Ingrid Bergman was an internationally renowned actress who’s still considered among the best the silver screen has ever featured. Known for her beauty and talent, Bergman played all types of women on screen – from the simple and pure to the complicated, historical figure and in scenarios that varied from love affairs to international intrigue. She always delivered a believable performance and her radiance is one of filmdom’s wonders. Hers was a presence made for the big screen.
Bergman began her career in Hollywood as a result of producer David O. Selznick seeing her in Gustaf Molander’s Intermezzo (1936) after which he hired the young actress to star in the English-language remake of the movie in 1939. The success of that movie led to a multi-year contract with Selznick and Bergman was on a stellar career path becoming a bona fide movie star with her wonderful performance in Michael Curtiz’ Casablanca (1941). Ingrid followed Curtiz’ classic of classics with three consecutive years of Oscar-nominated performances with one win for Best Actress in a Leading Role in George Cukor’s Gaslight (1945). Overall she would garner seven Academy Award nominations and three wins.
Among all of this star’s memorable screen incarnations, however, my favorite is the Notorious Ingrid.
According to her autobiography, “Ingrid Bergman: My Story” Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock were brought together by David Selznick. The director and star had enjoyed a long and sustained friendship, which Ingrid attributed in part to their mutual enjoyment of martinis at the end of a day’s work. Ingrid wrote that the director dubbed her “the human sink” for her great appetite for food and drink and his sense of humor always kept her entertained. When asked to contribute a few words about Hitchcock for an article Ingrid described what most of us know today – he was a magnificently prepared man who knew down to the minutest detail what he was going to do in a picture he was about to direct. She went on to write that she knew no other director who worked like him, his not even looking into the camera because “I know what it looks like” astonished her. He wanted everything his way and when actors offered ideas he’d likely respond, “if you can’t do it my way, fake it,” words Ingrid would refer back to whenever she couldn’t win a battle with a director. She’d fake it.
Ingrid’s first movie with Hitchcock was the psychological thriller Spellbound (1945), which I must say is not a favorite despite the good performances of the entire cast including Bergman and Gregory Peck. Few agree with what I think, however, and Spellbound was a huge hit. So much so that producer Selznick immediately started gathering material for a second Hitchcock thriller starring Ingrid Bergman, Notorious which he sold to RKO in a package deal that also included Ben Hecht as scriptwriter and Cary Grant as the male lead.
“The whole film was really designed as a love story.” – Alfred Hitchcock
Notorious is a stunner! There is absolutely nothing about this film not to love. From one of my favorite character introductions in films (see Film First Impressions) to the performances of the film’s three stars who were at the top of their game, to the visuals, which rank among Hitchcock’s best.
Claude Rains is great (as usual) as Sebastian, the German agent and main villain in the story who manages a performance ranging from duplicitous to pathetic. Rains was nominated for an Academy Award for the role, one of only two Oscar nods given to this movie (a travesty!). The other was for Best Writing, Original Screenplay for Ben Hecht. You might want to take a look at the entire Notorious cast list here. Notable supporting players include Louis Calhern and Leopoldine Konstantin.
Cary Grant is wonderful as Devlin the U.S. agent who’s the contact for the Ingrid character when she is under cover. He also falls head over heals in love with her (lucky!). Mr. Grant is – as usual – underappreciated as an actor, but he delivers both the heat required for the love story and the appropriate chill of a man scorned in love and required of a secret agent. And finally there’s Ingrid who delivers my favorite of her performances in this thriller. She plays Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a traitor who turns against the Germans in order to restore loyalty by the U.S. agents.
I seem to have gotten a bit ahead of myself by the Notorious excitement – so, what you have is an American secret agent, Devlin who suspects Alicia Huberman of disloyalty to the U.S. On behalf of the U.S. government Devlin approaches Alicia and offers her an opportunity to prove her loyalty by going undercover to divulge the inner workings of suspected nazis one of which was a friend of her father’s. That friend, Sebastian is her ticket in to the undercover work. Sebastian not only once knew Alicia, but he also once loved her. His love for her is rekindled soon after the two meet again and before long he asks her to marry him. The Americans think the marriage is a nifty idea, a great way for Alicia to get even closer to bringing the nazi plot to light, which we later learn involves uranium hidden in wine bottles – one of Hitch’s most famous (and controversial) McGuffins and the opportunity for one of his best cameos.
In any case, Alicia proceeds as planned and marries Sebastian eventually uncovering the secrets. Unbeknownst to her, however, her guise has been discovered, placing her in grave danger in the hands of Sebastian and his controlling mother (Konstantin). Making matters even more complicated – while Alicia’s been sacrificing herself for her country Devlin has been treating her coldly (to put it mildly). He’s crazy with jealousy at her having married another man. I won’t divulge the ending to the film, but it’s one of the all-time greats concluding in a masterful stairway scene involving all of the main characters – slow and deliberate as dictated by Hitchcock and his camera.
As for the character of Alicia – I’d read (can’t remember where) that in the original script of Notorious she is a prostitute who reforms as a result of the case and Devlin who she falls in love with. Ms. Huberman is not quite that in the final film, but her questionable character in that regard is no mystery. When planning her role in the plot to bring down the nazi ring, the agent in charge, Paul Prescott (Calhern) says “she’s good at making friends with gentlemen,” and several of the exchanges between Alicia and Devlin also involve a few jabs about her past choices. Alicia denies none of it and it’s certainly easy to believe men would fall head over heels for her. Not only is she an exceptional beauty, but she also fits in anywhere and can play a number of roles. She’s a believable spy, a woman in love, a troubled damsel and a strong yet vulnerable woman who can bring down a nazi conspiracy. That’s Ingrid for you.
The themes in Notorious – espionage, suspense and romance – are not unlike those in other Alfred Hitchcock films except this is a standout among standouts. The writing in Notorious is superb, but it takes a backseat to the visuals. Notorious is in black and white what so many say Vertigo (1958) is in color. We are shown this story as much as we are told by way of words, if that makes sense. Roger Ebert described Notorious as having “some of the most effective camera shots in (Hitchcock’s)—or anyone’s—work” and, for what it’s worth, I agree. The director’s signature shots are everywhere in this and they are unforgettable The odd, skewed angles, the fantastic POV shots wherein we become the camera and the wide, sweeping shots that end in tight close-ups, the most famous example of which is in Notorious – the crane shot that starts from high above and ends in an extreme close-up of Ingrid Bergman’s hand holding the key to the wine cellar. I posted a discussion of the Notorious visuals in comparison to Hitchcock’s other films, which you can take a look at here if interested.
On the famous key to the wine cellar a lovely thing happened about three decades after Notorious…
On March 7, 1979, the American Film Institute honored Alfred Hitchcock with its Life Achievement Award. At the tribute dinner, Ingrid Bergman presented him with the prop key to the wine cellar that was the single most notable prop in Notorious. After filming had ended, Cary Grant had kept the key. A few years later he gave it to Bergman, saying that it had given him luck and hoped it would do the same for her. When presenting the key to Hitchcock, to his surprise and delight, she expressed the hope that it would be lucky for him as well.
There’s one other visual element that cannot be ignored – the Notorious kiss described by Ingrid…
“A kiss could last three seconds. We just kissed each other and talked, leaned away and kissed each other again. Then the telephone came between us, then we moved to the other side of the telephone. So it was a kiss which opened and closed; but the censors couldn’t and didn’t cut the scene because we never at any one point kissed for more than three seconds. We did other things: we nibbled on each other’s ears, and kissed a cheek, so that it looked endless, and became sensational in Hollywood.”
This kiss remains sensational from a viewer’s perspective. It takes place while Devlin and Alicia are in the balcony of her hotel room preparing for dinner. She hasn’t yet began her undercover mission so there is no tension between them. Hitchcock pans around them so we see all angles of these amazing-looking people (and no doubt he thought they looked amazing too). The camera moves is a long, uncut sequence that seems to last forever as Ingrid mentioned. The scene is sensual and creates an uncomfortable feeling as if we shouldn’t be watching these two people for this long a time sharing this moment. Of course, you can’t keep your eyes off the screen. It’s the genius of Hitchcock, the chemistry between the two actors and the magic of the movies. (Click on the following image to watch the kiss sequence)
In her book Ingrid describes how uncomfortable both she and Cary felt while shooting the scene during which the director simply told them to speak as lovers would – only the dialogue was about food. When shown the scene for the first time writer Ben Hecht is said to have commented that he liked it, but “what’s all that talk about chicken?”
Notorious was the start of a continuing friendship between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. It was not long after this movie that Grant famously said, “I think the Academy ought to set aside a special award for Bergman whether she makes a picture or not!”
François Truffaut to Alfred Hitchcock on Notorious: “Of all your pictures, this is the one in which one feels the most perfect correlation between what you are aiming at and what appears on the screen…. To the eye, the ensemble is as perfect as an animated cartoon…”
Notorious was the official selection of the 1946 Cannes Film Festival and was one of the biggest money-makers that year. This movie also happened to be Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell’s favorite of her father’s pictures. “What a perfect film!” she told her father’s biographer, Charlotte Chandler. “The more I see Notorious, the more I like it.” For the record the same thing happens to me.
Ingrid Bergman’s third and final collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, Under Capricorn (1949), failed to make much of an impression on film audiences or critics. And then the scandal happened and she was shunned by Hollywood for years for what should have remained a private matter. But it mattered little in the long run. You cannot keep extraordinary talent down. Bergman made a triumphant return to American cinema with Anatole Litvak’s Anastasia (1956) and won her second Best Actress Academy Award. Ingrid recalled…
“Cary Grant had promised to stand by at the Academy Awards just in case I got lucky, to go up and collect the prize…I could still hear the applause, and then Cary began his speech: ‘Dear Ingrid, wherever you are in the world, we, your friends, want to congratulate you, and I have your Oscar here for your marvelous performance, and may you be as happy as we are for you.’ My son Robertino didn’t understand at all why Mama was crying into her bath.”
Ingrid and Cary made another film together in 1958, Indiscreet directed by Stanley Donen, a romantic comedy I must revisit soon.
Ingrid Bergman died in 1982 on her birthday—August 29—in London, England, at the age of 67. Too young by anyone’s measure. But she left behind an array of wonderful performances in more than 50 movies. Ingrid could seem delicate and strong at the same time and as she demonstrates so beautifully in Notorious she could portray intimacy and sensuality with the mere stroke of a hand. It’s quite something to consider how Hollywood tried to mold her when she first arrived into what was thought of as the “ideal.” They suggested changing her name, she was considered too tall, they wanted to change her face, change her eyebrows and knock out her teeth in order to replace them. It’s funny that to the rest of the world her beauty lasted throughout her life with Alfred Hitchcock always a vocal supporter as he said in 1967 when the then 52-year-old Ingrid was performing in “The Human Voice” on stage, “Ingrid’s going in for playing mothers is premature. She should still be a romantic heroine.”
Needless to say Ingrid Bergman refused all of the physical changes Hollywood suggested, because if she’d been a flop, as she said in a 1973 interview, she would have returned to Sweden a completely different person. We can only be thankful for what might have been insecurity at the time. I’m thankful for the Notorious Ingrid and my father for his life-long crush. This post is as much for him as it is for Ingrid Bergman who would have celebrated her 100th birthday tomorrow.
Also of interest:
Ingrid Bergman on old-time radio reprising her roles in Casablanca and Notorious – Ingrid – A Career in Pictures – Everybody Comes to Rick’s – My Night in Casablanca – The Hitchcock Signature – The A-B-Cs of Cary Grant