While the Hays Code censored many elements that might have made this theme more obvious to modern audiences, the title Notorious refers to the infamous reputation of Alicia Huberman and her status as a "loose woman." When we first meet her, she is drinking heavily at a party after her father has been sentenced to jail time for treason. It is a rather understandable occasion on which to be drinking heavily, but the film portrays her drinking as a kind of habitual tonic for her difficult situation, a moral ambivalence that leads her to self-destruct and escape into partying, and into the beds of strange men.
Indeed, Alicia's status as a woman "notorious" for her loose morals make her perfectly suited for the job working as a spy. She is an undoubtedly seductive woman, even if her status as a "femme fatale" is reluctantly undertaken, and Prescott trusts her to be perfectly capable of fooling Sebastian into proposing marriage. Indeed, her perceived inconstancy and promiscuity is also what leads Devlin to cast aside his love for her and let her take the job seducing Sebastian. She assures him that she can "change," but he doesn't seem to believe her, until the last moment.
In an analysis of the film in The New Republic, Mark Crispin Miller writes, "In Notorious, Alicia Huberman is repeatedly misjudged by Devlin and Sebastien, but the imperceptiveness of these two men is only a reflection of our own: Alicia is “notorious” because of us, the staring multitudes that take mean pleasure in a scandal."
One of the other elements of Alicia's personality that makes her perfectly suited for espionage is her deeply held patriotism. She loves America, as she says in the recorded conversation with her Nazi father, which Devlin uses to convince Alicia that she is perfect for the job in Rio. When she wakes up from her bender, she assures him, "I don't go for patriotism, nor patriots...Waving the flag with one hand and picking pockets with the other. That's your patriotism. Well, you can have it." Conveniently enough, Devlin has tape of a conversation that he can use to call Alicia's bluff. In the recorded conversation, she says, "I love this country. Do you understand that? I love it. I'll see you all hang before I raise a finger against it." One of Alicia's most explicit credentials to work as a spy is her love for America.
Good Vs. Evil
In Notorious, it is not easy to define the boundary between good and evil on an interpersonal level. Each character has certain moral ambiguities that make them hard to assess in terms of good and evil. Alicia can be careless and cavalier in moments that require gravity. Devlin is often cruel to Alicia, shaming her for her alleged improprieties and speaking to her as though she is damaged goods. On the other side, Alexander Sebastian, a high-profile Nazi, treats Alicia with chivalrous respect and love. However, once he finds out that Alicia has betrayed him, he ruthlessly begins to poison her. Sebastian is not a straightforward evil villain, as we see that his decision to kill Alicia is only to prevent his own death. By showing us everyone's moral position and their motivations, Hitchcock makes an ethically murky situation.
Thus, navigating the boundary between good and evil comes down to understanding history and the political issues at stake. The Nazis are fighting to keep the fascist dream alive, while the Americans are seeking to spy on them to prevent just that. The audience sympathizes with the American cause and knows the Nazi project to be a deeply evil one.
Espionage & Performance
Alicia is a normal woman who signs up to take part in espionage, thereby surrendering her own interests and life to a cause. She performs the role of doting Nazi wife in order to extract information for the American intelligence unit that she is working for. This creates a constant and dynamic tension throughout the film, in that the audience knows that she is lying to Sebastian throughout. Alicia proves an excellent actress, rarely faltering in her charade and covering up her true aims with the expert of a lifelong spy.
Alicia and Devlin's skills as spies—their imperturbability, poker faces, seeming indifference—are what also leads them to go so long without expressing their true feelings for one another. In this way, their romance is itself a kind of spy drama, with each pretending to be more blasé and disdainful than they actually feel.
Love vs. Duty
Part of what leads Devlin to remain so tight-lipped about his feelings about Alicia is his sense of duty. While he wants nothing more than to speak his true feelings to Alicia, he must submerge and repress those feelings in order to do his job, a heartbreaking requirement of his job as a spy. When he does not reveal his feelings, Alicia also submerges her feelings and commits further to her duty as an American spy. While neither of the two lovers want Alicia to marry Sebastian, neither is willing to speak up and say that she should not, partially out of a sense of pride and fear of rejection, but also because of their fierce sense of duty to the cause. The thematic pull between love and duty is also part of why Notorious fits into the category of "film noir," in which this conflict is often central to the drama.
The Overbearing Mother
Part of what makes Sebastian so evil (besides, of course, being a Nazi) is his subordinate relationship to his mother, Madame Sebastian. She is not only a loving mother who is close to her son, but an authoritarian taskmaster who does not let her son make his own decisions, denigrates his various choices, and becomes jealous of any woman who threatens to usurp her power over the household. She holds onto all of the keys in the house, lurks around, seemingly omnipresent, and it is she who comes up with the plan to poison Alicia slowly, a truly horrific murder.
The overbearing, evil mother would become a frequent theme of Hitchcock's. In The Dark Side of Genius, Donald Spoto writes, "in Notorious the role of mother is at last fully introduced and examined. No longer relegated to mere conversation, she appears here as a major character in a Hitchcock picture, and all at once—as later, through Psycho, The Birds and Marnie—Hitchcock began to make the mother figure a personal repository of his anger, guilt, resentment, and a sad yearning."
Going along with the theme of espionage and good vs. evil, the film is filled with nearly constant betrayals. Firstly, Alicia feels betrayed by her father, a Nazi, who in turn felt betrayed by her for not following in his fascist ideology. Alicia then feels betrayed by Devlin when he does not immediately reveal to her that he is a cop. Then Devlin again betrays her trust when he doesn't try to prevent her from taking the job seducing Sebastian, and continues to betray her whenever they see each other, covering up his own feelings for her with dismissive and critical remarks. Additionally, Alicia betrays Sebastian's trust by posing as a Nazi when she is in fact an American, and Sebastian betrays his wife by attempting to poison her to death. In the world of espionage, betrayal abounds.
Notorious Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Notorious is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.