‘Notorious’: Hitchcock’s Mature and Intricate Espionage Masterpiece

On the set of Notorious, Alfred Hitchcock sets up the shot in which the camera swoops down into the party to an extreme close-up of the key hidden in Ingrid Bergman’s hand. Photo by the great photojournalist Robert Capa, who was romantically involved with Bergman at the time


By Sven Mikulec

Sometime in August 1944, while Alfred Hitchcock was having lunch with David O. Selznick’s story editor Margaret McDonnell, the idea for Notorious was born. Hitchcock wanted to make a film about “confidence tricks on a grand scale,” and the ongoing bloody war enabled him to create a convincing and suitable background for the parallel tension on both the personal and political plain. Ben Hecht was hired and spent three weeks polishing the script with Hitchcock. Selznick, however, was unsure about the film, disliking the central female character, puzzled by the motif of uranium, disinterested in the male protagonist, and probably more than anything, troubled by the financially demanding production of Duel in the Sun. Famous playwright Clifford Odets was brought in to improve the script as Hitchcock and Hecht were unavailable, but Selznick still didn’t feel the project was worth investing his energy into, and Hecht dismissed the new version instantly. He therefore agreed to sell Notorious to RKO, gaining $800,000 and reserving the right to 50% of the film’s profits. Hitchcock was thus lent to RKO, but probably greeted this move with open arms: working nowhere near Selznick’s ever-seeing eye and unaffected by the producer’s notorious memos enabled him to independently transfer his vision to the screen. Everything was ready for a history-changing blockbuster, as Notorious managed to pair up two huge box office stars. Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant were chosen to play the two most important parts, while the third point of this crafty triangle of distrust, passion and jealousy finally went to the experienced British actor Claude Rains. In August 1946, two years after Notorious’ conception, the American public had the pleasure of seeing one of Hitchcock’s most satisfying, mature and intricate films. Notorious was both a box office success and a critical favorite, still being valued as the masterpiece of Hitchcock’s career, alongside the likes of Vertigo or Rear Window.

In a conversation with Truffaut, Hitchcock labeled Notorious as an old conflict between love and duty, with Cary Grant’s character forced to push his love interest into the hands of the antagonist, and it was a rather clever construction to examine the value of trust between people in a story staged as an espionage thriller. Moreover, since Notorious features psychologically complex and solidly developed characters, it’s not strange at all that the audience’s affection for the main villain rose up to the surface. Claude Reins’ bad guy is sophisticated, elegant and full of love for the woman he was staged to fall far, a collection of traits that make his character sympathetic and greatly help the film escape from the confinements of a typical black-and-white love story where it’s all too easy to root for a hero. What also makes this film exceptional is the filmmaker’s audacity to toy with the theme of patriotism, portraying the American government as a morally extremely flexible, opportunistic heap of unscrupulous officials, a move both surprising and daring considering the fact the film was made at the end of the Second World War. Hecht and Hitchcock’s screenplay was heavily praised for creating full-ranged, believable, sympathetic characters and an enthralling espionage story in which the audience gets easily wrapped and emotionally invested in the screen, while Ted Tetzlaff’s cinematography, guided by Hitchcock’s ever-present artistic longing to generously use visuality in terms of telling the story unfolding in front of our eyes, helps the film flow in an elegant, carefully staged stream. Ingrid Bergman’s clothes was designed by Hitchcock’s frequent collaborator and genuine Hollywood legend Edith Head, the costume designer who would end her career with an impressive account of eight Academy Awards in the category. Regarding the music, Hitchcock tried to hire Bernard Herrmann, the composer with whom he would later work on seven films from 1955 to 1964. Since Herrmann was unavailable, the job went to Roy Webb, RKO’s staff composer, who enjoyed the reputation of a reliable but unspectacular choice. His score, however, was later praised as one of Hitchcock’s best and critically most neglected works.

But impressive cast, beautiful acting and all that Hitchcock-monitored-by-the-FBI trivia aside, the film became ‘notorious’ primarily for offering the audience one of the most famous shots in cinematic history. Starting all the way up from the balcony, Hitchcock begins approaching Ingrid Bergman’s character, standing in the middle of a great hall, finally coming down to the tight close-up of a key gripped in her hand. This magnificent zoom-in from a high crane shot to an extreme close-up of a significant plot detail in Bergman’s hand is one of the reason critics call Notorious the turning point of Hitchcock’s career, marking his stylistic maturity.

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How did the idea develop for that remarkable crane-shot, down to the key?
That’s again using the visual. That’s a statement which says, “In this crowded atmosphere there is a very vital item, the crux of everything.” So taking that sentence as it is, in this crowded atmosphere, you go to the widest possible expression of that phrase and then you come down to the most vital thing—a tiny little key in the hand. That’s merely the visual expression to say, “Everybody is having a good time, but they don’t realize there is a big drama going on here.” And that big drama epitomizes itself in a little key.Peter Bogdanovich interviews Hitchcock; the legendary interview from 1963


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As much as we admire the shot, we mustn’t forget that one fantastic detail such as this would hardly be as celebrated as it is had it not been for Ben Hecht’s script. An old collaborator of Hitchcock’s, Hecht worked on screenplays for so many films now perceived as classics that his nickname, ‘The Shakespeare of Hollywood,’ hardly seems a pretentious hyperbole. Thanks to all this, Notorious is now considered one of Hitchcock’s finest. And rightfully so. Based on a precise, ingenious screenplay, inspiringly filmed with several now iconic shots, with brave choice of a theme and perfect casting, Notorious is a movie worth going back to every once in a while. The film is a stepping stone for Hitchcock on his path of filmmaking maturity, a point in his career where it feels he finally came into his own as a big Hollywood director.


A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Ben Hecht’s screenplay for Notorious [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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In the fall of 1962, whilst The Birds was in post-production, François Truffaut carried out extensive interviews with Alfred Hitchcock at his offices at Universal Studios. The interviews were recorded to audio tape and the content eventually edited down into the ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’ book. Buy Hitchcock by François Truffaut from Amazon. Hitchcock/Truffaut documentary explores the art and influence of Hitchcock through his famed 1962 interview with French auteur François Truffaut.

I’m impatient to get to Notorious be­cause this is truly my favorite Hitchcock picture; at any rate, it’s the one I prefer in the black-and­ white group. In my opinion, Notorious is the very quintessence of Hitchcock.
When I started to work with Ben Hecht on the screenplay for Notorious, we were looking for a MacGuffin, and as always, we pro­ceeded by trial and error, going off in several different directions that turned out to be too complex. The basic concept of the story was already on hand. Ingrid Bergman was to play the heroine, and Cary Grant was to portray the FBI man who accompanied her to Latin Amer­ica, where she was to worm her way into the household of a nest of Nazi spies in order to find out what they were up to. Our original intention had been to bring into the story government officials and police agents and to show groups of German refugees training in secret camps in South America with the aim of setting up an enemy army. But we couldn’t figure out what they were going to do with the army once it was organized. So we dropped the whole idea in favor of a MacGuffin that was simpler, but con­ crete and visual: a sample of uranium concealed in a wine bottle. At the beginning the producer had given me an old-fashioned story, The Song of the Flame, that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. It was the story of a young woman who had fallen in love with the son of a wealthy New York so­ciety woman. The girl was troubled about a se­cret in her past. She felt that her great love would be shattered if ever the young man or his mother found out about it. What was the se­ cret? Well, during the war, the government counterspy service had approached a theatrical impresario to find them a young actress who would act as an agent; her mission was to sleep with a certain spy in order to get hold of some valuable information. The agent had suggested this young girl and she had accepted the assign­ ment. So now, filled with apprehensions about the whole thing, she goes back to her agent and tells him all about her problem, and he, in turn, tells the whole story to the young man’s mother. The story winds up with the aristocratic mother saying, “I always hoped that my son would find the right girl, but I never expected him to marry a girl as fine as this!”

So here is the idea for a picture co-starring In­grid Bergman and Cary Grant, to be directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Well, after talking it over with Ben Hecht, we decide that the idea we’ll retain from this story is that the girl is to sleep with a spy in order to get some secret information. Gradually, we develop the story, and now I in­troduce the MacGuffin: four or five samples of uranium concealed in wine bottles. The producer said, “What in the name of good­ ness is that?” I said, “This is uranium; it’s the thing they’re going to make an atom bomb with.” And he asked, “What atom bomb?” This, you must remember, was in 1944, a year before Hiroshima. I had only one clue. A writer friend of mine had told me that scientists were working on a secret project some place in New Mexico. It was so secret that once they went into the plant, they never emerged again. I was also aware that the Germans were conducting experiments with heavy water in Norway. So these clues brought me to the uranium Mac­Guffin. The producer was skeptical, and he felt it was absurd to use the idea of an atom bomb as the basis for our story. I told him that it wasn’t the basis for the story, but only the MacGuffin, and I explained that there was no need to attach too much importance to it. Finally, I said, “Look, if you don’t like uranium, let’s make it industrial diamonds, which the Germans need to cut their tools with.” And I pointed out that if it had not been a wartime story, we could have hinged our plot on the theft of diamonds, that the gimmick was unim­ portant. Well, I failed to convince the producers, and a few weeks later the whole project was sold to RKO. In other words, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, the script, Ben Hecht, and myself, we were sold as a package.

There’s something else I should tell you about this uranium MacGuffin. It happened four years after Notorious was released. I was sailing on the Queen Elizabeth, and I ran into a man called Joseph Hazen, who was an associate of producer Hal Wallis. He said to me, “I’ve always wanted to find out where you got the idea for the atom bomb a year before Hiroshima. When they offered us the Notorious script, we turned it down because we thought it was such a god­damn foolish thing to base a movie on.” There was another incident that took place prior to the shooting of Notorious. Ben Hecht and I went over to the California Institute of Technology at Pasadena to meet Dr. Millikan, at that time one of the leading scientists in America. We were shown into his office, and there in a corner was a bust of Einstein. Very impressive. The first question we asked him was: “Dr. Millikan, how large would an atom bomb be?” He looked at us and said, “You want to have yourselves arrested and have me arrested as well?” Then he spent an hour telling us how impossible our idea was, and he concluded that if only they could harness hydrogen, then that would be something. He thought he had suc­ceeded in convincing us that we were barking up the wrong tree, but I learned later that after­ ward the FBI had me under surveillance for three months. To get back to Mr. Hazen on the boat, when he told me how idiotic he had thought our gim­mick was, I answered, “Well, all it goes to show is that you were wrong to attach any importance to the MacGuffin. Notorious was simply the story of a man in love with a girl who, in the course of her official duties, had to go to bed with another man and even had to marry him. That’s the story. That mistake of yours cost you a lot of money, because the movie cost “two mil­lion dollars to make and grossed eight million dollars for the producers.”

So it was a big hit. Incidentally, how did Spellbound fare, in terms of dollars and cents?
Spellbound was less expensive; it cost us about a million and a half dollars to make, and it brought in seven million to the producer.

I’m awfully pleased to see that Noto­rious is re-released time and again all over the world. Despite a lapse of twenty years it’s still a remarkably modern picture, with very few scenes and an exceptionally pure story line. In the sense that it gets a maximum effect from a minimum of elements, it’s really a model of sce­nario construction. All of the suspense scenes hinge around two objects, always the same, namely the key and the fake wine bottle. The sentimental angle is the simplest in the world: two men in love with the same woman. It seems to me that of all of 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. I don’t know whether you were already drawing detailed sketches of each shot, but to the eye, the ensemble is as precise as an animated cartoon. Of all its qualities, the outstanding achievement is perhaps that in No­torious you have at once a maximum of styliza­tion and a maximum of simplicity.
I’m pleased you should mention that, because we did try for simplicity. As a rule, there’s a good deal of violence in movies dealing with espionage, and here we tried to avoid that. We used a method of killing that was quite sim­ple; it was as commonplace as the real-life killings you read about in newspaper stories. Claude Rains and his mother try to kill Ingrid Bergman by poisoning her very slowly with ar­ senic. Isn’t that the conventional method for disposing of someone without being caught? Usually, when film spies are trying to get rid of someone, they don’t take so many precautions; they shoot a man down or they take him for a ride in some isolated spot and then simulate an accident by hurling the car down from a high cliff. Here, there was an attempt to make the spies behave with reasonable evil.

That’s true; the villains are human and even vulnerable. They’re frightening and yet we sense that they, too, are afraid.
That was the approach we used throughout the entire film. Do you remember the scene in which Ingrid Bergman, after hav­ing carried out her instructions to become friendly with Claude Rains, meets Cary Grant to report to him? In speaking of Claude Rains, she says, “He wants to marry me.” Now that’s a simple statement and the dialogue is quite ordi­nary, but that scene is photographed in a way that belies that simplicity. There are only two people in the frame, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, and the whole scene hinges on that sentence: “He wants to marry me.” The impres­sion is that it calls for some sort of sentimental suspense around whether she’s going to allow Claude Rains to marry her or not. But we didn’t do that because the answer to that question is beside the point. It has nothing to do with the scene; the public can simply assume that the marriage will take place. I deliberately left what appears to be the important emotional factor aside. You see, the question isn’t whether Ingrid will or will not marry Claude Rains. The thing that really matters is that, against all expecta­tions, the man she’s spying on has just asked her to marry him.

If I understand you correctly, the im­portant thing in this scene isn’t Ingrid Berg­man’s reply to the proposal, but the fact that such a proposal has been made.
That’s it.

It’s also interesting in that the proposal comes as a sort of bombshell. Somehow, one doesn’t expect the subject of marriage to crop up in a story about spies. Something else that impressed me-and you deal with it again in Under Capricorn—is the imperceptible transition from one form of in­ toxication to another, going from liquor to poi­son. In the scene where Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are seated together on a bench, she’s beginning to feel the effects of the arsenic, but he assumes she’s gone back to her drinking and he’s rather contemptuous. There’s real dra­matic impact in this misunderstanding.
I felt it important to graduate this poi­soning in the most normal manner possible; I didn’t want it to look wild or melodramatic. In a sense, it’s almost a transference of emotion. The story of Notorious is the old conflict between love and duty. Cary Grant’s job-and it’s a rather ironic situation-is to push Ingrid Berg­man into Claude Rains’ bed. One can hardly blame him for seeming bitter throughout the story, whereas Claude Rains is a rather appeal­ing figure, both because his confidence is being betrayed and because his love for Ingrid Berg­man is probably deeper than Cary Grant’s. All of these elements of psychological drama have been woven into the spy story.

Ted Tetzlaff’s photography is excel­lent.
In the early stages of the film, we were doing the scene of Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant driving in the car; she’s a little drunk and she’s driving too fast. We were working in the studios, with transparencies. On the transpar­ency screen we showed a motorcycle cop in the background; he’s getting gradually closer to the car, and just as he goes out of the frame, on the right side, I cut to a cross angle and con­tinue the scene, with the motorcycle cop inside the studio this time, showing him as he pulls up to them and stops the car. When Tetzlaff announced he was all set to shoot, I said, “Don’t you think it would be a good idea to have a little light on the side, sweeping across the backs of their necks, to rep­resent the motorcycle headlights that are shown on the transparency screen?” He had never done anything like that, and he was not too pleased that I should draw his atten­tion to it. And he said, “Getting a bit technical, aren’t you, Pop?” A little incident came up while we were making the picture that was rather sad. We needed to use a house in Beverly Hills to represent the exterior of the big spy house in Rio. The head of the location department sent a minor mem­ber of his staff to show me the house they’d selected, a very quiet, little man who said to me, “Mr. Hitchcock, will this house do?” That little man was the same man to whom I originally submitted my titles at Famous Players-Lasky when I was starting out in 1920.

That’s awfuf.
Yes, it took me a little while to recog­nize him; when I did I felt terrible.

Did you show him you knew who he was?
No, I didn’t. That’s one of the occu­pational tragedies of this industry. When I was shooting The Thirty-nine Steps, there were some odd, extra shots to be done, and in order to speed up the production, the producer of­ fered to get someone to do it. When I asked him whom he had in mind, he answered, “Graham Cutts.” I said, “No, I won’t have it. I used to work for him; I did the writing on Woman to Woman for him. How can I have him come on as my assis­tant?” And he answered, “Well, if you won’t use him, you’ll be doing him out of a job and he really needs the money.” So I finally agreed, but it’s a terrible thing, don’t you think so?

It is, indeed. But, getting back to Notorious, I wanted to say that a key factor in the picture’s success is probably the perfect casting: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, and Leopoldine Konstantin. With Robert Walker and Joseph Cotten, Claude Rains was undoubtedly your best villain. He was extremely human. It’s rather touching: the small man in love with a taller woman…
Yes, Claude Rains and Ingrid Berg­man made a nice couple, but in the close shots the difference between them was so marked that if I wanted them both in a frame, I had to stand Claude Rains on a box. On one occasion we wanted to show them both coming from a dis­tance, with the camera panning from him to Bergman. Well, we couldn’t have any boxes out there on the floor, so what I did was to have a plank of wood gradually rising as he walked to­ ward the camera.

Working these snags out can be pretty funny, especially when you’re shooting in CinemaScope, because there, for each separate shot, you’ve got to have the chandeliers, the paintings, and all wall installations brought down, while at the same time, the beds, tables and chairs, and anything else that happens to be on the floor, have to be raised. For a visitor who accidentally wanders in on the set, it’s truly a ridiculous sight. It’s often occurred to me that one might make a first-rate comedy on the mak­ing of a movie.
It’s a pretty good idea, and the way I’d do it is to have everything take place inside a film studio. But the drama would not be in front of the camera, but off the set, between takes. The stars in the picture would be minor char­acters and the real heroes would be the extras. In this way you’d get a wonderful counterpoint between the banal story being filmed and the real drama that takes place off stage. You might have a great feud between the cameraman and one of the electricians, so that when the cam­eraman sits down on the crane, it rises to the rigging loft, and the two men take a few minutes out to swap insults. Of course, you’d have satir­ical elements in the background of the whole thing.

We had a picture along those lines in France, Jacques Prevert’s The Lovers of Verona, which was directed by Andre Cayatte. But there seems to be a general impression that backstage stories don’t make box-office hits.
It depends on the way they’re han­dled. They made a movie here called What Price Hollywood? that was a big success, and A Star Is Born, which was very good.

That’s true, and there’s also Singin’ in the Rain, which had some wonderful gags on the early days of talking pictures.


Notorious: film study extract by Marilyn Fabe. Here’s also a great analysis by Peter Bogdanovich.


Remembrance of murders past: an interview with Alfred Hitchcock by H. E. F. Donohue.

There was that two-minute necking scene in Notorious more than 20 years ago when Cary Grant was trying to talk on the telephone while Ingrid Bergman kept kissing him. Then more recently, in North by Northwest, you…
Yes, Grant again. He was all over Eva Marie Saint in that train compartment. It’s always seemed to me that when two people embrace, they don’t want to let go. Interesting thing about that scene in Notorious. I distinctly remember where I got the idea of not letting them go—of having the woman not let go of the man, even though he was on the telephone. It was long before I made the film. Before World War II, and I was on a train in France going from Boulogne to Paris and it was on a sunny Sunday afternoon when the train was going through the station of Etapes, moving quite slowly, when I saw a man and a woman, arm in arm, and he was urinating against a wall but the girl never let go of him. She was glancing around, looking at him and what he was doing now and then, but she would not move her arm away from his, she did not want to break that tension. —An interview with Alfred Hitchcock



Join Academy Award-winning sound designers as they reveal how Alfred Hitchcock employed sound to make audience members leap from their seats in fright or crawl under them from excruciating suspense.



Director Martin Scorsese is our guide into the power and mastery of Hitchcock’s visual style, breaking down landmark sequences from Vertigo, The Birds and Psycho.



Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro, William Friedkin and many others celebrate the enduring legacy of the man many consider the greatest filmmaker the medium has yet produced. Discover why Alfred Hitchcock’s movies thrill audiences and inspire filmmakers, who continue to employ his cinematic techniques to this day.



“Bernard Herrmann was perhaps the preeminent film composer of the 20th century. Holding a significant fan base throughout the years, he is one of the most talked about film composers, the subject of many discussions and scholarly papers. He worked with legendary filmmakers such as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Ray Harryhausen, and composed historic films such as Citizen Kane, Vertigo and Psycho. His unique music certainly commanded attention, whether or not you are a serious fan of the music. It certainly was interesting and imaginative music that held substantial dramatic impact.” —The Nature of Bernard Herrmann’s Music


An illuminating portrait of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most important collaborators, film composer Bernard Herrmann.


Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. Photographed by Robert Capa © RKO Radio Pictures, Inc., Vanguard Films. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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