Notorious is one of those Hitchcock movie titles that give some moviegoers pause. Why? Why isn’t anyone in Vertigo actually diagnosed with that disorder? Why does the titular jewel in Topaz play absolutely no significance in the story? How come Under Capricorn doesn’t feature a single astrologist? What is so notorious about Notorious?
Well, for one thing, the character played by Ingrid Bergman. You might not realize it from watching the film made under the constrictions of the censorship rules known as the Hays Code, but her character is supposed to be an especially promiscuous woman. One might even say a…notoriously promiscuous woman.
What Alfred Hitchcock managed to do with a plot that required his leading lady to be a woman of notoriously loose morals when making a movie under a codified set of rules on what was not allowed to be shown on screen—such as no kiss being allowed to last longer than three seconds—became a masterful example of how censorship is not necessarily synonymous with obstructing creativity. As Notorious proves, sometimes it is the very problem of being denied complete artistic expression that actually leads to artistic inspiration.
A remake made long after the collapse of the Hays Code allows the full glory of the Bergman character’s notorious promiscuity full bloom and yet that lightening of the censor’s heavy had only served to diminish the enigmatic qualities of the character. One way that Hitchcock managed to enhance the mysterious aspects of this character was to essentially make her into something of a latter Jane Eyre. At first glance, it might be as difficult to find the Jane Eyre within the Bergman character as it is to find the woman of easy virtue.
Look closer, however, and you will see that Notorious is really not that different from Hitchcock’s own Rebecca, a much more obviously Gothic romance. Like the heroine of the earlier movie, the Bergman character’s whirlwind romance ends with a quick marriage which finds her taken to a rather sinister ancestral home with areas declared off-limits in which she finds herself feeling trapped by a scary older woman and falls under the yoke of family secrets.
Of course, all those Gothic trappings in this case take place within the context of World War II espionage, Nazi scientists scrambling to get to the atomic bomb first and a love triangle with Cary Grant as the third member. The legacy of Notorious has continued to grow following its initial release and today is considered one of Hitchcock’s greatest films. The American Film Institute placed Notorious at number 86 on its list of the 100 greatest loves stories in the first hundred years of Hollywood movies and number 38 on the list of the 100 greatest thrillers.