The Last Scene of Notorious

… and why Cary Grant is not just a great movie star, but a great actor.

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In the last scene of Notorious, Ingrid Bergman lies in bed, trapped in the house of her Nazi husband. She is being slowly poisoned by Nazi-man (Claude Rains) and by his terrifying evil Fraulein mother. Bergman lies in bed, coming in and out of consciousness due to the poison, the sleeping pills – Cary Grant has come to rescue her – finds her in this state – and he tries to keep her awake, he dresses her so that they can leave that terrible mansion – and he also, in his tortured way declares his love for her.

He has been cruel, distant, misogynistic, etc., throughout the rest of the film – but the genius of it is that Cary Grant (and Hitchcock, of course) lets us in on the secret: Devlin (the character) is actually not a cruel or distant man at all – he is only cruel and distant because underneath all of that, he is vulnerable, too vulnerable, and he needs her too much. Cary Grant’s performance is a show-and-tell masterpiece. He shows us everything, but he tells us NOTHING. WE can see the truth, but Devlin can’t. WE can look at him and see the vulnerability, but Devlin thinks he’s invulnerable, and that he can’t be hurt.

What the character DOES in the film is obvious: he throws her to the wolves, he hates her for her whorish past, he despises her on some level – mainly because of his own insecurities – he is insecure about her sexual experience, and punishes her emotionally for it – he refuses to believe that she can change her nympho-drunk ways. But clues are dropped, along the way, that this guy is tormented about her, and actually loves her. The clues are along the lines of “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it …” Devlin is unaware of the clues he is leaving behind. He thinks he has covered his tracks (emotionally, I mean.) But it’s all there: He treats her like a whore, except when she is out of his presence, and then he gets very very touchy about any slights on her honor, he gets very protective of her. He defends her character to his fellow secret agents (“I don’t think she’s that kind of woman!”), and yet – refuses to defend her when she begs him to, in person. (“Did you tell them I’m not the kind of girl for this sort of work??”)

In the last scene, he helps her to sit up, her head is flopping back. The lighting is spectacular: the pillow behind her head is blazing white, and her face is completely in the glow of the light. But he – he is a dark silhouette, he remains in the shadow. The only time he is fully lit in the final scene of this film is when the 2 of them emerge from the bedroom, and begin the descent down the stairway. And if you see the film again: LOOK at how different his face is when he steps out into the brightness with her.

Here it is:

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He looks, in that last fully-lit section, during the descent down the staircase – he looks, for the first time, like a complete man – like he has joined the land of the living. He looks … alive. Alert. With no barrier between himself and his own desires. He will get her down the stairs. He will save her. He is thankful that he did not wait too long. He will save her, even if it means losing his own life. All of that is in that face when he emerges from the bedroom with her in his arms. Amazing acting job. The transformation. For the rest of the film, he’s uptight, guarded, his eyes are cynical, he never smiles (except when he’s pretending, at the party). But somehow, Cary Grant creates this character without completely alienating us in the audience. Like: he’s a bastard to her! He’s cruel! And Notorious is obviously on “her” side – the film sympathizes with Ingrid Bergman – and yet – he is not villainized. Hitchcock knew we would come to the film with preconceived notions about Cary Grant (from movies like Bringing up Baby and Holiday – and he set about to deliberately mess with our expectations. Devlin is the darkest Cary Grant has ever been. This is a guy who is starving for love, and the only reason he resists it is because he needs it too much. The brilliance, of course, of all of this – is that that is only implied, never ever said.

So I guess you could say that this is my interpretation of the character of Devlin.

Back to the last scene:

He sits with her on the bed, her face ablaze in the light, and he is a shadow-man, a black-cut-out silhouette. He holds her – she says, “Why have you come …” He whispers, “I had to see you one more time … so I could tell you I love you …”

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He has never said he loved her, and earlier on in the film, she makes reference to the fact that their love affair is very interesting, because he doesn’t love her. He tries to weasle out of it, saying, “Actions speak louder than words…”

So the “I love you” in this last scene is not like other “I love yous” in films. There’s no swelling music, no climactic moment – there’s not a feeling that this “I love you” is a victory. It’s more hard-won, more tragic. It’s an “I love you” between two adults who have been damaged and chastened by life’s hard lessons. Man. I so relate to that. This is a grown-up movie.

Back to the last scene:

She is, again, falling in and out of consciousness – but when she hears those words – when she hears him whisper, “I love you” – there are tears in her eyes (Bergman is absolutely spectacular in this film, especially in the last scene) – she says, “You love me? Why didn’t you say so before?”

He holds onto her, says into the side of her cheek, “I was a fat-headed guy … full of pain.”

The entire scene is done in surreptitious whispers, which adds to the insecure feeling of it, the secretive-ness, the neuroses – this isn’t a normal love scene. She’s in the light, he’s in the dark – These two people are all fucked up, basically. I don’t feel hopeful about their future together, really – even though they drive away in the same car. Whatever happened, they’d have a difficult path. Being grown-up and being in love is tough.

If you want to know why Cary Grant is not just a great movie star, but a great actor – see what he does with that “fat-headed guy” line. It’s really more that he does nothing, that’s why it’s so incredible – he just says it - simply – with no self-pity, no self-importance, no ego – he just says it … but the eyes … the eyes …

You can feel it. “Fat-headed guy full of pain”.

Richard Schickel writes about Cary Grant as Devlin:

As Devlin the counterspy Grant is cool, brusque, competent — with an almost sadistic edge of cruelty about him. At the start it is clear that his assignment is distasteful to him — recruiting and running an amateur, and a woman at that. And what a woman she is. Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia is not only the personally loyal, if politically disapproving, daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, she is also a nymphomaniac and an incipient alcoholic, unstable to the point of explosiveness. And emotionally needy, pathetically so. “Why won’t you believe in me, Devlin — just a little bit,” she begs at one point. And our shock at seeing Bergman violate her previously pristine image, degrading herself in her need is, like Grant’s charmless manipulativeness, one of the things that makes this movie so superbly unbalancing. [Ed: I love that. A perfect description. "Superbly unbalancing".] She is, in [Pauline] Kael’s terms the pursuer, he the pursued, but in the movie’s own terms that is less significant than the neurotic force-field it wants to set up between them.

In effect, Devlin is forced to become her lover in order to calm her down enough to do her job, which is to insinuate herself into the home and circle (in Rio de Janeiro) of Alexander Sebastian, who is played by Claude Rains, in one of that actor’s most delicious roles, as the only master spy in the history of the genre who is hag-ridden by his mother (yet another piece of pathology to reckon with)…

What Devlin does not count on is that he will fall genuinely in love with Alicia. Or that Sebastian will ask her to marry him. And that there is no way out of the match if she is to complete her mission.

What neither she nor the audience has counted on is Devlin’s neurosis, which now comes to the fore.

He thinks she accepts the situation too easily; her attitude fits all too well with what he knows of her earlier promiscuity; and with all the fears and suspicions of women in general which she had almost made him forget.

He turns petulant as a jilted schoolboy, reaching levels of mean-spiritedness that from any leaading man would startle an audience, but which from Cary Grant are almost devastating. Hitchcock and Hecht (the writer) have now stripped him bare of his protective image as they previously did Bergman.

The resolution of Notorious requires not just the restoration of moral order, but the rebalancing of psychological equilibrium as well. And what dark intensity this brings to the normally routine process of sorting out a spy drama’s strands. One feels that if one of the Brontes had attempted an espionage story it would have turned out something like this.

With Notorious we come closer to the heart of Grant’s darkness — as close as he would allow us to come. There were two decades left to his career, but only once — and then again for Hitchcock — would he risk anything like this exposure. Something assuredly was lost by the reticence. And yet one can scarecely blame him. Self-revelation is a terrible trial for anyone; it is especially so for an acotr, whose instrument is his person; most of all for an actor like Grant, who so carefully and deliberately created a screen character that was as much a fantasy to him as it was to his audience, in which he could comfortably hide himself, or whatever of himself — that is to say, the Archie Leach who had been — that still existed.

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– Cool trivia about that last descent down the staircase: The staircase was not long enough for Hitchcock. He wanted the staircase to feel, literally, endless for that scene – to build the tension. But if they just slowly descended the staircase – they still reached the bottom with a couple of lines left over to say – this was not good enough for Hitchcock. So here was his solution: as they descended – if you notice the background behind Rains’ head in the shots – Hitchcock had them go down the same stretch of stairway 2 or 3 times – so that it would FEEL longer. It’s seamless in the film – unless you’re looking at the blurry background you would never notice that for the first part of the scene they are not actually going anywhere. A beautiful example of how inventive Hitchcock was, how much he was able to create an illusion.

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8 Responses to The Last Scene of Notorious

  1. I regularly fall in love vicariously through you, Sheila. You open up these people and I have no choice but to see them the way you do.

    Brilliant.

  2. JFH says:

    Why are you not syndicated?! If either a major studio or a DVD rental company would sign you up, their sales for classics would go through the roof!!

    I’m off to rent Notorious just to watch the nuances that you’ve alerted me to… I can just imagine the conversation with my wife:

    Me: “See, watch how they’re coming down the stairs, let’s count the number of steps compared to the actual staircase”

    My wife: “I’m going to bed… by the way, you’re banned from Sheila’s blog for the next month!”

  3. red says:

    Hey cupcake – many many thanks to you. :)

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  5. Hank says:

    Fascinating as always.
    I have put Notorious on my christmas wish list and
    now, thanks to you, I’ll be watching this scene
    very carefully, if I receive it as a gift.
    If not, I plan to buy it and watch it.

    You’ve really helped me to see these old flicks
    in different ways.
    And it always enhances my enjoyment.

    Regards. Hank

  6. amelie says:

    now i have to see it! i love cary grant films :)

  7. Pat Patterson says:

    I know this comment is late but I needed time to see the film again. I had originally seen the film when I was in elementary school and naturally it made no impression on me. Years later, in graduate school, I saw the film again thinking basically that it was an Ingrid Bergman vehicle. Mid-way through the film I realized that it was Cary Grant’s role that was far more compelling than the restrained hysteria of Bergman. Grant’s ability to save Bergamn and walk her out of the house while expressing his love, his fear of not being in time and his self-loathing for what he had done is truly riveting. Thanks for bringing this gem to my attention.

  8. Rosie says:

    This is my FAVORITE role that Cary Grant has ever done. This is his masterpiece. His Devlin is so dark and unsympathetic and yet . . . he is sympathetic and one understand where he is coming from.

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