There are still some who are in doubt of Alfred Hitchcock's genius as a director, to whom I address this question: who else in the history of cinema could invest a scene with such an unbearable air of tension simply by showing us a case of champagne slowly being depleted?
This occurs two-thirds of the way through Notorious, in the centrepiece party scene which begins with a most elegant, sweeping single shot, crescendos to a frantic race against time before ending with its characters making a series of crucial discoveries — ten extraordinary minutes which amply illustrate the master suspense-maker at the peak of his craft.
Like most of Hitchcock's best work, Notorious is ostensibly a thriller, but the audience has long since focused on other more important matters by the time the credits roll. The film opens with an introductory placard giving us the very specific place and time at which events begin to unfold: Miami, Florida, Three-Twenty P.M., April the Twenty-Fourth, Nineteen Hundred and Forty-Six. The use of verbose wording as opposed to more succinct numbering of the date and year call attention to its specificity, the very opposite of the imprecise fairy tale “Once upon a time”, yet by the end of the film, Prince Charming will be called upon to rescue Sleeping Beauty from her imprisonment.
The opening scene, indeed the very first shot – that of a paparazzo's camera – highlights the theme of voyeurism, one which is clearly prevalent throughout much of Hitchcock's oeuvre. For a film about the rights and wrongs of espionage, there is a delightful irony in the way that we then peek into the courtroom, the shot framed by a doorway, to watch Huberman Sr. being convicted of treason, and then to follow his daughter Alicia out of the courtroom past the baying press-pack; if we are at first appalled that she is being personally hounded for her father's crimes, then we must quickly remember that we too will demand to know more about her during the following 100 minutes of the film.
The following scenes will indeed introduce us to this woman, and the other dimensions to her notoriety: her drinking and apparent sexual promiscuity. Both of these converge at a party at her house where a silhouetted stranger is the latest target of her inebriated advances. We as an audience know that this will turn out to be the debonair Cary Grant, but as Alicia's drunken charades continue, he is kept in shadow and with his back to the camera, as if he is just another spectator, sitting in the cinema row ahead of us. He will turn out to be Devlin, a CIA agent whose job inherently involves anonymity, and whose lack of a past and emotional coldness will be sharply at odds with Alicia's vulnerable humanity.