia are always bluffs, for he can’t comprehend her nature. Alicia is a woman who depends on male attention, and she returns the interest, leans into it. So many of Hitchcock’s films circle back to the same themes: obsession, memory, observation, identity. In a Hitchcock film, characters can cede to a compulsion but always resist and test a feeling.

Alicia: Scared?
Devlin: I’ve always been scared of women.
Alicia: Afraid you’ll fall in love.
Devlin: That wouldn’t be hard.

When Devlin’s CIA bosses inform him of Alicia’s assignment—that she’ll need to seduce Alex Sebastian to spy on him—Devlin is confronted with a dilemma. Should he object to this assignment on behalf of the woman who loves him; or should he keep silent and let her prove that she’s changed? The dangers of the job are evident to Alicia, who is wounded when Devlin doesn’t try to protect her from the assignment.

Alicia: If you’d only once said you’d loved me.
Devlin: Dry your eyes, baby, it’s out of character. Keep on your toes.

Bergman is, for the duration of Notorious, changed from her higher self to a degraded one in order to remind us all of what’s best in each of us. She is like Yvonne, the young woman in Casablanca who dates a German officer when Rick casts her aside but sings the Marseillaise with tears streaming down her face in musical battle against the German occupiers. Alicia needs an outside prompt to remind her of herself, of her better nature—she redeems herself through her self-sacrifice.

The screenwriter Ben Hecht was an extraordinarily gifted and fluent dramatist. He moved to Hollywood after receiving a telegraph from Herman Mankiewicz: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.” Hecht retained a novelist’s skepticism about the studio system’s moral and artistic values. “Would that our writing was as good as our lunches,” he quipped, though he crafted some of classic Hollywood’s best scripts: Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights, His Girl Friday, Spellbound and many, many more. He hated the moralizing values promoted by Hollywood films. You can sense this in the dialogue he writes, particularly in Devlin’s ire at how his CIA bosses disregard Alicia because she takes drinks and lovers. Miss Huberman is first, last and always not a lady. She may be risking her life, but she is never a lady.

Alicia easily lands her prey, and accesses his secrets. She witnesses one of Alex’s cohorts allude to the group’s secret (a substance is concealed in bottles in the wine cellar, a then little-known mineral called uranium), an offhanded blunder that results in the associate’s death. When Alex realizes that he has married an American agent, the mistake is as threatening for him as it is for her. He’s convinced that he has no choice but to keep her alive, poisoning her slowly, so that his Nazi friends do not suspect and kill him.

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Notorious works most powerfully through its suspense and interruption of time. At the start of the film, when Devlin and Alicia become lovers, they share a long intimate scene in her Rio apartment. They won’t go out, they decide, they’ll stay in. This is meant to be the beginning of many such evenings — the start of Alicia’s domesticity as she and Devlin work alongside each other. Before long, they are interrupted by a phone call, but not before we get to the meat of the scene. Emotionally, we want to see the closeness between these characters who before long will be separated by work and by discord. Dramatically, we need to remember their bond.

The filmmakers conspired to create the longest kissing scene that could get past the film censor board. In those days, a screen kiss could last only three seconds. Hecht and Hitchcock get around this rule by punctuating the sustained embrace with dialogue and action. The characters move from room to room, making a phone call and planning a meal, always cheek to cheek, lip to lip. His stars were uncomfortable emotionally and physically with the staging, but the director understood what an audience wanted most. Hitchcock drily described the mise-en-scene as a kind of wish fulfillment; who wouldn’t desire a “temporary ménage à trois” with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman?

At the time, Bergman was the perfect woman to embody this role; she was publicly faultless and enshrined in public opinion as a poised, virtuous, emotional but not too emotional female. She was an actress as well as a star, her best self playing someone else, always searching for a mediated role that was new and different. But the curious thing about a star is where projection (practical, psychological) meets essence. Bergman’s face carried goodness — it’s nearly impossible not to find it there, even when watching her play a cruel or selfish or destructive character. It makes sense that so many of Ingrid Bergman’s roles involve redemption — in a few of them, she plays a nun or a saint. Each plane—the glimmering eyes, the prominent upturned nose, the sculptural cheekbones and sturdy jaw—demonstrates her artistic nature. Even when she plays against type, the overlay of some essential qualities hold sway over her roles, in symphony or in counterpoint.

This tension—between Alicia’s secret motivations and outward appearance, between Devlin’s wish to believe and his suspicion of her—drives the lovers apart. The further entrenched Alicia becomes with Alex, the more elusive the pained Devlin becomes, until Alicia learns that he plans to remove himself from Rio altogether for a new assignment. He doesn’t detect her suspicious illness until it’s nearly too late. When Devlin finally decides to intervene and they are reunited, Alicia looks younger and frailer. Grant helps her down the stairs in another long, tight, suspenseful close up, and at last, the audience has the reunion we’ve longed for: Bergman next to Grant next to us, all our best selves.