As the film begins, a title card tells us that we are in “Miami Florida, Three-Twenty P.M., April the Twenty-Fourth, Nineteen Hundred and Forty-Six…” The scene shifts and we see a crowd of reporters with large cameras gathered around the District Court in Miami. Inside the building, a man peers into the courtroom and watches as a man argues with the judge, saying that even if he is locked up, they cannot prevent what will happen to the United States. As the man becomes more impassioned, his lawyer whispers in his ear and he calms down. The judge then reads the verdict: the defendant, whose name is John Huberman, has been found guilty of treason against the United States and is being sentenced to 20 years of jail time. As the court is adjourned, the man who was peering through the doorway says, “Here she comes,” and the doors open as people file out. Amongst them is Ms. Huberman, evidently the defendant’s daughter, and a few reporters try to get statements from her. Nearby, a man watches her go and says to another, “Let us know if she tries to leave town.”
The scene shifts to a house on a quiet street. Time passes and it gets dark, and the perspective shifts to inside the house, where jazz music plays and a party is taking place. Huberman’s daughter, whose name we learn is Alicia, pours her guests some drinks as they question her about her day in court. As two guests dance to the music, Alicia goes to pour another man a drink, and although she has never met him, she recognizes him. “Hello handsome, haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” she asks. When she calls him a “party crasher,” another guest insists that they brought him. As Alicia pours a woman a drink, she bemoans the fact that the police have tabs on her and jokes with an older man about just sailing away from all the controversy. The older man, who is a naval officer, insists that she come with him on his ship for a week in Havana, after which the controversy will have blown over.
Alicia refills the drink of the seated stranger, whose back is to the camera and who has remained silent this whole time. “I like you,” Alicia tells him, and when the naval officer once again extends his offer for her to come with him to Havana the following day, she tells him she’ll have to think it over. As she stands, Alicia jokingly dismisses the guests, saying that it has been a hideous party, as the camera zooms in on the back of the stranger’s head. The scene shifts to a little later, and reveals Alicia sitting at a small table with the stranger, who pours them another drink. They are both intoxicated and Alicia giggles. When the stranger asks her why she likes the song that is playing, she tells him, “Because it’s all a lot of hooey. There’s nothing like a love song to give you a good laugh.” She invites the stranger to have a picnic outside, claiming that the room is “too stuffy,” and the stranger downs his drink. “My car is outside. Want to go for a ride?” she asks him, and he accepts, but is concerned about the two guests with whom he came to the party, who are passed out on a nearby sofa. She insists that she will drive, despite being visibly intoxicated.
Outside the stranger stops Alicia, tying a small bandana around her waist, jokingly saying it’s for warmth, and the couple walks to the car. We suddenly see the car swerving down the street. Alicia is completely drunk as the stranger tries to light a cigarette. As she drives recklessly, Alicia complains of the fog, but the stranger wryly points out that it’s not fog, but her own hair in her eyes. When the stranger tells her that she is going 65 mph, she assures him that she is going to go 80 and “wipe that grin off your face. I don’t like gentlemen who grin at me.” She speeds recklessly, and the stranger begins to reach for the steering wheel anxiously. Suddenly a cop on a motorcycle pulls up beside them, but she will not acknowledge him. Cynically, Alicia proclaims that she’ll be thrown in jail for drunken driving, and that she will be the second one of her family members to end up in jail, pulling over the car. The cop approaches and Alicia tells him, “People like you ought to be in bed.” When the cop tries to arrest her, the stranger pulls out his identification, which stops the policeman short when he sees it. “Sorry! You should’ve spoken up,” the policeman says, “You sure you can handle it?” The stranger assures him that he can, and the policeman salutes him and walks away.
Alicia looks at the stranger skeptically and asks him his name, which he tells her is Devlin. She questions him about why the cop looked at his identification and saluted him, and Devlin smiles at her, eventually admitting that he is a federal cop. Alicia becomes enraged, hitting him and accusing him of spying on her. They engage in a physical scuffle, Alicia scolding him for crashing her party and insisting that he leave her alone. When he tries to get her to cooperate, she attacks him, but he renders her unconscious and takes control of the steering wheel as the scene shifts. We then see Alicia waking up in bed, her face resting next to a large glass of liquid. “You’d better drink that,” Devlin says from the doorframe. She struggles to raise her head and slowly drinks the liquid, moaning from a horrible hangover. “Finish it,” Devlin urges her, but when she tries to drink it she is disgusted by it. As Devlin walks towards the bed, Alicia rolls over and groans.
Alicia eventually sits up and asks Devlin what he wants with her. When he tells her he just wants to be friends, she scoffs. He then admits that he wants her for a job. Lying back, Alicia says, “There’s only one job that you coppers would want me for. Well you can forget it…I’m no stool pigeon.” Devlin continues, telling her that his department enlisted him to ask her if she would do a job for them in Brazil. She rolls over, agitated, and tells him to go away. “Some of the German gentry who were paying your father are working in Rio,” he tells her, but she still is not interested and tells Devlin to leave her alone. Devlin goes on, detailing how a small group of Nazis have been hiding out in Brazil and that he needs her help to infiltrate their ranks. Since she is the daughter of Huberman, a Nazi, Devlin believes that the Nazis will be more likely to trust her, which is why she is an asset to the mission. He then suggests that she “could make up for her dad’s peculiarities,” insinuating that she ought to redeem her father’s legacy as a Nazi spy. Alicia immediately fires back, “Why should I?” Devlin leaves the room as Alicia stands up and tells him she has no desire to be patriotic.
From the other room, Devlin yells to her that they’ve been recording her conversations in her house for the past few months. He then puts a record on her turntable, a recording of her having a conversation with her father. She tells him she doesn’t want to hear it, but Devlin plays it anyway. In the recording, Alicia refuses to do her father’s bidding, insisting that her mother was born in the United States and that she feels responsible to act on behalf of the country in which she lives. Devlin approaches her as the recording continues. On the recording, Alicia tells her father, “I love this country, do you understand that? I love it. I’ll see you all hanged before I raise a finger against it.” Devlin stands beside her as she listens to the recording and it ends. She then tells Devlin that she didn’t turn her father in. When he asks her again if she wants to work for the American government, she refuses, telling him that she just wants to have a good time and enjoy her life, not work for a group of cops who want to put her up in a “shooting gallery.” Suddenly the door buzzes and we hear someone knocking, as Alicia tells Devlin that she wants to be around people who like her and understand her. The older man from the party the previous night, the naval officer, comes in and reminds Alicia that they are planning to go on a trip together to Havana on his ship. She reluctantly agrees to his plan to meet at the pier, and the officer leaves calling her “the sweetest girl I ever knew.” After he leaves, Devlin asks her one more time if she wants to work for him, and she finally agrees to fly with him to Rio the next day. Devlin leaves.
The scene shifts to show their airplane flying to Rio. Turning around in her seat, Alicia sees Devlin speaking to another man on the plane. When Devlin returns to his seat next to Alicia, she tells him, “He’s a very nice looking man,” and Devlin tells her she’ll be seeing a lot of him in Rio, and that he is their boss, Paul Prescott. When Alicia asks if Mr. Prescott gave Devlin any hints about what they would be doing in Rio, Devlin tells her he did not, but that he told him that Alicia’s father died that morning. Alicia’s eyes widen, as Devlin informs her that he poisoned himself in his jail cell. Alicia says, “I don’t know why I should feel so bad. When he told me a few years ago what he was, everything went to pot. I didn't care what happened to me. Now I remember how nice he once was. How nice we both were, very nice. It's a very curious feeling, as if something had happened to me and not to him. You see, I don't have to hate him anymore or myself.” The plane begins to land and Alicia looks out the window at Rio.
We see a montage of various scenes in Rio. Eventually, the scene settles on Alicia and Devlin sitting at an outdoor table at a cafe. Alicia tells him that she’d like a maid to cook for her and that she’d like to know soon when she is to start working, and what she is meant to do. When Devlin notices that Alicia does not order a drink, she tells him that she’s “practically on the wagon,” and questions him about whether he thinks a woman can change. We learn that Alicia has not had a drink for 8 days, and that she feels happy for a change. The duo banters for awhile, and eventually Alicia tells him, “Why don't you give that copper's brain of yours a rest? Every time you look at me, I can see it running over its slogans: 'Once a crook, always a crook,' 'Once a tramp, always a tramp.' Go on. You can hold my hand. I won't blackmail you for it afterwards. Scared?” When Devlin tells her that he has always been afraid of women, Alicia teases him for being afraid of falling in love with her. She then orders a drink after all.
What makes Notorious notable amongst Hitchcock's other films is the fact that it is not a strict horror or suspense film, but perhaps more closely aligned with the genre of "film noir." From the start, Notorious has certain elements of the classic noir. The first and most evident element is the photography, traditionally black-and-white and with a certain moody, mysterious quality that is typical of film noir. The world of Miami is one that is sunny, but also filled with shadows. The interplay between light and dark is typical of a traditional noir. Secondly, the film takes a rather straightforward approach to the sexuality, which also lines up with certain traditions of film noir. From their first interaction, they engage in a playful and earthy banter, one which betrays their inherent attraction to one another. They exchange witticisms and charm one another, in turn charming the audience into investing emotionally in their romance. Their relative cynicism and lack of sentimentality about love and sexuality sets up the circumstances for them to be disarmed by each other and fall in even deeper love than they expect.
Hitchcock plays with perspective from the beginning of the film. For instance, when we first see Devlin, his back is to the camera and he hardly says a word. The viewer sees only Alicia’s flirtatious responses to him, and he doesn’t speak. Other people speak on his behalf, first Alicia as she teases him for crashing, and then two of her friends who assure her that he came with them. It is not until later, once the party has fully died down, that we get a glimpse of Devlin’s face. The slow revelation of Devlin’s visage highlights the mysteriousness of his identity and his aims. Like Alicia, the viewer wonders: who is this man, and what is he doing at the party if he was not invited? While Notorious may not be a traditional suspense or horror film, it still skillfully builds up questions and suspense in the way that it disseminates information, and much of this is done through perspective and photography.
Indeed, we often see things from Alicia’s perspective. When she insists on driving her car while intoxicated, we watch the road as it curves in front of the car from her altered point of view. We see the car swerve in front of her. Then again, when her hair gets caught in her face and she mistakes it for fog, the camera takes her point of view. Her hair obscures our perception of the road, making the already disorienting car ride that much more disorienting. Then again, when Alicia becomes conscious in the bed after a night of heavy drinking, we see Devlin standing in the doorframe from her perspective. The camera is set slightly askew and he appears on a diagonal. Then when she rolls over and Devlin walks towards the bed, the camera goes in a half circle as she rolls over, putting Devlin upside down in her view (and the viewer’s). This visually approximates the feeling of having a hangover, which creates in the viewer a sense of empathy with Alicia. Thus we see that the photography itself aligns the viewer with Alicia’s plight at several key moments in the beginning of the film.
Another notable element of the film is its position in history as a film about post-World War II America. At the center of the espionage plot is Devlin's conviction that despite her Nazi father and her German heritage, Alicia is a loyal and patriotic American. After her night of heavy drinking, Alicia insists that she does not go for patriotism very much, but Devlin calls her bluff by playing the recordings of her talking to her father. In them, she professes an explicit affiliation with America and its political position. This is and was highly significant at the time of the release of Notorious, in which memories of Nazism were still very raw and distrust of Germany immense. Ingrid Bergman was herself Swedish, but she plays the role of Americanized German girl with power and raw emotion. Her patriotism and her affiliation with American values are evident on her face.
If the recording of her professing her patriotic beliefs were not enough, the monologue that Alicia gives upon hearing the news that her father is dead solidifies her allegiances. She tells Devlin, "I don't know why I should feel so bad. When he told me a few years ago what he was, everything went to pot. I didn't care what happened to me. But now I remember how nice he once was...I don't have to hate him anymore, or myself." The news of her father's death has the effect of liberating Alicia from her ill-will towards her father. With him dead, she doesn't need to worry about being implicated in his allegiance with Nazism and she can just remember him as the man who was her father. By expressing that his death feels like a kind of relief from the man's political associations, Alicia proves again that she is committed to her own political sympathies with America.