Notorious started life as a David O. Selznick production, but by the time it hit American screens in August 1946, it bore the RKO studio's logo. Alfred Hitchcock became the producer, but as on all his subsequent films, he limited his screen credits to "Directed by" and his possessive credit above the title.
Its first glimmer occurred some two years previously, in August 1944, over lunch between Hitchcock and Selznick's story editor, Margaret McDonell. Her memo to Selznick said that Hitchcock was "very anxious to do a story about confidence tricks on a grand scale [with] Ingrid Bergman [as] the woman.... Her training would be as elaborate as the training of a Mata Hari." Hitchcock continued his conversation a few weeks later, this time dining at Chasen's with William Dozier, an RKO studio executive, and pitching it as "the story of a woman sold for political purposes into sexual enslavement." By this time, he had one of the single-word titles he preferred: Notorious. The pitch was convincing: Dozier quickly entered into talks with Selznick, offering to buy the property and its personnel for production at RKO.
Dozier's interest rekindled Selznick's, which up to that point had only been tepid. Perhaps what started Hitchcock's mind rolling was "The Song of the Dragon", a short story by John Taintor Foote which had appeared as a two-part serial in the Saturday Evening Post in November 1921; Selznick, who owned the rights to it, had passed it on to Hitchcock from his unproduced story file during the filming of Spellbound. Set during World War I in New York, "The Song of the Dragon" told the tale of a theatrical producer approached by federal agents, who want his assistance in recruiting an actress he once had a relationship with to seduce the leader of a gang of enemy saboteurs. Although the story was a nominal starting point that "offered some inspiration, the final narrative was pure Hitchcock."
Hitchcock travelled to England for Christmas 1944, and when he returned, he had an outline for Selznick's perusal. The producer approved development of a script, and Hitchcock decamped for Nyack, New York for three weeks of collaboration with Ben Hecht, whom he had just worked with on Spellbound. The two would work at Hecht's house, with Hitchcock repairing at night to the St. Regis Hotel in the city. The two had an extraordinarily smooth and fruitful working partnership, partly because Hecht did not really care how much Hitchcock rewrote his work:
Their story conferences were idyllic. Mr. Hecht would stride about or drape himself over chair or couch, or sprawl artistically on the floor. Mr. Hitchcock, a 192-pound Buddha (reduced from 295) would sit primly on a straight-back chair, his hands clasped across his midriff, his round button eyes gleaming. They would talk from nine to six; Mr. Hecht would sneak off with his typewriter for two or three days; then they would have another conference. The dove of peace lost not a pinfeather in the process.
Hitchcock delivered his and Hecht's screenplay to Selznick in late March, but the producer was getting drawn deeper into the roiling problems of his western epic Duel in the Sun. At first he ordered story conferences at his home, typically with start times of eleven p.m., to both Hecht's and Hitchcock's profound annoyance. The two would dine at Romanoff's and "pool their defenses about what Hitchcock thought was a first class script." Shortly, though, Duel's problems won out and Selznick relegated Notorious to his mental back burner.
Among the many changes to the original story was the introduction of a MacGuffin: a cache of uranium being held in Sebastian's wine cellar by the Nazis. At the time, it was not common knowledge that uranium was being used in the development of the atomic bomb, and Selznick had trouble understanding its use as a plot device. Indeed, Hitchcock later claimed he was followed by the FBI for several months after he and Hecht discussed uranium with Robert Millikan at Caltech in mid-1945. In any event, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and the release of details of the Manhattan Project, removed any doubts about its use.
By June 1945, Notorious reached its turning point. Selznick "was losing faith in a film that never really interested him"; the MacGuffin still bothered him, as did the Devlin character, and he worried that audiences would dislike the Alicia character. More worrisome, though, was the drain on his cash reserves imposed by the voracious Duel in the Sun. Finally, he agreed to sell the Notorious package to RKO: script, Bergman and Hitchcock.
The deal was a win-win-win situation: Selznick got $800,000 cash, plus 50% of the profits, RKO obtained a prestige production with an ascendant star and an emerging director, and Hitchcock, though he received no money, did escape from under Selznick's stifling thumb. He also got to be his own producer for the first time, an important step for him: "supervising everything from the polishing of the script to the negotiation of myriad post-production details, the director could demonstrate to the industry at large his skill as an executive." RKO assumed the project in mid-July 1945, and furnished office space, studio space, distribution—and freedom.
There was no getting away from Selznick completely, though. He contended that his 50% stake in the profits still entitled him to input into the project. He still dictated sheaves of memos about the script, and tried to oust Cary Grant from the cast in favor of his contractee, Joseph Cotten. When the United States detonated two atomic bombs over Japan in August, the memos commenced anew and centered mainly on Selznick's continuing dissatisfaction with the script. Hitchcock was abroad, so Dozier called on playwright Clifford Odets, who previously wrote None But the Lonely Heart for RKO and Grant, to do a rewrite. With Hitchcock and Selznick both busy, Barbara Keon would be his only contact.
Odets's script tried to bring more atmosphere to the story than had previously been present. "Extending the characters' emotional range, he heightened the passion of Devlin and Alicia and the aristocratic ennui of Alex Sebastian. He also added a soupçon of high culture to soften Alicia: she quotes French poetry from memory and sings Schubert." But his draft did nothing for Selznick, who still thought the characters lacked dimension, that Devlin still lacked charm, and that the couple's sleeping together "may cheapen her in the eyes of the audience." Ben Hecht's appraisal, handwritten in the margin, was straightforward: "This is really loose crap." In the end, the Odets script was a blind alley: Hitchcock apparently used none of it.
What he did have in his hand, though, was the script for "...a consummate Hitchcock film, in every sense filled with passion and textures and levels of meaning."
Principal photography for Notorious began on October 22, 1945  and wrapped in February 1946. Production was structured the way Hitchcock preferred it: with almost all shooting done indoors, on RKO sound stages, even seeming "exterior" scenes achieved with rear projection process shots. This gave him maximum control of his filmmaking through the day; in the evenings he exercised similar control over the nightly soirées at his Bellagio Road home. The only scene requiring outdoor filming was the one at the riding club where Devlin and Alicia contrive to meet Alexander Sebastian on horseback; this scene was shot at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia, California. Second unit crews shot establishing exteriors and rear-projection footage in Miami, Rio de Janeiro and at the Santa Anita Park racetrack.
With everything stage-bound, production was smooth and problems were few, and small—for instance, Claude Rains, who stood three or four inches shorter than Ingrid Bergman. "[There's] this business of you being a midget with a wife, Miss Bergman, who is very tall," the director kidded with Rains, a good friend. For the scenes where Rains and Bergman were to walk hand-in-hand, Hitchcock devised a system of ramps that boosted Rains's height yet were unseen by the camera. He also suggested Rains try elevator shoes: "Walk in them, sleep in them, be comfortable in them." Rains did, and used them thereafter. Hitchcock gave Rains the choice of playing Sebastian with a German or his English accent; Rains chose the latter.
Ingrid Bergman's gowns were by Edith Head, in one of her many collaborations with Hitchcock.
One of the signature scenes in Notorious is the two-and-a-half-minute kiss that Hitchcock interrupted every three seconds to slip the scene through the three-second-rule crack in the Production Code. "The two stars worried about how strange it felt," writes biographer McGilligan. "Walking along, nuzzling each other with the camera trailing behind them, seemed 'very awkward' to the actors during filming, according to Bergman. 'Don't worry', Hitchcock assured her. 'It'll look right on the screen.'"
Although the production proceeded smoothly it was not without some unusual aspects. The first was the helpfulness of Cary Grant toward Ingrid Bergman, in a way that "was remarkably calm and pointedly unusual for him." Although this was Bergman's second outing with Hitchcock (the first was the just-finished Spellbound), she was nervous and insecure early on. The often moody, sometimes withdrawn Grant, though, "came to Notorious full of bounce" and coached her through her initial period of adjustment, rehearsing her the way Devlin rehearses Alicia. This began a lifetime friendship for the two.
There were two passionate turmoils going on on-set, and both served to inform the final product: one was Hitchcock's growing infatuation with Bergman, and the other was her torturous affair with Robert Capa, the celebrity battlefield photographer. As a result of this simpatico connection, and "to accomplish the deepest logic of Notorious, Hitchcock did something unprecedented in his career: he made Ingrid his closest collaborator on the picture":
"The girl's look is wrong," Ingrid said to Hitchcock when, after several takes of her close-up during the dinner sequence, everyone knew something was awry. "You have her registering [surprise] too soon, Hitch. I think she would do it this way." And with that, Ingrid did the scene her way. There was not a sound on the set, for Hitchcock did not suffer actors' ideas gladly: he knew what he wanted from the start. Well before filming began, every eventuality of every scene had been planned—every camera angle, every set, costume, prop, even the sound cues had been foreseen and were in the shooting script. But in this case, an actress had a good idea, and to everyone's astonishment, he said "I think you're right, Ingrid."
When production wrapped in February 1946, Hitchcock had in the can what François Truffaut later told him "gets a maximum of effect from a minimum of elements.... 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..."
The music for Notorious is the least celebrated of the major Hitchcock scores, writes film scholar Jack Sullivan, one that few writers or fans talk about. "The neglect is unfortunate, for Roy Webb composed one of the most deftly designed scores of any Hitchcock film. It weaves a unique spell, one Hitchcock had not conjured before, and the hip, swingy source music is novel as well."
The composer was Roy Webb, a staff composer at RKO, who had most recently scored the dark films of director Val Lewton for that studio. He wrote the fight song for Columbia University while he was there in the 1920s, then served as assistant to film composer Max Steiner until 1935; his reputation was "reliable but unglamorous." Hitchcock had tried to get Bernard Herrmann for Notorious, but Herrmann was unavailable; Webb too was a Herrmann fan: "Benny writes the best music in Hollywood, with the fewest notes," he said.
Before the sale of the property to RKO, Selznick attempted, with typical Selznick gusto, to steer the course of the music. He was miffed that no hit pop song had come out of his previous Hitchcock picture Spellbound, so he considered eighteen "gooey, sentimental songs" like "Love Nest", "Don't Give Any More Beer to My Father" and "In A Little Love Nest Way Up on a Hill" for inclusion in Notorious. However, the sale removed Selznick as the decision-maker.
Hitchcock was glad to be out from under Selznick's thumb. There would be "no sudsy violins in big love scenes, no more recycling of Selznick's favorite cues from past movies. He made sure there were no south-of-the-border cliches." Selznick's exit also brought Hitchcock and Webb together into their natural sympatico. "Selznick deplored 'Hitchcock's goddamned jigsaw cutting,' the dreamlike, jagged images that create his signature subjectivity. But Webb didn't mind jigsaw cutting at all. It complemented his fragmented musical architecture, just as the blocked passions of the film's characters reflect his unresolved harmonies. Like Hitchcock, Webb favored atmosphere and tonal nuance over broad gestures. Both men were classicists dealing in darkness and chaos." They featured complementary personalities, too: "Webb had a modest ego, a handy trait when working for a control addict like Hitchcock." Notorious was, however, their only film together.
Alicia and Devlin fall quickly in love once they arrive in Rio, and Webb uses tambourines, guitars, drums and Brazilian trumpets swinging into Brazilian dance music to provide "sensuous foreplay for the tumultuous love affair." Numbers include "Carnaval no Rio", "Meu Barco", "Guanabara" and two sambas "Ya Ya Me Leva" and "Bright Samba". Yet understatement and atypical use are everywhere:
Sexy and full of danger, [the love music] is a typical Hitchcock romantic theme, though it is rarely used romantically. Even when Alicia and Devlin ascend a hill with a spectacular view and embrace during the initial courtship scenes—surely the cue for a fortissimo eruption of love music à la Spellbound—the theme sounds only for a teasing instant. For the most part, it appears at unpredictable times, in increasingly troubled harmonies, to capture the couple's shifting sexual subcurrents: Alicia's hurt and suppressed longing, Devlin's fear jealousy, and hesitation.
Often, Webb and Hitchcock use no music at all to undergird a romantic scene. The famous two-and-a-half minute non-kiss kiss begins with distant music when it commences out on the balcony, but goes silent when the couple move inside "to their private world, imparting an austere eroticism as the camera glides with them." Other times, they flout conventional wisdom: when Alicia asks the band to stop playing stuffy waltzes and liven things up with Brazilian music to cover her trip to the wine cellar with Devlin, "Hitchcock takes the risk of relying entirely on Latin dance tunes rather than on a suspense cue." So it's Brazilian syncopation snaking through Ted Tetzlaff's shadowy lighting and the explosion of a smashing wine bottle—and it gives the scene a unique tension.
And there's always a touch—at least—of Hitchcockian humor: When Alicia first enters the Sebastian mansion, loaded with sinister Nazis, Schumann and Chopin are playing. "Wicked they may be, but these terrorists have artistic sensibilities and impeccable taste."
Roger Ebert described Notorious as having "some of the most effective camera shots in his—or anyone's—work". Hitchcock played off Grant's star power in his first scene, introducing his character with shots of the back of the actor's head showing him observing Alicia carefully. The excess of her drinking is reinforced the next morning with a famous close-up and zoom out from a glass of fizzing aspirin beside her bed. The camera switches to her point of view and we see Grant as Devlin, backlit and upside down. The film also contains the famous tracking shot at Sebastian's mansion in Rio de Janeiro: starting high above the entrance hall, the camera tracks all the way down to Alicia's hand, showing her nervously twisting the key there.