"I don't like party crashers," she says fearlessly to the mysterious G-man over the ubiquitous bottle of booze, and we can tell she means it. Liquored up, slutty and bitter, Ingrid Bergman's Alicia Huberman is a year's worth of trouble to any man fool enough to fall for her. From the outset of Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, Bergman is a willful party beast trapped in the body of the girl next door, mamboing through a dishonest world with a soused grin, horny glower and bare midriff. The liquor finished, she leads the stoic stranger (Cary Grant, there to recruit her for spy work) outside for a late night, death-courting DUI drive down Miami's coastal highways. "Don't you need a coat?" he asks. "You'll do," she growls.
Notorious is Alfred Hitchcock's most openly sensual film, thanks largely to Bergman's effortless transmutation of her then-popular wholesome screen persona into the director's fleshiest object of desire. Hitchcock made a career out of extracting drips of implicit sweat from screen stars who appeared anything but strumpets. Witness Grace Kelly oozing frustrated lust over James Stewart's plaster cast in Rear Window. This strategy pays off in spades with Bergman, whose natural, well-scrubbed radiance makes her cynical vamp all the more palpably human. As the daughter of a traitor convicted during the peaking fervor of WWII, Alicia comes with a romantic rap sheet as long as her legs and reeks of soured love. You can see the little girl in Bergman's bruised gaze as clearly as you can see the man-hungry trollop trying to wipe away countless disappointments by throwing her legs open to any smoothie with a new bottle and a fresh line.
Soon that changes. Once seduced by Grant and brought to Rio for her spy mission, Bergman straightens up, falls in monogamous love and happily heats up like a stockpot of simmering body-broth. The two huskily engage in some of the most intimate precoital love scenes in film history. Whole conversations are spent with them standing no more than a quarter of an inch apart. You start to wish you'd been on Hitchcock's crew for this one, just to see what was going on below the frame line.
Bergman's is a limpid, gentle, mature sexiness, in the thrall of which Notorious becomes, at least on one level, a study of her appetite for nooky and her struggle to regain control over her own body. Knee-deep in espionage and surrounded by men, Bergman radiates haunted, impatient anxiety, as if this whole Nazi business were just a bad case of coitus interruptus. Which it is. Grant, who loves her until she agrees to whore herself for the Allies, is inconsolable, sniping at her with all the self-righteous venom of a cuckolded minister.
For most of Notorious the blistering hormonal fireworks between the two leads is barely repressed by their heartsick infighting. Then Hitchcock's film climaxes, so to speak, with a quiet, feverish moment of passion. Having discovered her weak and dazed from slow poisoning, Grant professes his undying love as he dresses her and prepares to steal her out of the mansion where she's imprisoned. "You love me, you love me," she chants dreamily, and to keep her conscious he says, "Keep talking." She doesn't, though, and the camera stays on her: blissed out, struck dumb with longing, Bergman is female desire stripped of barriers, a delirious testament in a conservative era of a woman's will to fuck.
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