All week, a blogathon has been going on, hosted by The Self-Styled Siren, Rod Heath, and Marilyn Ferdinand. These mighty film bloggers have partnered with the National Film Preservation Foundation to raise money to stream online three reels of the 1923 silent movie, The White Shadow, directed by Graham Cutts – ghd first known film to feature major contributions by a young upstart named Alfred Hitchcock. The blogathon is also a fundraiser, so, please, if you care about the preservation of film, please DONATE TODAY!
I decided to write about the character of “Devlin”, played by Cary Grant, in Hitchcock’s masterful 1946 film, Notorious.
The thing that many people don’t pick up on about Devlin is that he is not good at anything. He is not good at his job. In fact, he displays outright incompetence, and he is horrible in interpersonal relationships. In general, he is bad at life.
Because he is played by Cary Grant, our projections onto him may get in the way of our fully perceiving the character’s incompetence. This was one of the ways in which Hitchcock was so smart in how he utilized Cary Grant. The situations he put him in, the characters he had him play, in the four films they did together, were unbalancing to our ideas of Cary Grant. We expected certain things of Grant. We expected him to be romantic and smooth and funny and goofy. There was that face, too. Hitchcock had a complex relationship with beauty. He had none, and was very open in regards to his feelings about that. He sensed something else besides beauty and charm in Grant, something no one else seemed to sense at the time, a darkness, a mystery, a remoteness, and Suspicion was Hitchcock’s first stab at destabilizing the established persona of Cary Grant.
While Suspicion copped out in the final moment with a happy ending, we got a good glimpse of how interesting it was to see Cary Grant play someone shady, someone up to no good. A guy who looks like that? He could get away with murder.
In Notorious, the veil was pulled back even further, and this time to smashing success.
One doesn’t even need to put the film into the context of Cary Grant’s career at that time to understand how different this performance is for him, although seen in context it is even more extraordinary. Grant’s career was in transition in the mid-40s. The screwball era, which had made him, was over. Many actors who became stars in the 30s did not translate into the 40s, let alone the 50s. Grant did. He was a cautious and independent man. He guarded his persona like a hawk.
In 1941, he did Penny Serenade, an earnest domestic drama about an infertile couple who decide to adopt. He does lovely work in it, and plays, really for the first time, a regular middle-class Joe. In the same year, he worked with Hitchcock for the first time, in the very interesting Suspicion, where he plays a husband who may very well be a murderer. You’re never quite sure, and his wife, played by Joan Fontaine, nearly goes mad in her “suspicion” that he is not who he says he is. Suspicion was a real departure for Grant, although Penny Serenade was a departure as well. (His is a career of departures.) The following year he did George Stevens’ Talk of the Town, where he plays a political agitator on the run. Jean Arthur co-stars, she who had been so memorable as his leading lady in Only Angels Have Wings. Talk of the Town incorporates screwball elements while also attempting to deal with serious social/political issues. You can feel the movie business transitioning into a more Serious Time during Talk of the Town, and it is slightly awkward. But Grant is great in it, and very funny. Once Upon a Honeymoon, in the same year, paired him with Ginger Rogers and reunited him with Leo McCarey, who helped make him such a huge star in The Awful Truth. It’s another transitional film. It deals with Nazis, but is also a romance, a spy drama, a comedy. Directors, who had made their names with the gin-fizz shimmer of the 1930s screwballs, had to adjust. In 1943, Grant made Mr. Lucky, where he plays a gangster running a scam with a war-time charity, an unforgivable act in terms of the perilous times of 1943. Mr. Lucky is very very interesting, and Grant does some of his best work in it. It’s dark, moody, with shades of Casablanca, and also shades of screwball (gangsters knitting).
Watch Grant’s films in chronological order and you can almost feel him casting out a net, searching for the next phase of his career. He would not be defined by the 1930s. He needed to change, adapt, grow. He did. His next film was Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace, a film I don’t really care for. Grant was pushed by Capra into an almost grotesque comedic expression, something Grant talked about later. You can feel the push there behind the performance and although Grant is game, it is one of the only times in his career that he shows any strain. None But the Lonely Heart came next, written and directed by Grant’s pal, Clifford Odets, another guy whose name had been made in the 30s. Without a Great Depression, we would not have had a Clifford Odets. None But the Lonely Heart was a very personal project for Grant. He played a down-and-out Cockney guy, the first time since Sylvia Scarlett that he talked with his actual accent. A tragic gloomy film, rich with deep shadows and gleaming cobblestones, Grant was nominated for his second Oscar (the first one was for Penny Serenade).
Next up came Night and Day, the Cole Porter biopic. It’s a very odd movie. It basically suggests that there were problems in Porter’s marriage because he was …… a workaholic. Grant loved Cole Porter, and was a very musical person himself, loved to play the piano at parties and belt out old music hall songs. He loved doing Night and Day, but it obviously is just a job, not a career move. He’s marking time.
Then came Notorious, in the same year.
Hitchcock had used Grant once, and hadn’t quite gotten what he wanted (one of the main problems being the studio forcing a happy ending onto the picture, which undercut Grant’s creepy sociopathic performance). Notorious, with a script by Ben Hecht, has the courage of its convictions. While it is a love story, I suppose, it is one of the most neurotic romances in film history. It leaves you deeply uneasy, even with the final scene. Cary Grant plays Devlin, the federal agent assigned to hire Alisha Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) to infiltrate a group of Nazis holed up in Brazil following World War II. Grant’s Devlin is, from almost start to finish, a cold contemptuous sonofabitch, who wears his psychological damage on his sleeve, and can’t get his shit together in any facet of his life, career or personal.
Even people not familiar with the trajectory of Grant’s career can tell you what they think of when they think of Cary Grant. And I can guarantee that “incompetent cold contemptuous sonofabitch” is not what comes to mind.
Grant’s performance in Notorious is radical.
As I said, Grant was a cautious guy. He was not attached to one studio (a rarity at that time). He freelanced around. His choices were up to him. He didn’t trust just anyone. He turned down more roles than you can count. He turned down everything. Billy Wilder presented almost every script he was working on to Grant first. Grant always said No. When he took risks, the attitude behind that risk was always one of careful calculation. He trusted Howard Hawks. (He would have to, considering the ridiculous gauchos Hawks had him wear in Only Angels Have Wings.) And he trusted Hitchcock. He trusted his precious persona, which was all his own, created entirely by his own innovation and imagination, to Hitchcock. For whatever reason, he felt safe in Hitchcock’s hands. We all should feel grateful for that. Without Notorious, the Cary Grant persona would be incomplete. It is also evidence of his massive talent, not that that is up for debate, although Grant sometimes gets painted with the moronic “he only played himself” brush, like many of the other great Persona Actors of the day. But this is a fine performance, a character performance, an acute psychological study of a damaged individual who cannot find relief from his own pain. When confronted with the possibility of Love, in the character of Alicia Huberman, an alcoholic nymphomaniac with a shady past, he does all he can to destroy that possibility, even though he knows he is shattering his own dim hope for any kind of happiness.
He can’t seem to stop himself. He is so messed up that happiness would actually hurt him, it is almost too much to ask for that the weight of his own fear and misery would ever be lifted. Better to just suffer in silence, better to hole up deep within himself so that the depths of his own failings will never be revealed.
Even with the aid of retrospect, it is hard to comprehend the courage Grant showed in trusting his (by that point) well-established persona to Hitchcock in such material. Hitchcock’s portrayal of Grant here is not flattering. It wasn’t in Suspicion and it isn’t in Notorious. Hitchcock knew that the audience would do most of the work for him. We would come to the theatre expecting a certain thing, needing to see a certain thing, because we all need things from movie stars, whether we admit to it or not. And when Grant refused to deliver that specific thing, while remaining the sleek gorgeous specimen that he always was, Hitchcock knew that we would be rocked to the core. We would spend the film on edge, not just because it is a tense and terrifying thriller (and it is that as well), but because we ache for Grant to be … himself again … the Grant we knew. Refusing to satisfy audience expectation is the film’s ace in the hole. Hitchcock knew that placing Grant in a tense sexually explosive and neurotic atmosphere would shake us because we had come to expect certain things. Much of the tension of Notorious comes from that disconnect.
So many other actors, accustomed to playing heroes, would have blinked when confronted with playing Devlin, would have tipped a hat to the audience, would have reminded us periodically of the charm, the good nature, the lovability, all of the things that we have come to expect. Grant never does. Never. He risks that we may not love him here. He risks that. That is huge. He punches Ingrid Bergman – Ingrid Bergman – in the face to subdue her. And his reaction when he turns back to the steering wheel? He looks disturbed, but tight and cold, and he whistles to himself, like, “Phew, glad that’s over with” before starting up the car. It’s brutal.
He is, from start to finish, a tightly-coiled malicious and repressed individual. His behavior is appalling, unforgivable at times. He shows no mercy, even when the evidence of Alicia’s distress is right in front of his eyes. As a matter of fact, her distress brings out a misogyny in him, something that has been always close to the surface. Her behavior confirms for him his own biases about women. She tells him she has a hangover, and he nods contemptuously, same ol’ same ol’, eh, Alicia? She knows that no matter what she does, he will never have a good opinion of her, even though she loves him. Misogyny operates on the confirmation bias. The interesting thing, the fascinating thing, about Grant’s Devlin is that he admits the underlying cause, in the cafe scene in Rio. “I’ve always been scared of women,” he says flatly, then shrugs slightly. “But I get over it.”
Devlin’s tragedy is that he knows his own failings, and yet is so terrified of being revealed or exposed that he cannot work to get past them. He chooses blinders. He is a survivor. He is miserable. Alicia has awakened something in him, and for a brief moment it feels good to have a loving breathless woman in his arms, but ultimately, he cannot bear it. She must never be allowed to see his own heart of darkness. He must destroy her. All of this is complicated by the fact that Alicia has been hired to “nail” the Nazi Alexander Sebastian (the exquisite Claude Rains). We all know what “nail” means. And so Devlin has put himself in the position of having to watch Alicia embroil herself with a man she openly despises, even to the point of marrying him.
Devlin has chosen his own torture. He has no one to blame but himself.
In a way, Devlin and Alicia are two sides of the same coin. Devlin uses trickery to hire Alicia, crashing a party thrown by her, and then hanging out, clearly understanding that he will sleep with her, he will do what it takes to get her to comply. He knows she’s an easy target that way.
Alicia is hired to do the same thing with Alex, the same exact thing Devlin did with her, but Devlin would never allow himself to understand that her behavior is the same as his. He’s a professional, she’s just a tramp. Her willingness to do the job he hires her for causes him to distrust her every move. She is irredeemable. He watches her downfall and sneers at her agony, until almost the very last moment. There is no way out for Alicia in that airless environment. Devlin threw her at Alex, and then condemns her for her success. This makes no sense, but it makes perfect sense.
It is a tribute to Grant that one actually aches for this man over the course of the film. Considering his behavior, that is no easy feat.
Let’s talk about Devlin’s incompetence for a second. Why is he incompetent at his job?
In one of the key scenes with his colleagues as they discuss the job they want Alicia to do, Devlin is openly upset about it. “I don’t think she’ll do it. She’s not that kind of woman,” he says, helplessly, with awkward hand gestures. It’s very revealing. His colleagues say, “Considering her background, I think she’s perfect for it.” Throughout the film, Alicia begs Devlin to stick up for her, to guard her honor with his colleagues, to say, “Alicia would never be up for such a job.” The irony is that he does stick up for her, only never to her face. He does fight with his boss over Alicia’s fitness for such work, and he does defend her honor, especially in one devastating scene when one of the other agents makes the mistake of referring to Alicia as “a woman of that sort”. Grant turns on this poor unsuspecting man like a ruthless python. He annihilates his colleague in a monologue about Alicia Huberman, yes, not being a “lady”, but he would put her far and above this gentleman’s wife, sitting at home safely in Washington around a bridge table “with other ladies of virtue”. For a guy who is supposed to make his living being under cover, he sure reveals all his cards.
But the incompetence doesn’t rest in those moments. The incompetence comes from his own unfit-ness for such work. He tries to throw people off that trail by insisting that Alicia is “not that kind of woman”. But it is he who is unfit for it. He’s not smooth enough, he is incapable of not getting involved. Emotionally, he seems remote, but his feelings run hot and are close to the surface. He has no business “pretending” to seduce someone for the greater good. He mucks it all up. He immediately gets emotionally involved, a big no-no for a guy whose purpose is to remain undercover and separate.
We have no way of knowing what Devlin may have been like on his job before Alicia came into the picture, but she certainly does not help him “up” his game.
On their arrival in Rio, they kiss and cling in her apartment, talking all the while about what they will have for dinner.
The kisses come intermittently. They can’t seem to stop kissing, but they also can’t seem to get started. This was Hitchcock’s innovative way of dealing with the Production Code rule that no kiss should last longer than 3 seconds. He had them break the kisses up, giving the scene a breathless eroticism that is still striking, but more than that, adds to the feeling of neurosis that surrounds both characters. Putting aside the Code rule, let’s just deal with what’s on screen. We see two characters who hesitate to commit to even a proper kiss. They keep pulling back. They keep talking. They kiss again. They pull back. They cling. They retreat. It’s sexy. It’s agonizing.
Devlin has to go to a meeting and Alicia tells him to bring a bottle of wine when he returns.
Next time we see him, he emerges from his car in front of the embassy, holding a bottle of champagne. He brings it into the meeting with him. This is a sheer carelessness on his part, an idiotic mistake. Why not leave the champagne in the car? Why give yourself away to your boss like that? Every time he gets out of that car holding the bottle, I want to say, “Dude, just leave it in the car. Seriously. You need to protect yourself.” But he’s disoriented. This is not a man who has ever loved. Or maybe he loved once, when he was a younger man, and it was such a bad experience it put him off love for all time. But I would warrant a guess that the damage goes back further than that. I’m guessing Mommy was a tramp. I don’t think this man has ever allowed himself to get close to anyone. Maybe he has sex with prostitutes, which, of course, would confirm his bias about women. But he has remained remote from emotional involvement. The pain is raw. He cannot handle it. His experience of love is not soothing, happy, or easy. It feels more like being cracked open by force. So in that context, he makes error after error. He buys champagne and brings it into his official meeting, where the bottle sits on the table, another character in the scene.
And then, and then, he leaves it behind! He exits, and his boss turns to the table, zooming his eyes in on that bottle, so eloquent of romance and attachment and celebration. It’s a creepy moment because you know Devlin is in danger. He is in danger of losing the confidence of his colleagues. Ironically, without his job, Devlin would be nothing. It is the only thing keeping him hanging on.
While the plan to get Alicia into the house of Nazis works better than any of their wildest dreams, Devlin’s complicated reaction to it ends up almost derailing the entire mission. A good agent would have remained remote from entanglement, and yet open and available to his employee (Alicia), letting her know that he is there for her whenever she needs him. He would be professional, supportive, he would have the smarts to know that Alicia was on his team. He may secretly judge her for being willing to have sex with someone she does not love, but he would not show that to her, because she is doing the job they asked her to do. Devlin, instead, punishes her emotionally in every meeting they have, snapping off the ends of his lines with a brutality that is distressing to witness. She will find no safe haven in him. This is shockingly unprofessional for a federal agent working with an amateur employee who is risking her life for the good old American cause. He should be removed from the case immediately, he should be replaced. He is not thinking clearly enough to be able to do his job effectively.
When he crashes the huge wedding party at the Sebastian home in order to get a look in the mysterious wine cellar, he screws up again, and this screwup is crucial because it blows Alicia’s cover to the Sebastian family. There is nothing more serious than that. At the very least, Devlin should have a performance review following this job so that his superiors can ascertain where he went wrong. Alicia, at great risk to herself, steals the wine cellar key off her husband’s keychain. She surreptitiously passes it to him when she greets him at the party. All of this occurs under Claude Rains’ watchful eyes. Alicia and Devlin sneak away to the wine cellar. Alicia can barely stand still, she is so panicked at being caught. Devlin examines the shelves of wine bottles. He does not know what he is looking for. He sees a chart hanging at the back of the shelf and reaches his hand back to look at it. In so doing, he moves the bottles a bit, and one of them starts to inch towards the edge of the shelf. Again, he is careless. In the adrenaline of the moment, he is careless. The bottle falls and smashes on the ground. Grant’s reaction is one of the most terrifying moments in the film.
It is a masterpiece scene, truly agonizing to watch (I saw it on the big screen at Film Forum, and when the bottle fell from the shelf, a woman in the audience screamed. It was, hands down, one of the most thrilling audience experiences I have ever had).
Of course the bottle smashing reveals that it wasn’t holding wine at all, but a kind of glistening black sand. He fingers it, on the floor, wonderingly, all as Alicia flips out behind him. He remains cool, calm, and collected, but I can’t help but think that that is foolishly cavalier. He takes out a small envelope to scoop up some of the sand. By this point in the film, I have so little confidence in his ability to do his job that I always feel a vague sense of surprise that he would even have the damn envelope. I would expect him to leave it in the car, or to leave it in the office, or not have the foresight to bring it at all. After scooping up the sand, he then starts to clean up the mess. The floor is clear. But, stupidly, he pushes the piece of the broken bottle underneath the shelf. As though the floor there is never cleaned, as though the shelf would never be moved? A competent agent, with ice-water running in his veins, would clearly have sensed that possibility and would have put the pieces of broken glass in his pocket.
Despite his calmness in the face of the disaster (at least after that horrifying expression when the bottle suddenly fell), he obviously is not operating at a high level of competence. I’m not a trained federal agent but even I know that you had best get rid of those pieces of broken glass. And by NOT doing so, you are endangering Alicia, the very woman who is your responsibility.
His sloppiness here puts the rest of the film into motion.
Alex discovers the pieces of broken glass. He now knows who he has married. He tells his terrifying mother the truth. She comes up with the plan to poison Alicia slowly. He goes along with it. Alicia begins to deteriorate. Devlin can see it, but he interprets it wrong. That ol’ confirmation bias again.
The first time we see Grant in Notorious, his back is to the camera. A party in a small bungalow rages on, with a drunk Ingrid Bergman filling everyone’s glasses. She banters carelessly but her eyes keep moving over to that mysterious stranger, who has appeared from out of nowhere. She focuses in on him. He will be her conquest for the night. She has had a bad day. She will lose herself in sex. What else is one to do with a mysterious dark-haired stranger who shows up unexpectedly? Throughout the entirety of the first scene, we do not see Grant’s face. As the scene ends, the other characters fall out of the frame, and Hitchcock’s camera moves deliberately over to that black slick head, facing away from us.
It’s a beautifully theatrical moment, certainly playing the audience like a violin, all of whom will be waiting for the first appearance of Grant. It is clear that that is Grant’s head, there is no other reason to focus on it so deliberately, and so Hitchcock kills two birds with one stone here. We want to see Grant and Hitchcock prolongs our agony. That’s good showmanship. But on a deeper thematic level, what that shot does is tenfold. It shows us the key to Devlin’s character. Do not be fooled by Grant’s beauty, Hitchcock’s camera says, although we all know his beauty was beyond the realm of normal experience. Do not be too swayed by it, we’ll get to his beautiful face soon enough. But I must remind you that this character is dark and unknowable, even to himself (after all, he can’t see the back of his own head either). It is what is going on in the back of his head, so deep he is not even aware of it, that will make Devlin do the things he does.
Of course, in the following scene, we see Grant both on a diagonal in the doorway as well as totally upside down.
I suppose this could be interpreted as Alicia’s skewed perception. She is lying down, hung over, and he appears to her tipped over on the side or upside down. But I think something else is going on. Alicia, despite her escapist tendencies, her drunkenness and her promiscuity, is clear-eyed enough to have resisted the family Nazism and devoted herself to her adopted country’s ideals of democracy. She refused to testify for her father in his treason trial. She is strong enough to resist not only nationalist pressure, but familial pressure. She does not crack. This is why the United States federal agents think she could be relied upon to investigate her father’s colleagues.
And so when she, hung over, wakes up and sees Devlin diagonally in the door, and then sees him standing over her, upside down, I always think to myself: “You know what? She sees the truth, even this early on. She sees his true nature. It is not just that she is lying on her side, and therefore he appears to be upside-down. It is that he actually is upside-down, inside.” Nobody else sees that about him. They, too, are swayed by the good looks, the appearance. She is not. She and she alone perceives the truth about Devlin.
Those of us who understand loneliness on a deep level will understand why Devlin, instead of finding comfort that someone out there actually sees him, finds it to be intolerable. He may get sucked in briefly, because he desires her sexually, but the truth of her gaze cannot be tolerated. She must be made to pay, not only for succumbing to the nastiness of the job he has asked her to do, but for seeing beneath his carefully constructed surface.
All of this, all of this, operates throughout the film, in every scene, in every interaction, and all of this is what makes that final scene, where Devlin finally sheds his carapace, so painful. Have you ever watched footage of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis? It’s not easy. It takes hard damn work. The final scene in Notorious is a victory scene, for sure, not only for the release of Alicia from her imprisonment, but for Devlin in coming out of his shell. But at what cost. He finds her in her sick bed in the Nazi home, and his face, when he comes upon her, is heartbreaking. It is not just fear for her condition that I see. It is guilt. Guilt that he put her there, that he ignored the signals, that he sneered at her distress calls. He will never forgive himself.
His tenderness and concern for her in this final scene comes pouring out of him, and it is devastating to witness due to the coldness of his character in the rest of the film. Hitchcock’s brilliance here (and Hecht’s brilliance and Grant’s brilliance) is that this “revelation in the 11th hour” moment does not come across as a cheap or easy way to get out of the implications of the rest of the film (the way the ending to Suspicion comes across). Even Grant’s expressions of tenderness here are filled with agony. But now he is able to be with it, he is able to sit in his own incompetence, as a lover, as a man, and hold her close, and try to express to her what has been in his heart all along. It is not easy for a man like Devlin.
She has been given sleeping pills and he starts to shake her, telling her to stay awake, to keep talking. His love for her is now palpable. She, radiant in her illness, with the white pillow blazing beside her, with Grant, again, in dark silhouette, clings to him, and now he can accept her touch without cringing about all the men she has touched before. He will not survive if she does not live. He whispers, “I love you”, and her breath catches in her throat. Her own carapace cracks. She moans, in a swoon, “Why didn’t you tell me before?”
And Grant says, and it is his finest acting moment in a career full of fine acting moments, “I was a fat-headed guy full of pain.”
Grant was always honest in his work. It was one of the most appealing things about him, especially since his persona had been so carefully constructed by himself that it all may have seemed like a put-on. But he was never as honest as he was in that “fat-headed guy” moment. I have seen the film probably 40 times, and the moment always crushes me, makes my breath catch in my threat.
To be a great star for as long as Cary Grant was means you must risk not being liked. It is a difficult conundrum, and many stars do not survive the relentless pressure to be a certain way, present a certain persona, keep the audience on your side, keep them loving you. What is so astonishing about “fat-headed guy full of pain” is that Grant, in every scene in the film, every gesture, every breath, every change of expression, is already playing that. He does not go so overboard with the contempt that we are unable to see that he is operating out of pain and panic. That is what gives the performance its tragic overtones. We want him to acknowledge his own pain, and, except for his admission that he is “scared of women” and always has been, we don’t get anything from him.
But there’s that incompetence again, which, in the end, is his saving grace.
He is not smooth enough, remote enough, despite all of his attempts, to resist falling in love, which, in the case of Devlin, means saving his own life.
Hitchcock was brilliant enough to perceive that Grant could tap into such a damaged repressed psychology, and Grant was brave enough to play it, to really play it. He didn’t keep one foot safely out the door. He submerged himself in it.
I cannot say who Cary Grant really was. I have read a lot about him, I have been obsessed with him for years. None of us are just one thing. I see his rat-a-tat humorous delivery in His Girl Friday and think, “Oh my God, that is totally Cary Grant.” I see his sweet and tender concern for his wife in Penny Serenade and think, “He is tapping into something very personal.”
But when he murmurs, looking off over her shoulder, as he holds her close, “I was a fat-headed guy full of pain”, I feel like I have been launched directly into the back of his sleeked black head. I am back there with his secrets and his poverty-struck past and his missing mother and his determined reinventing of himself. I am in the heart of his darkness.
Who else could see that in him but Hitchcock?
On a final note: Devlin ushers Alicia out of the house in a dangerous standoff with the Nazis below. He puts her in the car, and, presumably races her off to the hospital. She stares at him helplessly and lovingly as he drives off.
You know what? I wish them the best.
But in all honesty, I give them a couple of months. Tops.