Notorious Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Explain the title.

    While it is difficult to fully understand, given the censoring that the Hays Code of the time demanded that editors and directors do to the film, Alicia Huberman is meant to be the titular character, "notorious" for her hard partying, heavy drinking, and seductive ways. While by contemporary standards Alicia just seems like a free-spirit whose heart is in the right place, relative to the period in which the film takes place, her habit of drinking too much and flirting with strange men was considered scandalous. As the film reveals, a lot is projected onto Alicia's reputation that prevents the men in her life from quite taking her seriously. Devlin is torn between becoming dismissive and cruel to her given her reputation and believing his experience and trusting her as a lover. The word "notorious" thus has an ambiguous and layered meaning in the context of the film, and asks the viewer to question what he or she assumes about Alicia based on her reputation and the fact that she is virtually sold into sexual slavery by the F.B.I.

  2. 2

    How does Alicia change in the film?

    Before her father’s arrest and trial, Alicia has always been an exemplary patriotic woman who is devoted to her adopted country. She refuses to take part in her father’s affairs as he is a Nazi. However, given her father's reputation and the hard position it puts her in, Alicia becomes a self-loathing, self-punishing woman who seeks escape and self-deception through promiscuous conduct and alcohol. After her father's death, she explains to Devlin that she feels like she has been freed from the dishonor of his reputation, that she is allowed to be herself and stop hating him. After her encounter with Devlin, Alicia wants to break free from her "notorious" past and to make an honest woman of herself. She hopes that Devlin will reciprocate her love and offer her a chance at redemption, noting her change in temperament. Even though Devlin is unresponsive towards Alicia’s advances, Alicia still resolves to prove herself as a good patriot by becoming a secret agent. After Alicia’s marriage to Sebastian, she cuts all ties with her promiscuous past. She tackles her task with courage and is every inch the spy posing as a loyal wife.

    When Devlin finds Alicia nearly dying from Sebastian's poisoning, he is at last touched by her courage and devotion to her cause and realizes that she has changed and become a faithful and steadfast woman. He finally confesses his love for Alicia. After she learns about his love, Alicia undergoes a final transformation. Realizing that her love is reciprocated, she wears a relieved expression as they drive away from the Sebastian mansion, indicating that she can let go of her self-loathing and begin a new life.

  3. 3

    What motivates Alicia to sacrifice herself and to become a secret agent?

    In the beginning, Alicia does not really want to be an agent, but she takes the job at Devlin's urging, and the two fall in love in their first few days in Rio. In her heart, she hopes that Devlin will reciprocate her feelings and prevent her from getting in too much trouble as a spy. However, when Devlin does not prevent her from taking the assignment, and then from marrying Sebastian, Alicia is shocked and offended. At this point, however, she still resolves to go ahead with this marriage and prove that she is loyal to the cause, able to work for American interests and redeem her father's traitorous life.

  4. 4

    What are some ways that Hitchcock builds suspense in the film through perspective and camera angles?

    Hitchcock uses many techniques to amass tension in the film and build suspense. One notable shot is when Alicia first meets Madame Sebastian. The camera remains stationary as the viewer (and Alicia) get a glimpse of the mansion's grand staircase for the first time. Madame Sebastian, a small older woman, walks quickly towards her, and there is something indescribably menacing about the way the moment is shot, foreshadowing just how evil Madame Sebastian will prove to be. Another suspenseful moment is at the start of the large party, in which the camera begins at the ceiling, looking down at the party from a birds' eye view, then swoops down quickly towards Alicia's clenched fist, which holds the key to the wine cellar. Finally, the most terrifying moment in the film, arguably, is the moment in which Alicia realizes she is being poisoned and we see the room from her point of view, her vision hazy and blurred as she struggles to walk. Sebastian and his mother stand before her, their faces grave, as the camera pulses to show us Alicia's altered state. It is a horrifying moment, one in which at the exact moment that Alicia realizes her powerlessness, she becomes even more powerless.

  5. 5

    Whose fault is it that Alicia gets so deeply entwined in the espionage?

    Both Alicia and Devlin blame each other for the fact that Alicia takes the job with Sebastian and that she ends up marrying him. While Devlin insists that he distrusted the fact that Alicia would even consider taking the job, and saw her acceptance of it as proof of her promiscuity, Alicia insists that all it would have taken to prevent her from taking the job was Devlin's insisting that she should not. Neither lover is willing to go out on a limb and prevent the job from happening by expressing how they feel, which leads them down a long and circuitous road. Alicia's journey into the home of Sebastian is good for American espionage, but it causes her a great deal of harm, and it forestalls the romance that is already blossoming between Alicia and Devlin.