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Notorious (November 4, 2010)

Ben Hecht was signed to write Notorious by producer David Selznick in 1944 and Hecht and Alfred Hitchcock worked together on the script. Hitchcock famously described the thing on which each of his thriller plots focused as the MacGuffin. He told Peter Bogdanovich “A MacGuffin is something that the characters worry about but the audience does not…a lot of people think that the MacGuffin is the most vital thing in a picture – and it’s the least important.” I don’t usually give away any plot elements in these intros, but in this film, the MacGuffin turns out to be uranium. Hecht and Hitchcock added it to the plot in April, 1945, several months before the secret first test of the atomic bomb in New Mexico in July, 1945 and the subsequent dropping of bombs on two Japanese cities in August, 1945. Remember, the development of this weapon was perhaps the biggest secret the American government had ever kept, involving facilities across the country, the purposes of which were not disclosed to the public. Hecht and Hitchcock interviewed Robert Millikan, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, and asked him how to make an atomic bomb. He wouldn’t tell them, but he did disclose that uranium could fit into a small container, so they put that in the script. Hitchcock was under surveillance by the FBI for several weeks because the script mentioned uranium.

In July, 1945 Selznick sold the package of Hecht, Hitchcock, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman to RKO for $800,000 and fifty percent of the net profits. This packaging was probably one of the first examples of a process common in today’s movie industry, where packages are assembled and then sold to studios. As a result, Notorious was the first American picture on which Hitchcock was both producer and director.

The film was made from October, 1945 to April, 1946 and was released in August, 1946. It cost two million dollars and made eight million dollars. Claude Rains was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance. Ben Hecht was nominated for an Oscar for best writing of an original screenplay. In 2006 the National Film Preservation Board added it to the National Film Registry as an American film worthy of preservation.

This is one of my favorite Hollywood movies, because of Hitchcock’s sharp visual style throughout, and because of Hecht’s and Hitchcock’s logical and menacing script, but primarily because of the performances of Bergman, Grant, Rains, and Leopoldine Konstantin, an Austrian actress who plays Rains’ mother in her only performance in American film. In 1947, Cary Grant said at the Oscar ceremonies, “I think the Academy ought to set aside a special award for Bergman every year whether she makes a picture or not.” I can’t think of a better picture to end a series centered on Ingrid Bergman’s unique and memorable acting style than Notorious.