In the latest instalment of her Hitchcock’s Women series, Rebecca McCallum goes undercover with a tale of sex, spies and second chances…
Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is the daughter of a Nazi spy who, in the film’s opening, finds himself facing a life sentence for being an American traitor. Juggling coming to terms with her father’s imprisonment and the press who are constantly at her heels, Alicia becomes reckless, seeking escapism through affairs and alcohol.
One of Alicia’s famous gatherings at her house in Miami is attended by a mysterious man named Devlin (Cary Grant) and a strong sexual chemistry quickly forms between the pair. However, Alicia’s impressions of Devlin are soon shattered when she discovers he is in fact a secret agent who has been tasked with employing her to get close to Alex Sebastian (Claude Reins), a Nazi sympathiser with whom Alicia has had dealings in the past. Targeted and selected specifically for her family connections, Alicia is then put through a series of trials and ordeals in Brazil where she finds herself completely isolated. As the dangers and risks of Alicia’s job escalate, Devlin continually brow beats her, refusing to believe she has changed and never showing her the belief she so desperately desires, until it is almost too late. Although Alicia is very much a pawn in a game of strategy played out by men, she ultimately emerges victorious. But at what cost?
Performer and Assumer of Many Roles
Throughout Notorious Alicia is defined by, occupies and plays with multiple roles. By the press and the world at large, she is viewed as her father’s daughter or – to put it more accurately – the daughter of a traitor. In fact everywhere Ms Huberman goes she is reminded of her association to her father, an enigmatic and absent figure who we never meet. Even when she manages to escape the clutches of the intelligence agency and the press, she is haunted by associations to him such as when meeting Sebastian’s mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) who remarks upon how closely she resembles him. Even Alicia herself acknowledges the inescapable link and demonstrates a feeling that she is inextricably intertwined with her father when she learns of his death: ‘it’s as though something happened to me and not to him’.
When she is entreated by Devlin to work on behalf of the United States intelligence agency, Alicia becomes another version of herself as she spies on Nazi collaborator, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains). However although these roles are enforced upon her, we also see Alicia toying with different identities which she selects for herself. At a café in Rio de Janeiro, she tells Devlin she likes to pretend she’s ‘a child who is spoilt with buttercups and daises in her heart’, representing an idealistic fantasy-like existence that she has never had and cannot hope for.
On the balcony of a hotel room she prepares a chicken for their dinner (despite claiming earlier that she doesn’t cook) whilst wearing an apron and beaming about how ‘marriage must be wonderful with this sort of thing going on every day.’ However, this role does not seem adequate for Alicia as the bubble of domesticity is soon burst when Devlin reveals to her details of the job. This prompts her to remove the apron and relinquish the role of stay-at-home wife. As she attempts to coax the specifics from Devlin, she refers to herself as another female archetype – ‘come on you better tell Mamma what’s going on’: if playing the dutiful wife has not succeeded, Alicia shows she is prepared to try another tact, that of the demanding mother.
Lastly, of course, there is the authentic Alicia, her core self which sits in contrast to the expectations placed upon her. Views of Alicia also vary wildly, with Devlin and Sebastian treating her respectively as a whore and a Madonna with the former associating her with alcohol, infidelity and abandon while the latter idealises her and (reflective of her name, which means ‘exalted’) places her on a pedestal. Interestingly, it is another woman, Mrs Sebastian who makes the correct judgement call and is able to discern that Alicia (in her role of spy) is not to be trusted.
As ever, costume in Hitchcock’s film acts as an outward expression of the inner emotions of the characters and as meditations on key themes. Alicia has a range of costumes to accompany both her many roles and moods. At the party in Miami, she is dressed in a skirt and top that exposes her mid-drift. This outfit reflects not only her wilder side but the stripes (or bars) emblazoned on her blouse are an echo of her sense of entrapment.
The shift in Alicia is signalled through her change in style, as once she leaves Miami she will dress in classic apparel with a more conservative tone. The theme of stripes continues when she has a meeting with Devlin on a public bench. Both she and the agent have a thick stripe on their jacket and hat respectively, a choice that depicts their feeling of imprisonment but also seeks to bind them through their similarity.
At the Sebastian’s lavish party Alicia wears a black, floor length gown that has a deep slit down both the front and back, emphasising her vulnerability in this scene where she must sneak into the wine cellar with Devlin without Sebastian’s knowledge. She also carries a hand-fan and in a gesture to protect the marked spot (both figuratively and literally) of her heart, she opens it out to cover her chest. When she meets Devlin for the final time – again on the public bench – the buttoned up and belted coat she wears speaks to how restricted she feels but also highlights that she is physically shrinking and getting smaller as a result of being slowly poisoned by the Sebastians.
The Mystery of Mr D
Alicia and Devlin first meet at her house in Miami, and when they are finally alone he tells her how the ‘ice has melted’, ostensibly referring to the ice in their drinks but indirectly commenting upon her cold exterior melting away in his presence. Venturing outside for a drive, he places a scarf around her waist under the premise of keeping her warm, but through this gesture he is making a claim upon her. He is also seeking to moderate her sexuality and by covering her naked skin he is effectively marking her out as his own. However, the flirtatious nature of their relationship soon turns dark when in the car he brutally beats her into silence when she discovers he is an agent. This acts as a foreshadowing of Sebastian’s later attempt to do the same through the act of poisoning her.
The next morning, Devlin administers a drink (reminiscent of Suspicion, 1941) to the groggy Alicia to cure her hangover, this gesture symbolic of him arriving in her life as a form of tonic with the potential to provide healing. However, Alicia is unable to see this at first (and consequently ‘seeing’ is a key theme throughout Notorious) as evidenced through her viewing Devlin entering her room at an angle. This mirrors her mistrust of him after letting her guard down only to find out he is an agent and has left her feeling off balance.
Face to face with Alicia, Devlin continually berates her, going (as she says herself) ‘right below the belt every time’. However, in her absence Devlin twice leaps to her defence in talks with the agency. His great undoing is that he cannot verbalise his true feelings but instead repeatedly pushes her away and creates a wall between them.
A Leopard Can Change Its Spots
When looked at as a whole, Alicia’s arc presents some disturbing features as we watch her transition from a mode of self-destruction to being barely able to speak, and unquestionably in Notorious there is more than an undercurrent of a woman being punished and put back in her place. Alicia’s redemption comes through her love for Devlin: however, although she is candid and open about her feelings, despite reciprocating them he puts her through a painful struggle in assuming she cannot change. Initially she laughs at love mockingly as this does not seem to be a possibility for her. This careless attitude she has towards herself is reflected in her reckless driving with the out-of-control car acting as a metaphor for her fast-paced, disordered lifestyle.
On their flight to Rio, Devlin delivers to Alicia the news of her father’s death and thus the exit of one man from her life has made way for the entry of another. Notably, it is only when she experiences a disassociation from her father through his death that she can instigate transformation within herself, telling Devlin ‘I won’t be seeing any men in Rio’. She keeps to this vow, reducing her alcohol intake and engages in ‘no conquests’ with men – in short she is showing all the hallmarks of change.
Unfortunately, this (and the softer side of her character which Alicia reserves just for him) is not enough to convince Devlin, who continues to put her down through his cruel comments. The moment she began self-neglecting arose in tandem with her realising her father was a traitor: ‘I went to pot, I didn’t care what happened to me’ she confesses. In losing her father (as the man she knew and respected), she has experienced a loss of a part of herself. Once in Rio, she even makes reference to the ‘new Miss Huberman’, acknowledging she is becoming a different person. Desperate for him to believe in her, Alicia’s wings are clipped rather than released for her to take full flight as the man she loves prevents her from shedding her former identity at every turn.
Rebecca will return soon with Part II of her analysis of Alicia Huberman in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946).